A bird’s-eye view of Bengaluru
Avid birdwatcher and conservationist Dr S Subramanya reminisces about a Bengaluru that used to be a birder’s paradise, and compares it to the changes in natural landscapes and birds in the city today.
In 1972, a motley group of 20-30 people led by Dr Joseph George, came together to scour the skies, lakes and arboreal habitats of Bengaluru to spot the birds that inhabit and frequent the city. Today, there are thousands of birdwatchers chasing the birding high. The Bengaluru of the 1970s, however, was a different place from what we see today. One of the avid and renowned birders of the city, Dr S. Subramanya shared his experiences of being a birder through almost five decades with Play in Nature’s Priti Bangal and Prasad Sandbhor. He speaks about how the city that used to be home to a vast variety of birds has changed over this time. He also mentions birding tips, and gives us a glimpse of what the future might hold for birds in the city. This article captures the crux of this interview, along with additional information on specific details mentioned in it.
Dr S. Subramanya, fondly known as ‘Subbu’ among the birding circles, recalls the idyllic, simple nature of the city where even summer temperatures would be around 32°C. He and other birders of the city would frequent several areas of Bengaluru, including parks like Lalbagh and Cubbon Park, places like Hebbal Campus of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), forest areas around Valley School in Kanakapura and regions of the Banerghatta Zoo.
‘Fieldcraft’ was an important part of birdwatching. Subbu explains, “You [would have to] try to approach the bird as close as possible without disturbing it. So, we would use whatever minimal cover that the terrain offered, hide behind a bush or boulder and crawl down to get as close to the bird as possible.” Birders often didn’t even use binoculars as commonly then, as they were hard to come by and had to be sourced from outside India. Armed with the Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali, and an unending zeal, they would set out to observe minute aspects of the bird and its behaviour in their field notebooks.
Today, the birdwatching community has grown, as have the tools to identify and record birds. Detailed field guides like Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Carol Inskipp, Richard Grimmett, and Tim Inskipp; Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide by Pamela Rasmussen, and several others are now available to help birders in their identification process and birding journeys. Not only that, but platforms such as eBird and bird identification apps such as Merlin have transformed the birding scene. “eBird has refined birdwatching and identification skills of people. [It] has also become more democratic,” says Subbu, explaining how it allows for people to help and, at times, correct each other, to accurately identify the species. Besides, digital photography has added a new dimension to birdwatching, since the IT boom.
Birding practices have changed and evolved in some ways due to technology, but the old-school charm and spirit of birdwatching of a few decades ago still holds a nostalgic value to those who were active on the scene then. This change is mirrored in the way Bengaluru itself has changed through industrialization. The natural landscape of the city has completely changed – bird havens of the past have been lost or replaced in the quest for development and birders lament this loss.
Water, water nowhere, not a drop to drink
The lakes and wetlands of Bengaluru have hosted a large variety of water birds. Subbu says that the Asian Midwinter Waterbird Census that started in 1987 was the turning point for birders of the city to observe waterbirds, which previously did not get the focus and attention that they deserved as a distinct group of birds. “We started with just three or four wetlands in 1987, but down the [line] for ten years or so, we covered somewhere around 100-130 wetlands, in and around Bangalore, within a 40-kilometre radius,” expands Subbu.
These wetland birds are a gateway to understanding the wetlands themselves. Subbu says, “Birds are good indicators of the health of the habitat, you can tell what kind of habitat it is, simply by looking at the species composition and also abundance of some of the species, without even going to the lake.” He mentions a few interesting examples. A large number of grey-headed swamphens would invariably imply severe sewage pollution in the waterbody that promotes excessive growth of water hyacinth mats or alligator weeds on which these birds survive. In contrast, if one finds even half a dozen black-tailed godwits at a wetland, it can be assumed that the lake has not been polluted even today, since these birds probe the lake bed for their main food source – polychaete worms. This would not be possible in a waterbody choked with pollution and consequent sludge deposition. Other birds commonly seen in lakes with clear water are pied kingfishers that hovers over water to see fish in water clearly before plunging down to capture them.
