Fragile fairy dust.
That is the best description for Purple Sunbirds. A peacock blue male, and a yellow and brown female. These tiny birds flutter from flower to flower, beating impossibly tiny wings against heat and circumstance.
I had been observing the pair for over six months and was beyond excited when they decided to nest in my building. Day after day they brought little pieces of lint and grass to create a lovely nest hanging from a money-plant vine. Each day was a struggle. The tiny birds are easily startled and would drop their nesting material each time they heard sudden sounds that mark the urban-scape: a slamming door, a car horn, loud footfall.
The Purple Sunbird on Palash. (Photo: Neha Sinha)
Yet, the pitcher-shaped nest was taking shape. On a specially hot afternoon, a rhesus macaque monkey and her baby came to the porch. They were tired and dehydrated, and I let them be. When they left, I saw the spoils of their quest for food — the sunbird nest, destroyed, pulled apart as neatly as it had been put together.
As I picked up the sad pieces of the nest, I saw something glinting from the remains — translucent things, shining like dubious diamonds — pieces of plastic. As the Anthropocene — the Age of Man — marches on, many birds are using whatever they can find to nest, and a lot of that is plastic, which if eaten, will likely kill young ones. For most Indian birds, spring/early summer and the monsoon are the times to nest. Now is a crucial time; even as the temperatures soar, wildlife is more than busy.
Palash flowers growing from a tree trunk. (Photo: Neha Sinha)
Here are five things you can do to help wildlife in summer.
Put out nesting material
If we lived in a pristine area that wasn’t littered with broken beer bottles, plastic bags and containers I would never have advocated this. Birds are fully capable of finding nesting material, pulling at grasses, leaves, mud, even a stray sock left to dry, for lining their nests. But increasingly, the impacts of plastic pollution are finding their way into nests. A recent, heart-breaking video from Amsterdam shows swans making a nest entirely from garbage.
A swan built their nest out of garbage at an Amsterdam canal. This is the world we’ve helped create for animals.
You can help birds as they build their nests now, by putting out nesting material in places birds are likely to visit. The best would be strands of dry grass, twigs, even the hair of a pet, and pieces of twine.
Creating wild patches
Now, where would you find strands of grass?
Allow wilderness to flourish. Good things will emerge from it. Seen here, native Palash and Papdi trees. (Photo: Neha Sinha)
The question is a pertinent one as most modern gardens manicure to a fault, mowing down grasses and hosing what’s left with insecticide. Whatever garden you have — whether on the ground or a vertical one on your verandah, leave a few wild patches. In this patch or clutch of pots, let grasses grow, let creepers spill over, let cobwebs be. Let wildflowers like the yellow-and-white coat-button emerge. Birds will thank you for the chemical-free nesting material, and you may even have butterflies laying eggs on it. If you don’t have grass or wild seeds in your wild patches, bring a layer of topsoil from a nursery or park, and keep it moist. Good things will emerge.
Vessel for wildlife — fill yours this summer. (Photo: Neha Sinha)
Water for bees
We know we must put out water for birds, but don’t forget the bees. Industrious insects like wasps and bees will collapse out of dehydration in summer. They will also drown in the regular containers put out for birds. In order to allow bees to drink safely, put out earthen vessels with clean water and slip a few large leaves into it. The bees will use the leaves as a platform for drinking. Birds can use the same water source too.
The right habitat
A Yellow-footed Green Pigeon breaks nesting material off from an Ashoka tree. (Photo: Neha Sinha)
Many species are endangered around us today. So are some plants and wild trees. With the onset of modern horticulture which are mass planted in cities, several native trees need patronage. For Aravallis, good native trees to plant include Palash, Jaal, Peelu, Khair, Papdi and Barna. Talk to your Resident Welfare Association and those who have gardens. Instead of a foreign Gulmohar, plant a Palash instead. Once the tree is older, wildlife will feast on their fruit and flowers.
For gardens, there are many plants that are good food sources for wildlife—these include mangoes, guavas, naturalised plants like Pentas, Tecoma and Kalanchoe.
Spread the good word
Nature is resilient. But it needs a fair chance. At the moment, the odds are tipped against wildlife. The latest Living Planet Report by WWF finds that there has been a 60% decline of the world’s amphibians, reptiles, mammals and fish populations in the last 40 years. Through these efforts, you may be able to provide shelter to a migratory bird passing through the city, a connecting corridor for other wildlife, and even habitat and place to build nests for others.
And apart from what we can do for wildlife, I am interested in what wildlife does for us. A wildlife-friendly garden, verandah and neighbourhood mean opening your window to awe and surprise every day. Awe is good for health and provides purpose.
This first appeared in my column in DailyO.