SCARLET IN THE SPRING
CAPTION: Parakeets relish early blooms of Silk Cotton tree.Photo: VIKRAM JIT SINGH
It all started with a bird coloured so dull as dark slaty greys tempered by orange barring on the chest.Rambling along the Shivaliks near village Karondiawallah about 20km from Chandigarh, I came across a shy raptor, which I suspected to be a wintering Eurasian sparrowhawk. The greyish hawk flew up a hillside and I followed it up for a better look.
The hawk was far too smart for me, and lacking in the confiding nature of a Shikra, again gave me the slip. But the trudge up the precipitous sambar tracks was not entirely in vain. I came across the first and very early whiff of spring. A single, wild Red Silk Cotton tree here was in vivid bloom as early as February 1, while elsewhere, they will take a few more weeks to sport their brassy blooms.
This tree lights up spring with its ruby-like flowers encrusted against the blue skies. Add to this, the flying jewels called birds. I saw that day a Great Himalyan barbet sipping nectar and a flock of Plum-headed parakeets stripping flowers and gobbling them. The male parakeet displays a slim crimson patch on the wing that invites comparison to slivers of falling petals as sharp beaks make short work of yielding flowers.
However, there were other ‘ladies in mourning reds’ on the hillsides. These provoked a different emotion. Villagers had sawed off the very valuable ‘khair’ trees. Their stumps left like amputated soldiers’ limbs and revealing the tree’s raw, inner brick-red colours. Like mangled nerves and blood. Like wooden crosses standing a forlorn vigil on nature’s graves, long abandoned by mourners and murderers.
Punjab chief wildlife warden Dhirendra Singh cites his personal estimate of an ‘over-flowing’ state’s leopard population: 80 in the wild, with 50 of these sheltering in the Shivaliks. He argues that leopards rescued from the human habitation and locked up for life at the over-crowded Chhatbir zoo are male leopards driven out due to old age or territorial fights. He is reluctant to release these rescued cats back into jungles because he believes there is not enough habitat contiguous and large enough to support the cats’ territorial spaces.
A leopard pugmark in Chandigarh's peripheral region.PHOTO: Amrit Singh
Interestingly, he cites no scientific study or field census to back his assertions. Neither does the government have a policy to mitigate growing leopard-human conflict and rehabilitate rescued cats. So, put ironically, a good, well-behaved leopard is a locked-up leopard. One which is gratuitously handed out a life-long chance for reformation, behind bars. Till such time as death does relieve the cat from its misery and the human justice system.
Fact is that leopards are living in many pockets across the Shivaliks with little effect on people other than occasional kills of goats/dogs. There has been no case of a leopard killing a human.
A handful of attacks on humans occurred due to provocations or accidental situations. Leopards are sighted and pugmarks recorded across the Shivaliks belt behind the tricity and extending to Morni hills.
Here there are jungles with depth and spread that harbour these cats and provide natural prey as also spaces subtly shared with humans. Yet, these facts are overlooked. Why? At the root of sentencing ‘trespassing’ leopards to a life sentence is the department’s fear of public and political reactions to freed cats again wandering into human spaces.
DANGER IN THE MIRROR
But to truly visualise the delight of watching this songbird, whose male delivers a rich, loud aria from a perch in breeding season, one will have to let the imagination run a bit wild! Visualise the late icon of feminine delicacy, Audrey Hepburn, try on richly-coloured and flamboyant necklaces of Indian beads at Delhi’s Janpath and then indulge in a delightful jig when a mirror flashes back to her the bejewelled throat.
Well, the Bluethroat is one such Audrey of the avian world, hopping along the ground in search of insects and flashing feathered necklaces to the humble denizens of the jungle floor’s ‘litter-ati’. It was, therefore, a matter of some sadness when I came upon the tale of a Bluethroat that crashed into a window at a house in Kansal. It did recover after assistance and was let off in nearby scrublands. Was it that the bird had been dazed by its own reflection? I asked award-winning ornithologist KS Gopi Sundar to shed light on why birds are attracted to reflective surfaces.
“Small birds cannot distinguish reflective surfaces and are likely to mistake them to be open spaces because of the reflection. Hence, they don’t take steps to avoid windows and mirrors in buildings, resulting in many casualties each year. In the US alone, Dr Scott Loss and colleagues at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute estimated that over 500 million birds die annually due to such collisions, primarily during migration.
We don’t have studies in India to help us estimate the annual deaths but given the huge increase in tall buildings with a lot of reflective glass on the sides, the numbers are likely to be increasing,” said Sundar.