It started with a little girl and a big garden.
With ﬁstfuls of mud, a brigade of earthworms and a ﬂeet of visiting birds, I was an inquisitive ﬁve-year-old on a journey of discovery, lucky enough to have a big garden in the capital city of Delhi. The garden was no ordinary place. It had wild grass, towering lilies, wild-growing tomatoes, and little pinpricks of daisy-like yellow ﬂowers piercing the grass on occasion.
But more than anything, that garden had character. That character came from its birds, and its one mammal, a mongoose. The birds captured my attention because they carried on with their very characteristic activities, unmindful of a tumble-haired ﬁve-year-old. There were orange hoopoes, landing on the grass and turning over leaves neatly with their precise beaks, looking for bugs. There were rambunctious mynahs, starlings which looked like they were in suits, jabbering away at a corporate lunch. There were bulbuls, who each year made a perfectly cup-shaped nest. There were parakeets, Alexandrine and Rose-ringed, who preferred to noisily and methodically decimate fruits from treetops while the other birds foraged on the ground. Inside the house, there were chirruping sparrows, neatly dodging fan blades and, for all purposes, ignoring the rest of the Sinha family.
As an adult today, with a bit more knowledge of conservation biology, this recount of my childhood would perhaps not surprise anyone, least of all conservation biologists. These birds – sparrows, rose-ringed parakeets, mynahs, bulbuls and hoopoes – are all common birds. A good garden – one that is not doused with pesticides or swathed in exotic plants – would certainly host these birds. Prima facie, common birds have traditionally not interested research activities or been funded for “saving”. But take a closer look and one will notice insidious changes affecting one’s childhood friends.
In the latest rounds of assessment in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List for birds – which outlines birds that are threatened with extinction – some unusual birds have made an entry. They include the Alexandrine Parakeet, a noisy companion from my childhood. This large, magniﬁcent parakeet, reminiscent somewhat of the South American Macaw, has a characteristic shrieking call. It is bold, brassy and not shy to exhibit its presence. To my ﬁve-year-old mind, the bird registered as intelligent and unafraid of humans, giving out a sort of clarion call against adult, and human, authority. In a country where parakeets are found almost everywhere, it is a matter of deep concern that three species of parakeets – Alexandrine, Grey-headed and Blossom-headed – have now been uplisted, meaning their populations are one step closer to extermination, and faced with persistent and well-identiﬁ ed threats. The Woolly-necked stork, a common bird in our rural landscapes, is uplisted as “vulnerable”.
If the fact of these birds being “uplisted” is not commonly known, it exhibits in one way the disconnect between scientiﬁc lists and daily conservation. For many like me who came into young adulthood seeing these common birds, it may seem incredulous to believe that these birds may not be experienced by others after us. “Generational amnesia”, or the phenomena when baselines of experience appear to shift – in this instance the belief that once-common birds are now to be rarely seen – may occur earlier than predicted. Younger people may never believe that these birds were once common, exhibiting their various forms of friendliness in our cities and living spaces. This brings us closer to the burning question of what we can do now for our plumed comrades. The ﬁrst is understanding the importance of keeping common birds common, through small interventions like nurturing native biodiversity, a task to be taken up by all of us. The second is a greater, and more broad, understanding of a scientiﬁc ﬁnding like the IUCN Red List.
Conservation is based on scientiﬁc research but conservation is not just about science. Similarly, Red Lists are not just daunting taxonomic parchments. Rather, they should be seen as a sort of mind-map that ﬂags off where we are going wrong in conserving our collective natural legacies; and it is for all citizens to shoulder small conservation initiatives.
I am blessed to have had that big garden while growing up, not only because birds took me outside my imaginary world, but also because they contributed large doses of character and reality to my imaginary world. They taught me to observe and peek, and, sometimes, to be invisible. It was clear that the garden was not just mine, but also the Alexandrine Parakeet’s. In a sense, then, the birds taught me a set of life skills. As the wise conservation biologist Nigel Collar says, conservation is linked to a certain form of human freedom, and experiencing the natural world is an inalienable form of human freedom. In our own ways, then, we can and must conserve our natural legacies, and become the guardians of so many values, so many little sovereignties and stolen afternoons, and that invaluable feeling of experiencing the life of a creature which does not speak our languages, but nevertheless tolerates most humans. I do not want to believe conservation is only for scientists. More than anything, I do not want to believe the garden of my childhood was a myth.
First published in the Economic & Political Weekly