All is not well if the common bird is declining

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The bird sat at the very top of the electric pole. The June sun had blistered the ground, turning it into a series of cracks and crevasses. The open countryside felt like a furnace, the kind of oven that would bake any expectations of respite to cinders. In a nearby forest, monkeys clung to the shadows of bare trees, but the Indian roller continued to sit in the open: a cheeky, colourful sentinel.

As I watched, it took off from the pole, diving and then swerving its body up—a smooth, rolling motion that shimmered with colour and power. Sometimes it caught prey, sometimes it just flew in an almost military-style patrol. Its wings were a brilliant blue—two shades, one close to cerulean, the other close to powder blue. Oxford and Cambridge blues, someone joked.

The Indian roller’s rollicking flight could only be called an aerial gambol. It would usually return to its perch. And what a joy it was to see its animated liveliness in the listless heat.

For many who have seen the Indian roller, also called the Neelkanth and the Pala pitta, the bird symbolises the quintessential Indian countryside. Areas with fields, a few trees, a small eatery, perhaps a pond or two. Areas that face the brunt of heat, drought, the crackle of a monsoon storm—open natural ecosystems and scrubland that dot many states. These often don’t register as places in themselves but as areas connecting two places.

There has traditionally been a lot to see in these open habitats. A black drongo sitting on the back of a cow or on the branch of a tree. A Black-shouldered kite whirring in the sky, suspended at the same spot, eyes pinned on prey below. A Great grey shrike sitting on a thorny bush, its wicked hook-like beak glinting. An Indian robin jumping about, tail in the air at a jaunty angle.

These have been quotidian sights, so it comes as a shock that many common birds in India have witnessed a sharp decline. According to the newly released State Of India’s Birds report, the Indian roller, the Blue-rock thrush, the Common sandpiper, the Marsh sandpiper, the Forest wagtail, the Great grey shrike, the Garganey, the Northern shoveler have witnessed sharp declines (between 30-50% in the last 10 years).  

Thirteen institutions came together to assess how birds in India are doing. Over 900 species were assessed, and it was found that there has been a decline of almost 40% in birds. I am drawing attention to the common ones because their apparent abundance so often makes them seem invincible.

As a peacock dances, an Indian roller dives into a meadow in central India.

As a peacock dances, an Indian roller dives into a meadow in central India.
(Neha Sinha)

Perhaps we visually miss the decline of a common bird because another bird enters the frame. If the roller is missing, we might sight a crow and forget about the former. If the Great grey shrike isn’t to be seen, the sighting of a bee-eater makes up. Seeing large numbers of Blue-rock pigeons, crows and Common mynas may belie the loss of other birds that were once more abundant.

Many bird enthusiasts too look for rare birds. Rarer birds are actively sought out and desired—the trophy after a long trip, the “lifer” on a well-deserved holiday. Common birds may be background tapestry to these lifers. But common birds also have something other birds don’t—the ability to show up where we are, the ability to transform a mundane moment into something else.

Young birdwatcher Arushi Kanwar has noted the loss of some common birds since the covid-19 pandemic. “I regularly saw the Indian roller in the Chandu-Jhanjhrola stretch in Haryana. My parents live in Panchkula and I used to see both the European and the Indian roller there. I see neither now. Generally speaking, there’s a lot of construction at many places. The decline of more common birds often has me questioning whether I am going out enough or there’s more disturbance in these places,” she says. The idea of a local patch being disturbed is how we have all experienced outings in the natural world—but this is tolerable only if the bird has another spot to go to.

There are often conservation plans for rare species—but hardly any for common birds. Kanwar B. Singh, a resident of the National Capital Region and a veteran birder, notes the decline of birds like the Sirkeer malkoha and the Yellow-wattled lapwing in the Capital. The Sirkeer is a bashful resident bird with dark eyes and a red, yellow-tipped bill. “I would see the bird often on the fringes of the Delhi Ridge—but I hardly see it now,” Singh says. “We also seem to have pushed the Indian robin to the edges of the city or to a few institutional campuses. And till even 20 years ago, the Yellow-wattled lapwing was common in Delhi.” Now, one mainly sees its noisy cousin, the tateri, or the Red-wattled lapwing, in the city.

The State Of India’s Birds report is based on citizen science records; the step forward would be to systematically monitor declining common birds and excavate the reasons for decline. It would also be useful to continue monitoring in places for many decades—these don’t have to be faraway forests but cities, where many birdwatchers live and work.

A few years ago, I was in Kyrgyzstan. I was looking for eagles, something Central Asia is famous for. While my eyes combed the skies (there were no eagles, only a faraway Long-legged buzzard), what I did see was an abundance of common birds. There were Rosy starlings in the trees. Common cuckoos sat on the wire in a lazy fashion. Grey-headed goldfinches frolicked in low bushes. And I screeched when I saw something bejewelled overhead. A pair of birds, shining in pastel colours.

It was a male European bee-eater and he was leaning forward towards a female. He had caught a dragonfly, and, instead of eating it himself, he gave it to the female. The mountain air caught in the dragonfly wings, making them look like spun sugar. The female swallowed the sweet present—and hopefully accepted the male as a companion too. He promptly dove off the wire to catch another insect. The cycle repeated itself like the most perfect little story.

The sighting became the highlight of my trip. In a world looking for the big things, this little thing seemed inordinately precious—the endless patience of a little bird in that corner of the world. We hadn’t seen rare birds that day but the common birds made up for it.

To witness a decline of the common bird is to acknowledge that all is not well with our world; that what was once abundant will not always remain so. The birds are circling over our lives in diminishing loops. We must act on not forgetting—but safeguarding—that which is familiar.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.

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