Birdwatcher’s delight
Aditya Sharma

Water Birds
by Ranjit Lal. Rupa. Pages 190. Rs 195.

Water BirdsRanjit Lal has written over 23 novels and anthologies of short stories for children. Apart from writing fiction, he has a keen interest in birdwatching and automobiles, which impel him to write on these subjects as well. Many books have been written about Indian birds by eminent ornithologists in the past, but very few are devoted exclusively to aquatic birds. A veritable delight for all birdwatchers, the book under review offers vital information about several species of water birds of North India. Apart from elucidating on indigenous water birds, the author has also given a brief account on several species of migratory birds that start arriving from Central Asia, Russia, and Siberia at bird sanctuaries in Sultanpur, Bharatpur and the Delhi zoo at the onset of winters.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that besides describing the size, color and other physical attributes of water birds, there is ample information as to their behavior and peculiar idiosyncrasies. Ducks, moorhens, coots, avocet, painted snipe, sandpiper, kingfishers, and various other water birds find a place in this volume. The reader is amazed to discover some very startling facts about them. Sample this: "Little green herons are found all over the country, but never in large numbers. They skulk about the edges of streams, lakes, ponds, swamps, coastal backwaters and creeks, where there is plenty of cover for them to hide in. They prefer hunting at dusk, and may spend the whole day standing slouched on a stump, brooding."

While passing by ponds and water reservoirs, most of us get enchanted by the birds that wade in its still waters, but in the absence of any information about them, we find ourselves at a loss to speak about these magnificent creatures. At best we have heard that saarus, aka hans (crane), is so attached to its spouse that if one dies, the other partner pines and starves itself to death. Apart from such hearsay, a layman’s knowledge about the marine birds is shockingly poor: so much so that he refers most of the aquatic birds as ducks. To make matters worse, very little is mentioned about such birds in our academic syllabus. As a result, it becomes next to impossible to segregate one species from the other.

The book comes as a handy guide to acquaint us not only about the names of various water birds, but also their shapes, sizes, and quirky habits. The only drawback is that the photographs of the birds are illustrated in black and white rather than in color. Every chapter exclusively depicts a particular species of water bird at length. In a section, we come across three varieties of kingfishers. They are the most spectacular fish-catchers in terms of style and skill. Though airborne, they manage to draw out fishes from water by diving headlong in rivers and ponds almost like an air-to-surface missile. The last chapter is devoted to predatory birds like kite and eagle that prey upon waterfowls, waders, fish, and small marine birds. Due to its ruthless hunting methods, such bird is often referred to as a pirate or nest robber.

The author laments that the human population explosion is rapidly destroying the natural habitats of water birds. Everywhere human beings are grabbing lands for residential and commercial purposes, making it difficult for such birds to survive. Excessive usage of insecticide and other harmful chemicals have already decimated vast chunks of bird population. Most of our rivers are a flowing mass of poisonous pollutants. As a result hundreds of species of water birds are on the verge of extinction.