Thursday, April 14, 2011

Can they tell us more about global warming ?

Saturday April 9, 2011

Brainy birds

Do birds confer and make wise decisions? Can they tell us more about global warming? A visit to Jamnagar, Gujarat, proves interesting.

I had always thought that twitchers (committed bird-watchers) were just one step up from train-spotters on the ladder of moronity, so when invited to attend a birdwatching conference in Jamnagar (Gujarat, India), I couldn’t help wondering whether this would be just another dork fest or a meeting of real significance.

Fortunately, enlightenment came in the imposing form of His Highness Jamsaheb Shatrushakyasinhji Jadeja, Maharaja of Jamnagar and an outstanding ornithologist and wildlife expert. Speaking at the Global Birdwatching Conference in Jamnagar, the Maharaja predicted that bird migratory patterns would in future be among the leading predictors of climate change.

Above and below: Painted storks in Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary.

“Do birds have intelligence?” he asked.

“We give too much credence to instinct — but what about their innovative ways in life and powers of communication? We should study changes in bird habitats. All these changes are for a reason, and they can be forward indicators of transformations about to happen in the world,” he argued.

It soon became apparent why Jamnagar had been chosen as a conference venue. The adjacent Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary and Narara Marine National Park, which are right on the Indo-Asian Flyway for migratory birds, host over 250 species of birds. The 600ha sanctuary is a unique wetland ecosystem, with freshwater, brackish water and saltwater habitats right next to one another. Pelicans, cranes and flamingos (among many others) use the reserve for roosting and nesting.

Brushing the cobwebs out of my eyes I joined an early morning visit to Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, along a raised bund-road that divided the fresh and saltwater habitats. The diversity of birdlife at the time was not exactly overwhelming — maybe the birds had been out raging the previous night and it was too early for them. But the soft light of pre-dawn, gleaming off a pristine lotus pond, provided a superb backdrop for the Painted Storks, Crested Grebes, Bulbuls and Cranes that had ventured onto the scene.

And in marshlands on the other side of the road, another phalanx of waterbirds was starting to stir. A later sunset visit revealed yet more birds, with egrets and herons stalking the wetlands in impressive numbers.

Nikanth Patel, now 21 years old, grew up in Khijadiya village.

“I’ve seen so many species of birds disappear since I was young”, he said. “I don’t know why this has happened.”

But the group Birds of Gujarat did have an answer.

“Species are disappearing because of human activities,” they said. “At the moment, 192 birds are classified as critically endangered as a result of habitat loss, hunting, pollution, climate change, human disturbance and other reasons.”

Sunset over the sanctuary.

Despite species losses, Gujarat is still one of the best places to see birds in their natural habitat, with the state boasting over 50 bird wetland reserves including Khijadiya, Nalsarovar, Porbandar and Thol Lakes Bird Sanctuaries. Although it is just 5% of India’s land area, Gujarat is either a home or a stop-off point for around 30% of the country’s 3,200 bird species, representing 70 of the 76 bird families found in India.

The state is also said to have Asia’s biggest area of grasslands (the Banni grasslands of Kachchh) as well as the Little Rann of Kutch, which in season becomes the world’s largest breeding ground for flamingos.

A visit to Narara Marine National Park is also a “must-do”. Its mangrove forests, coral reefs and 42 offshore islands promise an outstanding nature-feast. But at the time of my visit, disappointment was on the agenda.

“Sorry, there’s an unusually low tide, so we can’t launch the boats!” said a Park official.

Egrets and herons stalk the wetlands of Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary. — GRAHAM SIMMONS

Still, we got to take in the park’s excellent new interpretive centre and then explore the extensive sand-flats with their hordes of sandpipers and waders. In the heat of the day, I took shelter under the low mangroves, which were surrounded by surreal-looking gardens of mangrove shoots poking their heads through the sand.

Later, I caught up with Dr Naranbhai Karangia, of Jamnagar’s Kennedy village. Dr Karangia, a former farmer, has since his childhood been a passionate rescuer of injured peacocks. Each year, he sponsors temporary feeding centres for over 1,000 peacocks; these are set up for about three months just after the monsoons, when the fields have been harvested and there is consequently little food left for the birds.

Dr Karangia, with his humble and unassuming manner, has become something of a legend around Jamnagar.

Sadly, it was soon time to leave Jamnagar and hit the road to Porbandar — the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. But sanctuary or no sanctuary, it soon became apparent that the whole of this region was a bird hotel without peer. Egrets in vast numbers took to the water of a drainage pond, while a roadside bird hide looked out over an island that provided a roosting ground for thousands of migratory birds. Porbandar even has its own bird sanctuary, attracting Curlews, Flamingos, Little Cormorants and other species.

I soon came to lament my own limited skills in understanding and maybe learning from bird behaviour. As yet, I felt I was still little more than a twitcher, a dorky type whose only claim to being part-human is the ability to tick off bird names on a list. Gujarat is a well-known transit stop for the Bar-tailed Godwit; is it also a visiting place for the Western Halfwit, whose only desire is to collect “sightings” or camera images rather than developing a real empathy with the birds.

Once again, a story told by the Maharaja of Jamnagar at the Global Birdwatching Conference shed some light on the wonders of the bird world. The Maharaja spoke about the intelligence shown by the Barrow’s Golden Eye, a diving sea duck found in Iceland.

A few years ago, due to a shortage of the ducks’ staple food, the Black-eyed larvae, the birds met and apparently arranged for 600 non-breeders among the flock to emigrate so that there would be enough food left for the rest. These 600 were later found in the Hudson’s Bay area of Canada.

“The point is that the birds studied the situation, conferred and came up with a solution,” said the Maharaja. “That derogatory term ‘birdbrained’ could not be further from the truth.”

The birds conferred? Does this sound absurd?

The Maharaja’s words called to mind Farid Ud’din Attar’s Sufi epic The Conference of the Birds, that 12th Century spiritual allegory that I am far from even beginning to understand. Birdwatcher Linda Liu, who recently reviewed Attar’s work on her blog, Wings Spirit, said that “after becoming a serious birder, (I found) a revisit of this book brought me to a higher level of realisation.”

“You need to read this book like tasting a good wine,” continues Liu. “And you will swallow its essence only when you understand life should be embraced with love not hate, with peace not war”.

So, maybe birds really ARE smarter than humans. Perhaps scientists trying to find answers to global warming and other world problems should urgently seek their advice!


Jamnagar is about seven hours by road from Gujarat’s biggest city, Ahmedabad.


Hiring a car with a driver and guide is highly recommended. Contact, for example, JN Rao Travel Consutancy Services (tel +91 79 2640 2875, see:

Budget around RM200 per person per day (twin share), all-inclusive (that is, premium accommodation plus meals, car, driver and guide).

Of this, the cost for the driver is just RM25, so do the right thing and buy your driver a meal or two, or three! Alternately, catch a train to Jamnagar (six to eight hours) and then get around by inexpensive local taxi.


About 12km from Jamnagar. The best times to visit are at sunrise and sunset.