Saturday Features

It’s a jungle out here

  • In an increasingly concrete jungle, pockets of greenery become more and more vital in maintaining the avian diversity of Kathmandu
- Priya Joshi

Jan 5, 2019-

A few years ago, there was suddenly a new tree in my garden. Everyone was surprised, because no one had planted that tree. Yet there it stood, more than four storeys tall. We didn’t know what type of tree it was, and we still don’t know the name, but ever since it grew, it has attracted a lot more birds to our home.

Because our garden had plenty of fruiting and flowering trees, flowers and a diverse patchwork of shrubs, we were used to seeing frogs, snakes, shrews, chipmunks and mongoose. With a garden to play in and explore, I have always been familiar with the various birds, insects, reptiles, molluscs and tiny mammals who shared their territories with us. But as the walls between the neighbours grew taller and open grounds turned into tall, concrete buildings, these terrestrial animals have become more and more rare. But the sky has no walls, and the birds have not stopped flocking to our tiny oasis.

For the last decade or two, I did not have the luxury of exploring and playing in my garden like I used to when I was a child. But this year, I became a new mother. Suddenly, being home as a sutkeri, I once again had the time and opportunity to gaze out of the window onto my garden during those long, lonely hours with my chori when I was either breastfeeding her or keeping her company as she napped. I was once again able to reacquaint myself with my evolved garden. I began noticing new birds and hearing unfamiliar bird songs.

Curiosity got the better of me, and I had plenty of time to spare. I dusted off my binoculars—which had once accompanied me to wild expeditions through the mountains and plains of Nepal, the Peruvian Amazon, the Kalahari and Okavango Delta in Botswana and Alaska during my trips as a wildlife researcher—and bought the latest version of a field guide to birds found in Nepal. Armed with these rudimentary ornithology tools, I was able to identify the chestnut-tailed starlings which I had never seen in our garden. I also realised that we had not one but multiple species of bulbuls and mynahs visiting us. I learned that the annual ‘turtle dove’ pair was actually spotted doves. It was also sobering to realise that what I had always just lumped together as ‘sparrows’ were in fact three different sub-species of sparrows: house sparrows, Eurasian tree sparrows and Russet Sparrows. I had failed to realise the uniqueness and diversity of something I deemed common and, therefore, perhaps not as valuable.

In addition to the year-round pigeons, crows and the aforementioned birds, I’ve also spotted coppersmith barbets, grey-backed shrikes, cinereous tits, oriental white eyes, oriental magpie robins, purple sunbirds, jungle mynahs, common mynahs, white-throated kingfishers and common tailorbirds on our trees, in addition to a possible thrush or lark species, a woodpecker and some owlet species yet to be properly identified. Already a busy place for birds, our garden has become a whole lot noisier, ever since that tree suddenly grew.

When its ‘flowers’ bloom, the tree buzzes with pollinator insects of all sizes. Once the tiny berry-like ‘fruit’ clusters appear, flocks of rose-ringed parakeets, mynahs, chestnut-tailed starlings and various bulbuls come to feed daily. As the berries dry, red-vented bulbuls and parakeets flock every evening to feast on them. Over the course of a year, I have counted up to 11 different species of birds on that tree so far, whether eating its fruit, building their nest or using it at a vantage point to scan, hunt or sing.

This is not the only tree that has sprung up on its own in our home. A few more of the same tree species tower six stories high near our gate, along with three other local species of trees and some camphor and mulberry trees that have grown on their own. It seems some birds have been engineering our garden ecosystem to suit their palate. No doubt these raithaney trees were ‘planted’ by the same birds that now enjoy the harvest of the berries that grow on them. As they fed on these trees berries elsewhere, the seeds in their droppings grew into saplings in our garden. We are apparently a bit lazy in weeding our garden, which meant that when these saplings started shooting, they were able to stealthily grow into trees. In just a few years, there are a lot more raithaney trees in our garden, which has attracted a larger number and greater variety of birds. We also get large fruit bats from nearby Lazimpat visiting us on summer evenings to eat the berries on a separate variety of these raithaney trees and a large-billed crow, jet-black all over and with a guttural cry, seems to have recently begun nesting in one of the towering trees.

There is no doubt that the diversity of fruiting and flowering trees in our garden attract and help sustain so many birds and mammals (fruit bats and monkeys) species year round. In an increasingly concrete jungle, pockets of greenery like our garden become more and more vital in maintaining the avian diversity of Kathmandu. Nestled among tall, grey buildings, it is indeed a treat to wake up to the courting song of a magpie robin or spend my evenings counting parrots camouflaged in the trees. From my window, I can study the behaviour of crows, watch the sunbirds sip nectar from flowers and laugh at the sparrows jostling for the best spots for their mud bath.

My chori is nearly a year old now, and I no longer sit at my window looking wistfully onto my garden. I look out with her, pointing out the various birds and butterflies, and we wave bye-bye to flocks of cattle egrets, playful swallows and lazily circling black kites as they make their way home in the evenings. I am grateful that, for now, we still have our miniature, ever-evolving urban jungle to relish. Thanks to these new mystery trees, she and I have been able to enjoy the cacophony of the diverse array of birds who share our garden with us.

Published: 05-01-2019 09:08

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