Hoping for hoopoes to be garden kings again

As a child, I thought I was looking at a woodpecker—one that pecked the ground, not trees.
Migratory birds
Migratory birds

It used to run between the grasses, suddenly opening the crest on its head in an expression of complete surprise. Watching the bird bob its cinnamon-orange head—and then unfold its crest into a black-tipped, pop-up crown—was like watching the garden itself come to life. The hoopoe would walk up and down the grass and then, with a serious sort of feeling, begin probing the ground with its long bill. It was like looking at a doctor sticking a thermometer into a patient; an official who was simultaneously calm and animated. If it found something, it would drill the ground. Sometimes when it dug out a large bug, it would fling its head back, throwing its crest open. Then, it would toss the insect into the air and catch it neatly.

As a child, I thought I was looking at a woodpecker—one that pecked the ground, not trees. Occasionally, I felt this was the bird version of a zebra—for, no other birds I knew had stripes. At all times though, the hoopoe was the king of the garden, as its neat crest opened up into a crown. The bird of my childhood though, is now becoming rarer to spot. The new State of India’s birds report, which assesses the abundance of over 900 species in the country, has mapped a long-term decline of the Eurasian hoopoe.

This echoes my lived experience—once as common as a collared dove, the hoopoe is now a comparatively rarer sight. The hoopoe likes scrubland and dry habitats. You would likely see it more in a wild, weedy garden than in a well-manicured lawn with its grass mowed short. Over the years, manicured lawns have gone up and sightings of the bird have come down, and while we don’t know the reasons for decline, they are likely linked to a loss of open natural ecosystems—areas that look scrubby and scruffy to planners, always envisaged as better off as something else. 

The report has also found that generally, insectivorous birds are not doing well. Many studies show that overall, insect numbers have gone down, thus impacting bird populations too. It seems tragic that a bird, which was taken for granted in all our childhoods, would become something of a hazy memory, and then perhaps not a memory at all, as visual recollections get pixelated and lost if not refreshed. It’s a shame 
to lose the memory—and the sight—of a ‘zebra woodpecker’ inspecting the grounds. I let my garden’s grass grow taller, wilder, fiercer, hoping a hoopoe will come. I tell everyone to leave rocky crags intact wherever they are found, hoping a hoopoe will nest there. 

We don’t fully understand why some birds aren’t doing well (the magnificent Indian Roller is another example). But I think we do fully grasp what we lose if the birds exit our life: we are bereaved of a snatch of childhood innocence, a sense of distended reality—the bird that seemed so big in our younger years may not actually be that big, but its impact remains large enough. 

Neha Sinha

Conservation biologist and author

Twitter: @nehaa_sinha

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