A wagtail on shared space, birdwatching and hope

By Kartik Chandramouli, Taarini Ravjit onMar. 27, 2021in Environment and Ecology
  • A grey wagtail speaks about migrating from the upper Himalayas to Valparai in south India where it is welcomed by school children on arrival.
  • Grey wagtails migrate during winters to other places across the country. Several of the species fly to wooded areas and wetlands close to human habitation.
  • This is the first film under a short animated series on human-wildlife sharing space as part of the Beyond Protected Areas series.

Bird migration is a phenomenon worth celebrating. And celebrate they do at the Government High School Cinchona, in the hilly town of Valparai in Tamil Nadu. Every year, grey wagtails escape the winter in the upper Himalayas and fly to Valparai in south India, thousands of kilometres away, reaching during August-September. Since 2019, the students of this school have marked the bird’s arrival by a ritual of distributing sweets and pasting welcome posters in town.

During migration, the small insect-feeding bird flies from one pitstop to another, in several parts of India to reach its destination – wooded areas or places with streams and other water bodies. For instance, if one bird would settle in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, the other could destine itself for a lake in the middle of Pune city.

The ones that arrive in Valparai, a hill-town famous for its tea plantations, are a familiar sight for residents. The bird is called sambal vaal aatti in Tamil; which means ‘grey tail shaker’ because of its natural behaviour of frequently wagging its long tail. One can often hear the sharp pseet pseet of the bird from a rooftop, in the markets, on the side of the road, in tea estates, or near streams. K. Selvaganesh, the teacher who seeded the idea of welcoming the wagtail, said, “It’s a common sight for children but it is also a very nice looking bird. So, we thought of using it to create awareness about the nature around us.”

A grey wagtail in Uttarakhand. Photo by PJeganathan/Wikimedia Commons.

Curiosity and enthusiasm led some of the children to other birds and beings of the biodiversity-rich region part of the Western Ghats. “The students now birdwatch on the way to school and back home. A few have become interested in insects and plants,” said the English teacher. One of the students who left for the nearby city of Coimbatore for her studies has become a passionate birdwatcher who frequently adds her bird checklists and observations on citizen science platforms that crowdsource information from the public and she also participates in initiatives such as bird counts. Selvaganesh and the grey wagtail had an impact.

A birdwatcher since 2012, Selvaganesh is shaping students aged between 11 and 16 to become citizen scientists. The children submit their bird checklists on paper that Selvaganesh validates and uploads on the common eBird account. “Once they (students) reach the right age and have phones, I hope they’ll start their own accounts.”

A look at India’s grey wagtail distribution map based on citizen science data gives an idea that the bird exists in and around human-dominated landscapes. Selvaganesh points out that birds such as the wagtail could be at risk by increasing pollution, pesticides and insecticides and loss of water bodies. But he’s hopeful that the grey wagtail could be the gateway bird for the students to understand the wildlife and habitats at their doorstep.

First published by Mongabay India on 12 Mar. 2021

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