Plants, even dead and decaying, attract birds

As I walk through India, I find that we aren’t always short on space, but are short on imagination.

Published: 22nd January 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st January 2023 04:49 PM   |  A+A-

Representational Image. (Express Illustration)

On a bright January day, next to an ordinary-looking dustbin with assortments of plastic and paper waste, I spotted a different kind of litter. This was leaf litter—heaps of fallen leaves, collected into a pile—and in it, there was a sudden, darting movement. Flashes of grey and orange, a quick tail, a sharp beak. I could hardly believe my eyes. I was in a park in Tamil Nadu, and there was an endemic Indian bird in front of me, the black-and-orange flycatcher. With a black head and a bright orange body, restricted to Nilgiris, Palni and the Western Ghats, and found only in India, I was able to see the bird in a location as quotidian as a city park in Coonoor.

It was my first day there, and I was delighted—I was planning on going deep inside the Nilgiri mountain ranges to see the wild, restricted-range flycatcher. I had known that birds don’t follow borders, and that cities and towns can host nearly as much wildlife as wildernesses and the countryside. But I hadn’t known that the bird would literally come to me, making an appearance in Sim’s Park, right next to people posing for Instagram reels.

The difference was that the park utilised fallen leaves well. Instead of burning the leaves or throwing them in the garbage, horticulturalists gathered the leaves daily and heaped them in designated spots. These spots, rich in insects, mulch and moisture, attracted flycatchers, robins, wagtails and bulbuls—some rare, some common, some endemic, some with large ranges, all welcome. The park had all the usual garden trappings for those looking for manicured areas—neat rows of flowers, low grass, order and borders. But it also delivered for wildlife that thrives on the untidy and revels in leaf litter. And the black-and-orange flycatcher was displaying that it is, in fact, possible to use areas for both urban walks and wildlife habitat. And that plants (even dead and decaying) will usually bring wildlife to you.

As I walk through India, I find that we aren’t always short on space, but are short on imagination. We need common public areas for walking, relaxing and for people to use and thrive. If planned well though, these areas can also be stepping stones, refuges or habitat for wild creatures. One easy way to start this is by zoning parks, beaches and gardens. Some percentage of these areas should be left untidy, wild and cluttered with the things that wildlife can use. We can have neat paths; we can also have a corner with leaf litter, wild grass and fruiting bushes.

In thinking about wildlife while planning common areas, and in letting native wild plants grow, we would be inviting rare occurrences into otherwise ordinary days. We’d be opening the door to providing a pit stop to an exhausted animal. There was a time when my grandparents saw a black-and-orange tiger crossing the path in Nainital; today I content myself seeing the black-and-orange flycatcher cross mine.   

Neha Sinha

Conservation biologist and author

Twitter: @nehaa_sinha


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