Subbu reminisces a time when the lakes of Bengaluru were pristine waterbodies, with paddy grown downstream on the other side of the bund. These cultivated fields, especially around lakes like Hebbal Lake in the past, would act as an additional habitat for waterbirds, which would often spend the nights in the paddy fields. That was also a time when the catchment areas, from where the rain water would flow freely into the lake of these lakes, were still intact. But now, the paddy fields and their waterbirds, especially ducks, are gone, and the entire catchment area has now been built upon. Subbu explains, “The lakes, what used to be a seasonal wetland with a sloping lakebed has been completely converted into perennial wetlands with the current civil engineering design, which has ruined the biodiversity that it used to support once.” These lakes, that used to be home to large congregations of sandpipers, stilts, snipes, stints and godwits, are not conducive to these shorebirds anymore. “The sides are stone-pitched and shallow water margins are completely removed. The present day civil engineering model, which uniformly deepens the lakes, has no respect for the shallow margins of the lake,” says Subbu mournfully.
Lakes like Hoskote Lake and Hebbal Lake used to be teeming with egrets, herons, little stints, terns, and many other waders. Subbu recounts when Hebbal Lake went dry in April 1983, the shallow pools of water on the drying lake bed attracted nearly 2000 white egrets, 213 Pond Herons, 28 Grey Herons, 6 Woolly-necked Storks, 11 White Storks, 460 Brown-headed Gulls, 172 Brahminy Kites, 26 Black-bellied Terns, 14 River Terns, 1315 Black-winged Stilts, and over 2000 stints. He remembers a time when they spotted over 25,000 ducks at the now-infamously polluted Bellandur Lake, which is almost unimaginable today. They also sighted 85 migrant White Storks on a flat drying lakebed near Anneswara in January 1990.This was historically the largest ever count of the species for Bengaluru and thrilled birdwatchers immensely.
Scrubbing the landscape dry
In addition to many lakes of the city turning less hospitable to the birds that used to frequent them in large numbers, other aspects of the natural landscape of the city have also changed to less favourable homes for the city birds. The Bangalore Palace grounds and that of the IISc used to have open scrub patches, as did other parts of Bengaluru like around the Vajramuneshwara Temple on Kanakapura Road. Much of it has now disappeared. IISc also used to have a marshy area with reedbeds, where Subbu and a few other birders used to visit to birdwatch. He fondly recalls the birds they used to find, including sandpipers, snipes and Cinnamon Bitterns.
The green spaces of Bengaluru were connected by a network of avenue trees. In the early-80s, there was an avenue tree planting drive spearheaded by S.G. Neginhal, an Indian Forest Service official and conservationist. These tree-lined roads of the city largely contributed to the verdant canopies that gave Bengaluru the moniker of ‘The Garden City’. They serve as green corridors connecting large green spaces of the city like the IISc campus, the Palace grounds, Cubbon Park, Lalbagh and many more, Unfortunately, due to road widening ventures, these efforts have been undone and also large tracts of the green spaces have been lost due to real estate boom. While at IISc, the tree cover increased at some point, the scrub and marshy areas have unfortunately been lost.
These numerous changes have led to changes in the number and diversity of many of the bird species in the city.
Changing lifestyles, changing birdlife
Alongside the changes in the infrastructure of the city, the way of life of the city and its denizens and settlement patterns have also undergone a change. This has affected the birds of the city as well. Even the unassuming sparrows and mynas are facing the brunt of these changes. Subbu speaks of abundant sparrow populations across the city during the 70s and 80s with their roost sites seen all over the city. He narrates an anecdote where these would visit households in search of a larva that bored into the pods of the popular field-bean, locally known as avarekai. The discarded pods of the avarekai would invite sparrows to come hopping along to a feast on the larva. Kitchen gardens were also common, which would entice sparrows and mynas to feed on small morsels of food scraps being washed out of the kitchen into the garden. Now, however, with the changing way of life, and people moving towards the conveniences of packaged vegetables, such little resources are lost. In addition to that, it is a luxury to have a space for a kitchen garden, and since kitchen waste water also gets piped down to sewage treatment plants, the sight of birds feeding on kitchen scraps has become rarer.
