Lahore: Taken flight?


Not a very long time ago, the city of Lahore woke up to birdsong and chirping. These sounds, however, are being silenced by unchecked and unsustainable development and human settlement. So much so that now, as compared to the 240 bird species that were recorded in Lahore in a study conducted in 1965, only 101 bird species were recorded during a study conducted in 1992. Ornithologists estimate there are currently only 85 bird species left in Lahore, including resident and migrant species.

Once mostly consisting of agriculture land, the city has expanded immensely in the past six decades. With continued influx of people from neighbouring small towns and villages in search of better livelihood, demand for housing increased rapidly and it is still growing. In addition, local businesses paved way for conversion of previously protected areas such as parks and open public spaces into business zones and housing projects.

Lack of a competent development strategy and lacklustre local leadership have further allowed haphazard construction, felling trees, filling in marshes and levelling parks. The situation is not just aesthetically unpleasant, it is also an environmental and ecological challenge that is only now coming to the fore of our societal conscience as natural disasters loom and climate change becomes a buzzword.

The most visible of Lahore’s birds today are the common house sparrow, Grey Hornbill, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Parakeet, Bulbuls, Doves, Spotted Owlets, Babblers, Flycatchers, Mynas, Woodpeckers, Crows, Kites, Ashy Prynia, Red Start, Grey Hornbills, Warblers, Red Wattled Lapwing, Kingfishers, house crows and the Oriental White Eye. In warmer months, birds from the southern parts of the country migrate here for food and breeding purposes. These include Purple Sunbird, Koel, Golden Oriole and Cuckoo species. In colder months, the search for food brings birds like Yellow Browed Warbler, Common Starling, White Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail and Large Pied Wagtail. They feast on small insects, spiders, mollusks and soft seeds from moist soil, which is becoming rarer now as Lahore has less agriculture land.

“I have seen Indian Coursers where the new campus of Punjab University now stands,” says Z. B. Mirza, author of Birds of Pakistan when asked about the bird species which have disappeared from Lahore. “There was the wetland of Keeran village west of Model Town. I have seen cranes in that wetland.”

Neither of these species has been seen in Lahore in recent times. But where Man has taken away, Nature has given. Some species of birds have successfully adapted in the face of urbanisation, becoming resilient against change, and this is ensuring their continued breeding and sustenance. Species like Mynas, Blue Rock Pigeons and Robins use urban structures such as electric wires, poles, houses, ventilator shafts, roofs and nest boxes installed by humans to roost, nest and feed their young.

However, ornithologists confirm that bird species which rely on endemic flora of Lahore are still at risk as there is a dangerous trend towards replacing indigenous plant species with exotic ones.

Ecological linkages between trees such as Arjun, Bair, Banyan, Pipal, Kikar, Shisham, Peelo, Amaltas, Jamun, Mango, Saru, and Neem and several bird species are well established and it is critical to note that as these trees are being felled — to make room for wider roads and development projects — it is getting more difficult for bird species such as the Green Pigeon and the Grey Hornbill to survive. According to a source at WWF-Pakistan, both of these species are now considered ‘species of concern’, as their numbers are rapidly declining.

A solution would be to create widespread awareness and bring back the horticulture of the 1940s on a municipal and district level in new colonies to give a chance to the original bird species to flourish. The City District Government Lahore (CDGL) can play a key role in this regard. Furthermore, the local authorities should adopt procedures that require ecological surveys and urban environment surveys before a large scale development project is undertaken to minimise damage to not just the birds, but human health as well.

Apart from smaller insectivore and herbivore birds, birds of prey and scavengers, such as the Gyps vultures, have also succumbed to the harshness with which we deal with our environment. Once a common sight atop tall trees in places such as the Kinnaird College campus where they roosted and nested, the white-backed vultures have steadily been disappearing, mainly due to the proliferation of the drug ‘diclofenac’ that is injected in livestock.

Vultures feeding on carcasses of these animals develop acute kidney failure and die. Organisations such as WWF-Pakistan, in partnership with the Punjab Wildlife and Parks Department, have launched the ‘Gyps Vulture Restoration Project’ in Chhanga Manga to save this ‘nature’s cleaner’, and have lobbied to achieve a ban on the use of diclofenac for veterinary uses.

Just as most of our national treasures go unnoticed, the birds of Lahore also garner little or no attention.

Gone are the days of steadfast bird-watching and the interest the hobby entailed. With new technologies, we might as well watch a Red-vented Bulbul or a Rosy Starling on our computer screens, rather than venturing outside. Clearly it is time for us all to rethink our lifestyles and find ways to co-exist with nature’s finest creations. After all, what is more uplifting than the sight of a bird shooting thorough the evening sky, or listening to its melodious song?