It may seem more appropriate to wonder if the title My City Skies is in reference to the gargantuan skyscrapers that are beginning to dot our city skylines. However, this weekly series is a look at the various birds that fly across or in many cases used to fly across our skies.
Through City Skies, we rediscover the many avian species that live amongst us, their stories and the roles they play in our lives.
We start this tour from Mumbai, the largest city in India.
City Skies – Mumbai
Vultures, Painkillers and the City of Dreams
If Mumbai ever had a tutelary bird, it would be the Vulture. The story of its dwindling population today is linked to a painkiller.
Spread across 54 acres of the Malabar Hill in Mumbai, are the 'Towers of Silence', nestled between numerous ancient trees. Here, the city's Parsi community continue a 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian tradition of disposing off the dead body by exposing it to scavenger birds. At the center of this unsalaried public service, are the vultures.
At one point, two species of vultures could be seen in large numbers around Malabar Hill. The most common of the two is the White-backed Vulture or the Bengal Vulture, a blackbird with a white band running down the length of its wings. The other is the Long-billed Vulture, a brown colored one.
Over the years, its population has decimated by nearly 95%, thanks to a pain-killer known as Diclofenac used extensively on livestock, which was developed in the early 1990s and banned by 2006. Vultures feeding on the carcasses of cattle treated with this medication began to die of kidney failure.
Adding to this adversity, habitat destruction due to rapid urbanization has nearly pushed vultures to the brink of extinction. Today, conservation efforts are underway to bring back these magnificent creatures.
While most people might be used to seeing crows and pigeons, Mumbai houses nearly 300 species of birds. The city has four major eco-sensitive zones: Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mangroves in Versova, and Maharashtra Nature Park. These four zones house a majority of these birds throughout the year.
In places like the Mangroves in Versova, one can catch glimpses of the almost iridescent Glossy Ibises and in the winters the Garganeys, a migratory duck species that visit India, flying annually from their breeding grounds in Eastern Europe and Siberia.
From Golden Oriole and the Common tailorbird, to the Oriental Magpie Robin, one can also see the distinctive red-whiskered bulbuls or the Asian Pied starlings in Mumbai.
The Starlings, native to Europe, have an interesting story about how they came to India. It is believed that a small consignment of the birds was brought here in the 1970s, but escaped and have since multiplied in numbers around the city. Its cousin, the Common Myna is a native species that can be commonly sighted here.
While Mumbai is a concrete jungle and may better be known for its diversity in buildings, it still hosts a healthy diversity of avian species whose company one can still seek and whose songs, one can still hear.