8 Sep 2012

Fading from the skies


Rarely sighted... Photo: AP 
AP Rarely sighted... Photo: AP
The vulture’s decline in India — due to a pain-relieving drug — has been well documented. But what about the other birds that also seem to be on the way out?
In the Ramayan, it was Jatayu’s excellent vision that helped Ram in his search for Sita. Today, however, the vulture population is the victim of short-sightedness, evident in policies that are destroying delicate eco-systems. The use of the pain relieving drug, Diclofenac, in cattle led to about 97 per cent of vultures — that fed on the cattle carcasses — being wiped out within a decade. The drug was then banned.
But it’s not just the vultures that are fading from our skies. Many birds, once a common sight, are rarely seen any more: eagles, magpies, kingfishers, owls, sparrows and many more.
O.W. Holmes said, “A goose flies by a chart the Royal Geographic Society could not improve.” If we acknowledge the skill and wisdom of birds, we can solve many a modern-day problem.
Back to Nature
Most of us want to live healthy and eat organic. But given that our water, food and air have been poisoned, given the lack of pesticide-free organic food and a sleeping political will, is this even a distant possibility? Perhaps it is. Only if a concerted effort is made to go back to Nature. Some people use creative methods to provide pesticide-free farming and creatures like birds use their natural instincts to provide us with organic food. Let’s see how.
The most prolific breeders in Nature are insects. Over 3000 species of insects are found in our country and more are being discovered every other day.
Take a pair of chinch bugs and breed it. In a single season, it develops 13 generations. In the 12th generation, if we can keep them in a single line — assuming there are 10 chinch bugs to an inch — this line would be so long that starting from one end it would take 2500 years to reach the other end, assuming we travel at the speed of light.
A pair of cabbage aphid can, in a single season, become so numerous that their weight would be three times the weight of all human beings on earth put together. In a 3300-acre farm in South Africa, locusts laid eggs. Almost all the eggs were dug out; they weighed 14 tonnes! If they’d hatched, there would’ve been 1250 million locusts.
How birds help
Insects do enormous damage to vegetation. Food eaten by a single silkworm in 56 days is 86,000 times that of its weight at hatching. Some flesh-eating larvae consume 200 times their own weight in 24 hours. That is the power of insects.
In Nature, several factors work together to check the growth of insects. The major factor is birds. Most birds are insectivores and prey on insects, their eggs and larvae. A pair of starlings was observed to bring food like caterpillars, grasshoppers to their nestlings 370 times a day. House sparrows bring food to their nestlings 260 times a day.
A German ornithologist estimated that single pair of tits and their progeny destroyed 120 million eggs of insects a year. An owl hunts 2-3 rats in a single night. A pair of house rats, bred in ideal conditions, can increase to 880 rats a year. Scavenging birds like vultures clean the environment by devouring dead animals.
Birds are equally important for pollination of flowers and seed dispersal. The dodo — the modern icon of extinction — was called a simpleton as it had no fear of humans. It approached humans too closely and finally died out due to excessive hunting.
With the disappearance of the bird, an indigenous tree also died out. The connection: the dodo ate the fruits and the hard shell dissolved in its gizzard. The seeds were then passed out along with its excreta and sprouted where they fell. Without the dodo, the shell of the fruit could not be removed and germination was not possible.
The song and flight of birds has inspired melodies, literature, science and inventions. Birds inspired men to fly. After World War II, when humans started to build wide-bodied airplanes, they were unable to land them on a short runway. They thought of vultures. Despite their heavy bodies, they land on a small space and take off just in a few steps. Scientists studied their landing and take-off in slow motion and learnt to build wide-bodied airplanes.
Human impact
Overall, the population of birds in India is declining. There are several causes for this: the most important being destruction of habitat and nesting site. Commercial exploitation of wetlands has resulted in the decline of cormorants, pelicans, darters and other birds that depend solely upon fish.
The collection of wild fruits and berries for human consumption has caused scarcity of food for frugivorous birds. The graminivorous birds are lethally affected by insecticides.
Game birds are hunted down for meat. Some migratory birds, which come to the Indian subcontinent, are hunted en route in countries where hunting is permitted. The disconnect with and apathy towards birds is so huge that, leave aside identifying common birds like house sparrows, we don’t even sense their decline. Neither the education system nor the government is taking this problem seriously.
A swimming pool is no substitute for a lake nor is an umbrella for a tree. An air-conditioner cannot replace the cool evening breeze just as a pesticide cannot replace its natural counterparts. Birds check the growth of insects and rodents on a massive scale. The native insectivorous birds of each region can be identified and bred around farmlands across India. This will not only serve as a powerful tool to control pests and reduce the use of pesticides, but also help birds flourish.
They say that birds will be happier without humans on earth, but humans cannot survive without birds.

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