Birds flying 29,000 feet above the ground, crossing the great Himalayas during migration in freezing -37°C weather, with winds blowing at 200 km/hour. No, this is no flight of fancy, rather the exploits of the champion flyers of the bird kingdom. Welcome to the intriguing world of the majestic Bar-Headed Goose.
Come December, the bar-headed goose from beyond the Himalayas, Ladakh and countries like China, Mongolia and Russia congregate on the large lakes and river bodies of south India.
Back in 2001, during a birding census in January conducted by the Mysore Amateur Naturalists, I had the opportunity to watch these birds closely. They settled down in a lake nearby, all hundred of them with a gentle breeze for company. After some time they began restlessly honking and moving about. We then saw a couple of them coming towards the lake from the neighbouring hillside. These birds had gone out to survey feeding grounds. At night, they fed on crops like rice, barley, and wheat. All the birds on the lake started flapping their wings, a sure sign that they were ready to fly. Soon, a signal from the birds up above to their companions below resulted in a mass exodus as around 200 birds began flapping their wings and giving a loud honk, took to the sky in a V pattern, but not before circling the lake a couple of times. Their destination: the green fields that had been spotted by the ‘surveyors’. We watched them honking and flying towards the hillside till they faded into the darkness. In my mind’s eye, the scene remains ever so fresh.
Belonging to the family Anser Indicus, there is a reason why these birds possess such amazing capabilities like flying in extreme tough conditions. Researchers have revealed that they breathe more deeply and efficiently under low oxygen conditions, even reducing their heart beat to just once or twice per minute.
Villagers live in harmony with these birds. While grazing their sheep and cattle near the river side, they watch in amazement as huge numbers of them spread across the river.
Every year, they anticipate the birds’ arrival. Locally, it has been christened the ‘5kg bird’.
But the real threat to these birds is from the people coming from towns and cities armed with air guns and gunny bags. Water birds in these areas just take off when they see an intruder coming at them. Agriculturists in Mullupetlu, a small village in Mysore, say that it is a big menace with people from towns arriving in a two-wheeler and with a gun. Says a villager: “They wait and hide and fire at these long-legged water birds. I saw one bullet killing a bird and the same bullet piercing through another.” A caretaker of sheep said: “During one visit, they took a gunny bag full of these birds. Each bird weighs 5 kg”. A farmer added, “These days if we see them hunting in our place, we don’t allow it and turn them back”.
In far off Ladakh, in the Himalayan region, the bar-headed geese are even known to accept food grains from people. After their spectacular migratory feats, they arrive here, live in fear with some of them being brutally killed at the hands of humans. The spread of H5N1 bird influenza in China in 2005 had reduced migratory bird consumption to a certain extent in south India.
I end with this very delightful verse, taken from the Internet from an obvious fan of the bar-headed goose (and Bob Dylan)
How many peaks must a goose fly above before it can earn its stripes?
Now, how many days must a goose fly strong before it reaches its home?
Yes, how many blizzards must it face before it can see the sun?
The Anser my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The Anser is blowin’ in the wind