Wild city

Nina Subramani

We often take holidays to visit wildlife sanctuaries; weekends spent looking for elephants and tigers, returning absolutely elated if we do see one or disappointed if we don’t see the big mammals. But what if you could just stay in your home environs and observe the world around you… do you think you’d be able to see anything at all? Would it surprise you to know that if you made a list of the animal and bird life around your home, even if it’s in the heart of a city, that your list would be quite long?

During the days leading to the monsoon, a different call is heard in the air. The repeated call of the cuckoo interrupts the regular cawing of the crows and the cooing of the pigeons. Spotting a cuckoo is not easy and it’s such a thrill when you get to see this beautiful bird.

We ignore the birds we commonly see in our environs and pass up amazing opportunities to observe them up close. If you live on an upper floor, keep an eye on the window ledges. This is a favourite nesting site for pigeons that are now called the flying rats of the city! Whether or not you think of them as pests, it is quite fascinating to watch their eggs hatch and observe the little ones at close range.

Another bird prominently seen in cities now is the pariah kite, flying high above the trees, circling its territories. Look out for the less seen Brahminy kite, easily identifiable by its snowy white head.

Perhaps there is an open field near your home, one used to dump garbage. You may find buffaloes and cows there, chomping on weeds and sadly even plastic bags filled with kitchen refuse… do you see a white bird on their backs? That’s the little egret. As the sun goes down, look at the trees around this open space. You’ll probably see the branches quite heavily populated with this bird. Is there a drain or a nallah that you walk past hurriedly because of the smell? On the days it doesn’t repel you that much, glance up at the electric line above it – chances are that you’ll spot a kingfisher!

One bird that isn’t seen quite so often within the city anymore is the sparrow. The decline in its numbers in urban India has been a cause for concern. One reason is that our gardens don’t have hedges; smart modern apartments don’t have ledges and window boxes under which they can build nests. If you have a garden, plant bushes or border plants. Put up bird houses in window corners and balcony railings to encourage little birds like sparrows to visit and perhaps even nest there. If you live in Bangalore and have had the chance to fly out of the airport there, I’m sure you’ve noticed hundreds of sparrows that have made the rafters their homes. They are quite daring and hop on to tables to get crumbs from the passengers at the departure lounge.

What else can you see as the rains begin? For one, the number of snails increases everywhere. If you have a small patch of soil, you’ll notice that these molluscs just seem to appear from nowhere… and soon, they’re studding the walls, all over the plants and when the dry season approaches, they disappear once again.

At night, if you switch of your TV and music system, and pay attention, you may hear frogs croaking…follow the sound, walking gently and if you’re lucky like this writer, you may even get a glimpse of the night-time crooner. If you have a park near your home, or any open ground, you could hear crickets. And during a power outage at night, take a small walk to this empty ground and look for little pinpoints of lights; fireflies can be seen in cities too!

We often wake up to the chip-chip call of the Indian palm squirrel. This small animal is a delight to watch as it leaps from branch to branch, creeps quickly along electric lines and chases another squirrel up and down tree trunks. Scatter some dry lentils or grain along the wall of your home and watch them come down to feed. They make untidy nests on trees; my brother once rescued a young one that fell out of its nest and looked after it till it became an adult and felt confident enough to leave his pocket and get back on the tree, where it belongs!

The most magical sight for me is the intricate nests built by small insects. Wasps that build beautiful nests along window frames and switchboards; and hives of bees that hang from branches or parapets and glow with the promise of honey in the sunlight. Unfortunately, our fear of being stung leads to the destruction of these intricately designed colonies.

Another much maligned animal is the bat. We have an irrational fear fed by myths of vampire bats greedy for human blood. This prompts us to smoke out trees where they live. And then we pay heavily to pest control agencies who fill our homes and surroundings with toxic chemicals. Bats are excellent mice and rat hunters, do nothing harmful to us and are active while we are safe in our beds. Quite a few fruit bats would roost on the jackfruit tree outside my house, flying low above our heads after the sun went down, they were always a thrilling sight. I had the privilege of observing them close-up when for a while they made the bulb on my portico as well as the banana tree in my backyard their daytime roost and believe me when I say that they are adorable!

The cities we live in are as much a part of the natural world as we allow them to be. Open your eyes to the world outside your window or door. You don’t have to travel very far. As long as there is sunshine, some plants, a tree and soil, there is bound to be life. They may not seem as glamorous as tigers, herds of deer or elephants but they are an equally critical part of the ecosystem. Observing and encouraging them builds a keener interest in animal behaviour, in the natural world, a world that is under attack from all sides. Forget all that, observing them enriches our lives as we appreciate and marvel at them; we are a part of the natural world too, a world that is not far – just open your door and your eyes.

Exercises

  1. Make a checklist of as many categories as you can think of: birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, molluscs – walk around your neighbourhood – make a round of at least one square kilometre and list the various animals and birds you see. Don’t leave out butterflies! Look into trees, open grounds, nallahs. Take a pair of binoculars and a simple camera if you like to record your finds.
  2. Create a butterfly garden. This can be done even if you have a small balcony with sunlight. Flowering plants like ixora and hibiscus are a good start. Make a list of plants that attract butterflies and ask your friends for cuttings or go to a nearby nursery to buy plants that you can pot in your balcony. Here’s an interesting blog link to help you get started. http://indigarden.blogspot.nl/2010/05/butterfly-garden.html.
  3. Do you have snails in your garden? Or school ground? Watch how they move, do they have feet? What is the trail they release as they move? How do you think this helps them? Why do we say ‘at a snail’s pace’ to describe slowness? Take a stopwatch and time how long it takes for a snail to get from point a to point b. Measure the distance travelled. Fair warning: this takes a lot of patience.
  4. Build a web of life with the animals you spot around your neighbourhood. Create a small team, combine your lists of animals you have found and try to figure out how they all fit into the ecological web. If one of them were to be exterminated, what would the impact be? For example, frogs eat mosquitoes – so the absence of frogs in an area could lead to a greater incidence of mosquitoes and thus mosquito related illnesses.
  5. Talk to the older residents of your neighbourhood – people who are not just older, but have lived in the area for at least 30-40 years. Ask them what kind of animals they used to see frequently. You may be surprised by their answers and realize that the jungle was nearer than you thought it was!

The author is a documentary film maker currently living in The Netherlands. She blogs at www.elephantcorridors.wordpress.com. She can be reached at elephantcorridor@gmail.com.