Flamingos In The City

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Flamingos eat plankton in front of an industrial area at Sewri mudflats, Mumbai. Photograph: Divyakant Solanki/EPA-EFE

Payal Mohta reported from Mumbai for this story in the Guardian that caught our attention with images of urban flamingos. An unusual beauty can be the result of a common problem. As it is important to understand nature in wilderness areas, which is our strong preference, it is also important to understand these man-made phenomena:

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People watch flamingos from a boat during the Bombay Natural History Society’s flamingo festival. Photograph: Hindustan Times/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

There is an air of anxious excitement among the urban professionals and tourists on board our 24-seater motorboat as we enter Thane Creek.

A chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” breaks out as we spot the visions in pink we came to see – hundreds of flamingos listlessly bobbing in the murky green water – followed by the furious clicking of cameras.

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Flamingos at Sewri. Photograph: Hindustan Times/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Then, almost as one, the birds skim the water and take off in sync. “They always stay together,” says Prathamesh Desai, who has been organising birding excursions in the city for seven years. “They are an extremely gregarious species.”…

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Flamingos at Sewri. Photograph: Hindustan Times/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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Flamingos flock to Mumbai between September and April, but this year there are almost three times more birds than the amount that usually flocks to the area.
Bachchan Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

That story continues after the jump below. First, thanks to National Public Radio (USA)’s Audrey Nguyen and Sarah Oliver for producing and bringing this story to our attention with this opening line (which goes on to credit the Guardian story as its source):

Around this time every year, tens of thousands of flamingos flock to Mumbai to feed. But this year, there are almost three times more than the normal amount in the city — about 120,000.

The reason for the influx is currently a mystery. But some scientists believe that pollution in the birds’ natural habitat might be one factor at play…

[Payal Mohta’s Guardian story continues here]

…These birds have begun congregating in India’s largest city in astonishing numbers. A count in January this year found 120,000 flamingos in the city – three times their highest population in at least four decades.

“Flamingos began migrating to Mumbai in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Rahul Khot, assistant director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), one of the oldest scientific institutions in India. “Records show that since then their numbers have hovered between 30,000 and 40,000 each season.”

Of the six species of flamingos in the world, it is the greater flamingo (taller, with a black-tipped pink bill) and the near-threatened lesser flamingo (shorter, with a dark crimson bill) that are found in India. The birds arrive in Mumbai from the north-west, from Kutch in Gujarat and Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan. Smaller numbers of the birds are believed to fly in from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Israel. Some are thought to come from as far as France.

In Mumbai most settle in Thane Creek, home to around 200 species of birds. They can also be spotted on smaller wetlands such as those at NRI colony and TS Chanakya.

Last May the BNHS embarked upon its first formal survey of the flamingos in Thane Creek as part of a 10-year study of wading birds.

While Khot feels it is premature to speculate on the cause of the huge spike in the flamingo population, the birds’ polluted habitat appears to hold clues. Thane Creek has become a dumping ground for untreated domestic sewage and industrial effluents from the city – and one of the best sites to spot large flamingo congregations in Mumbai is near the Bhandup water treatment plant.

“It is a well-studied phenomenon in nature that one species’ waste is food for the other,” says Debi Goenka, BNHS honorary secretary. “The sewage in the creek promotes biological growth of blue-green algae, which is food for the flamingo.”

Sunjoy Monga, a naturalist and author of the book Birds of Mumbai, says the creek may have reached “what one might call perfect levels of pollution”: “Over the years the industrial discharge dispelled by the industries of the Sewri Bay may have warmed the water. The nitrate and phosphate levels in the creek water are just right for the prolific growth of the algae.”

Although alarmed by the high levels of pollution in the creek, Monga says a pristine habitat would deprive flamingos of food and drive them away. “This phenomenon is called edge nature,” he says. “Here, wilderness merges with human impact and some species are able to thrive in it. It’s a double-edged sword.”

He also believes “drought-like conditions” in the wetlands of Kutch are the specific reason the flamingos have migrated to Mumbai in such large numbers…

Read the whole story here.

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