Thursday, May 19, 2005

City wildlife

I was on my way home after work last evening, and on the tree-lined path, obstructing my way, there sat this rather somber looking raccoon! I stared at him incredulously (could have been a “her” as well, I don’t know), and he stared quizzically back at me, as if to ask why I was in his turf! Then he scratched his nose, turned, and ponderously plodded off. This was my sixth raccoon sighting in as many weeks.

No, my lab is not in some wilderness, buried in some deep forest. The University of Washington campus is right in the heart of the fine city of Seattle. Seattle is not some tiny boon dock town in obscure America. It is a bustling metropolis, a technology hub, and the famed home of Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, Zymogenetics, Immunex and other technology giants. And yet, right here, in the heart of boomtown, I encounter “wild life”.

It has been my good fortune in choosing to come to Seattle for my PhD. This is a remarkable city, where the people are proud of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and preserve it. The city has numerous parks, which are allowed to remain “unspoiled”. There is the magnificent Discovery Park in the city itself, where people can come and learn about Northwest terrains. Magnolia park and Woodland Park serve as habitat for endangered Madrona trees with brilliant red bark. A whole variety of old and new growth firs look down at you from the skies above. Birds are everywhere. Even on the University campus I encounter a varied menagerie of birds everyday. There are ravens and robins everywhere, ducks and Canadian geese, sparrows and ubiquitous gulls, and the occasional hawk circling the sky. Out in Seattle suburbia, beyond Redmond or Issaquah, residents are surprised in winter by visiting deer, raiding their gardens. Possums are everywhere (notably as road kill), and wild hares run in the parks. The wetlands are fiercely preserved, and the lakes are home to herons, cormorants, teals and many other birds. Little signboards unobtrusively educate the city slicker trekking through well-preserved trails. The 60-mile Burke Gilman bike trail is enjoyed by hundreds of cyclists daily, who stop to pick wild berries or wild apples from the trees and bushes lining the trail. There is all this and more, for the Seattle citizens to enjoy in their own city.

I think of India’s own booming cities. Bombay’s Borivilli national park may not last the turn of this decade. Bangalore’s own Bannerghatta national park is under severe threat. I had written earlier on dying lakes in the city. I sometimes go back fondly to my childhood, when after returning from school I would go to our terrace and watch some nesting sparrows, while waiting for flocks of green parakeets to fly to their roosts at sunset. Not surprisingly, the parakeets disappeared from Bangalore’s skies a long time ago. The greater shame is that the city does not even have space for its sparrows.

As an aside, it’s true that if you enjoy watching birds, you can never be bored. Just look at what this marine is up to in Iraq!


Srikanth said...

Do you know Madras (with its two rivers and lush forest) was once considered a garden city?

Sunil said...

yup, and the adayar estuary (that smelly giant sewerage river today) was a habitat for many critically endangered birds! You'll still see the odd egret fighting it out there.

Anonymous said...

Well I don't want to try and defend the sad state of some of the parks in India, but I do want to point out that there is a large and growing community of nature lovers here who are more and more aware of our natural wealth.

Wild places may be neglected by the authorities, but there have been efforts (by citizens) to preserve what's left. Okhla Bird Park in Delhi is an example. The protests in Goa against a major development plan is another. In Mumbai too, we protested against the sealink that's going to be built over Sewri's mudflats where many birds congregate.(

It's true that not all these efforts work, but there is hope that some things can change.

And parakeets have certainly not disappeared from Bangalore's skies. They are on the checklist of Bangalore's birds. The House Sparrow numbers have been worrisome, I agree. They have been declining in other metros in India as well.

About Borivli National Park not lasting the turn of the century--well, it's full of encroachments, but the forests are essential for Vihar and Tulsi Lake, which supply water to Mumbai. One hopes that the authorities won't forget this before destroying them.

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