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Re-imagine open spaces for migratory birds

As countries consider an institutional framework for the Central Asian Flyway used by migratory birds, it's clear that connectivity will be key

Bar-headed geese in the National Capital Region.
Bar-headed geese in the National Capital Region. (Neha Sinha)

Standing on the Odisha coast in January, just before the pandemic hit, it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the water began. A Pacific golden plover, a little bird with a sharp coat, turned its head and looked at me, golden accents on its feathers glinting through the soupy fog. It stood on stilt-like legs, trembling slightly, like an otherworldly apparition that would disappear when the fog lifted.

That cold, tremulous, magical day, there were many more beaks on the horizon. A gaggle of loud Bar-headed geese. A cloud of Black-tailed godwits who would rise together and descend again. A flamboyance of Greater flamingos, their pale pinks unrecognisable in the thick winter fog that enveloped the shore.

“Foreign shores” is something we think about during visa applications and degrees abroad. Yet, many of the birds from that day in Odisha—the godwits, the geese, the golden plover—had all come to the Chilika lagoon from foreign shores. They were among the millions of birds (and animals) that make yearly migrations to India. Birds use what ornithologists call the “Central Asian Flyway”—a winter migration route from Central Asia and Eastern Europe to South Asia. This is a fascinating overlap of sea, land and sky—a flyway with millions of birds, and, remarkably, billions of people.

Now, for the first time, we are moving towards an institutional framework for this flyway. At a meeting held in Delhi earlier this month by the UN’s Convention on Migratory Species, 11 participating countries of the Central Asian Flyway (CAF) agreed in principle to set up a secretariat or coordinating office for the CAF in India, a prominent country on the flyway.

For a flyway like the CAF, there are obvious challenges ahead. One is industry pressure to develop coastlines and shorelines into built infrastructure like ports and power plants. The other is the pressure to share land and water in more unlikely places. Such as cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, which get hundreds of thousands of migratory birds in their forests and wetlands. This makes the challenge to the CAF primarily one of sustainability—how we share (and spare) our coasts, cities and countryside for wildlife will be a key challenge.

The final, undeniable aspect is that of climate change. Studies show migratory birds are facing more challenges than ever before. Breeding grounds in the Arctic are getting warmer, which means birds start their migration sooner. A study by Arpit Deomurari, Ajay Sharma, Dipankar Ghose and Randeep Singh, published this year, modelled predictions for over 1,000 Indian bird species. They found that due to climate change, over 60% of the birds will shift northwards, and over 50% of the birds will lose part of their range. Other studies say that overall, birds will need more sites to rest and feed in.

Perhaps what is needed most is to re-imagine open or wild spaces, not just for us, but for wildlife that follows a different clock—a migratory, seasonal one, whose face is thrown wide open to climatic change.

Bar-headed geese and godwits on the Odisha coastline.
Bar-headed geese and godwits on the Odisha coastline. (Neha Sinha)

A year after my Odisha visit, I was in a fallow field in Haryana. Visibility was low—a smear of smog and woodsmoke swathed the cold air. Yet birds don’t mind the cold and we knew there was a group of tall, whitish birds nearby. Their outline was impossibly elegant, almost fragile-looking, with toothpick- like legs and curving necks—like wax statues preserved by the cold. We knew they were cranes. But which ones? Could they be Sarus cranes—resident Indian birds, the tallest among all flying avians, who dance during their courtship and famously mate for life? Crawling gently ahead, our knees shaking in the cold, we surmised the birds were, in fact, Common cranes.

In a second, the fallow field had turned into a place of warm, exciting possibility—these birds had come from the Palearctic and they trusted this spot enough to visit and feed in. We could not get very close. On seeing our outline, the cranes would retreat, their flouncy backs quivering. We watched from a distance and I thought about how India would seem so much louder than other places on the flyway.

Not far from that spot, we also saw Sarus cranes. They behaved differently: tossing their heads, sashaying regally in the field, unconcerned about our presence. It was magical, given the way birds transform flat and unidimensional places into fizzy and multilayered ones.

For some months of the year, bird migration turns a local spot into an international one. You don’t exactly know the combination of what you will find—gull, wader, crane, warbler—but it is there. Seeing a wetland or forest full of the unfamiliar sounds of a foreign bird is believing that all places are, in fact, connected. It is knowing that birds find places for themselves year after year, negotiating a mosaic of traffic crossings, mountains, cities and a changing climate.

Migration is also about transformation. A spot favoured by migratory birds is a spot that will transform from a dull-looking place in the June heat to a raucous, lively place in the winter cold. The birds also come right up to our houses, though we might not know it. Tiny warblers, chirruping like insects, flit on our balconies and hide in creepers. They come from Central Asia—and can easily be heard if you know what to look out for. Each year, I watch a mango tree swell with visiting warblers in December. The slim, dark green leaves shiver with the excitement of frisky little sprites—bird-bodies that are never still. Migratory warblers seem to be lit with a fire that is absolutely alien to our slow bodies—a fire that makes it possible for a bird weighing about 6g to cross countries.

The question now is if we will allow this fabulous, fierce fire to thrive. Last year, the world negotiated the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework: new goals under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity that the world agrees will keep our wildlife, and planet, safe. One of them states that by 2030, 30% of land and water that is of importance to biodiversity should be conserved in a way that ensures connectivity.

Understanding connectivity is key to saving migratory wildlife. This would mean valuing, and paying for keeping, land use amenable for sustainable and wildlife-friendly uses—such as providing a premium for produce that comes from a field with Common cranes. It would mean finding institutional funding and focus for the nameless wetlands that dot our lives. It would also mean spreading the word—land and water need steering committees and community champions that keep growth responsible, not reckless. Coastlines need visions not just for people but also zoning just for nature. All our wetlands need operational state boards that identify and manage wetlands as places with water, and not as land that should be built over.

For all those who believe in a chord of oneness with nature, migration offers the full, thrilling song: We are all connected, and your local field, park or pond is singing along with you.

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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