The Neglected Birds of Goa

By Dr Nandkumar M Kamat
Goa is not only a tourist paradise but also a paradise of birds representing an awesome 37 per cent of the country’s avian diversity.

Unfortunately, this diversity is taken for granted and almost nothing is being done to identify, conserve and protect the pristine habitats of birds.
Birds face twin challenges - coping with climate change and the human interference in their habitats. More than 100 species of birds in Goa are neglected. These include familiar species like sparrows, bee eaters, larks, woodpeckers, thrushes, warblers. Appreciation of birds is different than transparent, uncompromising, sustained concern for conservation of their wild, natural habitats.
I remember the enriching hours spent in the company of prolific wildlife writer, Sahitya Akademi award winner, Maruti Chitampalli. All his books in Marathi are soaked in heartfelt compassion for the wild species. He compiled the ‘Pakshikosha’ - encyclopaedia on birds in Marathi. It includes several bird names from Goa and the Konkan. During one of his visits to Goa, he expressed the desire to visit the nesting site of white bellied sea eagle - Haliaeetus leucogaster. I advised him to explore Kadamba plateau. But this bird is a normal visitor to fishing hamlets of Odxel ward of Taleigao village. It has some nests on a giant banyan tree which towers above the small houses under it’s’ canopy. After the eyesore commercial cum residential project comes up behind this habitat, the birds would vanish.
Those who love birds have an automatic duty to do everything to protect their habitats. Academic studies often end up in aesthetic narcissism. Many times outside the very seminar halls, the bird habitats may be endangered but the experts don’t pay any attention. Besides the official state level apathy, the cultivated and institutionalised disconnect between publication oriented academism and conservation oriented activism is the basic cause of the demise of bird diversity in Goa, except for a few pockets like our university campus where Professor Shanbhag and his research students have documented 114 species of birds in less than two sq km area.
Do you miss in your neighbourhood, the chimani, the house sparrow (Passer domesticus), the chiutai of local lullabies and rhymes? In our university canteen we used to have several of them. But one by one they vanished. There are disturbing reports from urban areas of Goa about the disappearance of the sparrows. This raises a serious question about our concern regarding the familiar and not so familiar birds of Goa.
Where are the long billed vultures of Goa - the Gyps indicus species? During my visits to the Vaishnavaite monastery of Partagal, decades ago, I used to be scared of these large, ugly looking birds feeding on dead animals deposited on the banks of the Talpona River. About a decade back we spotted long billed vulture above Calapur’s Bondval Lake. I remember large flocks of vultures near the Goa Meat complex, Usgao, several years back and big white rumped vultures on the banks of the Assolna rivulet near Chinchinim.
Vultures are a critically endangered species. But the poor birds have no support like Project Tiger. Goa has a rich avian diversity. Foreign tourists flock to Goa to capture snapshots of their favourite winged friends. Bird watching related ecotourism has benefited many self educated local guides and amateur bird watchers. Ornithologists like Parag Ranganekar, Ajay Gramopadhye and well known wildlife artist and BNHS specialists like Carl De Silva have dedicated themselves to spread awareness about the avian diversity. But there is no organised, sustained movement to identify, conserve and protect the habitats of birds which are slowly disappearing.
British birder Steve Blain visits Goa to capture the beauty and magic of birds. His blog http://steveblain.blogspot.com/2008/02/kingfishers-of-goa.html has beautiful images of seven species of kingfishers found in Goa. In this paradise of birds we have the right to be woken up early in the morning by a cacophony of ornithological melodies. The coels and cuckoos regale us during summer. Without flowerpeckers and sunbirds our gardens would not look lively and lovely.
The Goan countryside misses the woodpeckers with their peculiar knocking sounds. In several villages, farmers consider the national bird - Indian peafowl as a pest, a nuisance. But the problem of bird nutrition is often manmade. Traditionally, till the end of the past century, in most of the villages, owners used to leave behind some fruits or pods on the trees without harvesting them. In villages of ‘new conquests’ there were taboos against plucking the fruits from trees reserved exclusively for birds and animals. After the breakdown of these ethical practices - the birds are finding it difficult to get their normal, natural food. This aspect is not much discussed in Goa.
Now solid waste is attracting many bird species. The toxins in such waste affect the birds. The house sparrows are no doubt declining even in western countries but their rapid decline from towns and local settlement areas should cause grave concern. The rodent menace in our campus increased suddenly with the decline of population of the nocturnal hunter - spotted owlet. The birds are so shy that small human movements alert them. There is no status report on owls of Goa popularised in local folklore as “ghughum”.
In the countryside, the cute little Jungle Bush-Quail are still hunted, roasted and consumed. They blend so well in dry litter and cross the road so swiftly that their behaviour is a lesson in camouflage and speed. We may believe that egrets and herons are safe. But these are still being hunted in the countryside for making Xacoti.
Bird trappers from outside Goa catch parakeets illegally during the harvest season. Souvenir hunters and collectors often take the arboreal leaf nests of the common tailorbird. Everyone loves the intricately designed nests of the baya weaver birds, hanging on coconut tree branches. This species may not be threatened. But owners of coconut plantations need to leave the nest bearing parts of the trees. Otherwise there could be damage to the eggs of these birds. One finds these nests displayed with the eggs removed in many school exhibitions and also used as decorative hangings. Only discarded or fallen nests could be collected.
But Goa scores low on conservation ethics. This is affecting the neglected species of birds. Birds need their privacy. Birds have the right to exist with us. During summer we need to arrange water for them. During times of food crisis, we need to offer them cereal grains, fruits and nuts. By involving school children, it would be possible to care for Goa’s neglected bird species. Members of Goa’s eco clubs, nature clubs, green corps could do this in their own areas.
(To be concluded)