A pleasant birdsong to the ears
But all is not bleak and desolate in the world of Bengaluru birds. There are some which have weathered the changes and flourished. According to Subbu, some such species include ashy prinias and peafowls. He marvels at the increase in number of the peafowls in the GKVK campus, where they were not seen prior to the 80s. Now, he says, there are around 60-70 of them roaming the campus. He attributes this to the fact that they are not being prosecuted and hunted, and they are not disturbed.
The mushrooming of apartment complexes has also seen a burgeoning rise in barn owl population in Bengaluru. A species, for which we had only 5 records prior to 1994, started flourishing around apartment buildings. The buildings have an accumulation of domestic garbage that attracts rats, and are practically served on a platter to the barn owls that strategically hunt them down during the night. Their numbers have increased in residential areas to such an extent that Subbu started a group called the Bangalore Barn Owl Conservation Group over a decade ago, to guide and educate people about barn owls, their new neighbours and mitigates misconception about the species in their neighbourhood.
Even with changing landscapes, some birds have found solace in the new structures, while some old haunts still remain. For the latter, Subbu suggests lakes like Madhure Kere lakes which retain bird populations like sandpipers and redshanks. The Hesaraghatta Lake still has a shallow lake shore and is less polluted and is still an amazing birding paradise. It has a host of migratory birds like slender-billed gulls and waders. Changes to lakes in the form of commercial fishing since the mid-90s led to the ingression of previously rare fish varieties like tilapia, mrigal, catla and rohu. This attracted a large number of fish-feeding species of birds like large cormorants, darters and spot-billed pelicans, which were rare in Bengaluru earlier.
In the midst of these changes, some birds of Bengaluru have stayed in the minds of the people in the city. Subbu refers to the white-cheeked barbet as the ‘bird of Bengaluru’ in the past, since one could invariably hear the kutroo call of these birds in the green canopies all over the city. The city would also resound with the territorial cries of brown shrikes as they arrived in winter. It seems like high time that we pause the cacophony of urban development and create opportunities to listen to what the birds have to say about this city that we share.
The future of birds in Bengaluru hangs in a delicate balance. Subbu says, “Bangalore is going to grow much more than it is now, probably [even] vertically. And most of the green spaces will go. Whatever green spaces that you can conserve will be in the form of islands, because of the loss of avenue trees that used to link these green spaces.” This puts undue pressure on the remaining green spaces.
He predicts, “Those species which can survive on these islands will survive. But those which require much wider spaces, maybe those in passage, may not stay for a long period in these patches.” He gives the example of ospreys and marsh harriers at Lalbagh in the 80s. They used to even spot about 1000 to 2000 Garganey ducks coming to the Lalbagh lake then, but they are not seen anymore because the area is so disturbed. On the other hand, some species are quite adaptable, according to Subbu, like cormorants and pond herons to some extent, and they might survive these changes.
There are some simple ways in which the human inhabitants of the city might help the birds survive. Subbu suggests that even if one has a small space, one could grow fruiting trees and bushes, and plants that provide nectar and attract birds. He also says, “Water is a very scarce resource because the sewage polluted lakes don't hold [good] quality water. If you provide clean water in your garden, birds will get attracted like iron filings to a magnet. That's something that every one of us can do.” We must also try to increase the green cover as much as possible and make places conducive for the birds to be there. In fact, he was involved in the long process of getting the GKVK campus declared as a Biodiversity Heritage Site, which would ensure that the space remains untouched by human interference.
It is of utmost priority to bring about such changes and put in place measures to preserve the remaining bird habitats in the city and help Bengaluru to retain its ability to provide avian real estate for the varied bird populations in the city. As Subbu warns, “Unless we do something like this, we will need to keep moving further and further away from Bangalore to watch birds.”
Anoushka Dasgupta is an aspiring researcher and a freelance science writer, with a Master’s in Biotechnology and a passion for behaviour ecology and conservation. Her work has appeared in The Wire, The Print and magazines of the Indian Institute of Science.