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March 2007
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Breakfast with Bulbuls - Tea with Tailor-Birds
By Nigar Ataulla

For the birds, Zafar Futehally is their best friend. For India and the world, Dr Futehally has a strong message… “we should be very cautious and not disturb nature.”

Bird watching has become popular in India. But rarely does one encounter someone who has dedicated his entire life to conservation of environment and the birds. Zafar Futehally, 86, is popular not just in the “bird-circles”, but across India and the world for his unflinching support for the welfare of birds. With a degree in Economics from the Bombay University, he accompa-nied his cousin Dr. Salim Ali, the famous Ornithologist to all the nature camps, and here he learnt the intricacies of handling birds. He kept track of the different species of birds. “A new bird was very recently discovered in Nagaland. It’s the Asian Babbler (Bugun Liocichla), “he says delightedly.

From 1962 to 1973, Futehally was the Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), a leading organisation in Asia and the only spokesman for conservation in India at that time. One of the things he achieved that was important for Bombay was the creation of the Karnala Bird Sanctuary, a remarkable evergreen forest patch 60 miles from Bombay. A large portion of the forest was earmarked for industrial development. But strong protests and intervention by Futehally, backed by the BNHS, put a stop to the government plans.

In 1969, he was called upon to start the World Wild Life Fund (WWF) and became its Honorary Secretary, while retaining his key position at the BNHS as well. However, in 1973, he decided to move to Bangalore. He was awarded the Salim Ali International award for Nature Conservation in 1997, primarily for his role in establishing the Karnala Bird Sanctuary and the Borivili National Park in Bombay. He was awarded with the Padmashri by the government of India in 1971, Rajyotsava Award (Karnataka) in 1983 and Order of the Golden Ark (Prince of the Netherlands) in 1981. He edited the Newsletter for Birdwatchers from its inception in 1959 till 2004. Today, Futehally is the Editor Emeritus of the journal- Indian Birds.

“I have done a great deal of bird-watching in my own garden. And it has always surprised me that a very small area, if leafy enough, will attract a large number of species even if it is surrounded by cement, steel and humanity. During the years I spent in my home in the suburbs of Bombay, the environment changed catastrophically from open country into urban slum. But our garden of one hectare remained as it always was of large native fruit trees with an under storey of flowering shrubs. It seemed something of a miracle that this garden continued to be a home - or transit camp to so many species of birds even after all the space in the neighbourhood had been stripped of vegetation, and planted instead with grim, grey multi-storeyed structures.

When my father bought the property in 1920, it was surrounded with rice fields dotted with palmyra and khajuri trees, while mango orchards proliferated throughout the suburbs. Gilbert Hill to the north of our compound was covered with shrubs which harboured partridge, quail, hare and jackals. About a kilometre away to the west was Juhu beach, and the intervening mud-flats washed by the tides was an ideal country for plovers and larks, gulls, curlews and whimbrel which favoured mango grove swamps. All this disappeared after Partition and the rush of people from the north, but the character of our garden, as well as its bird life, remained the same because it was essentially a tree garden. Fortunately for the birds, my parents were more interested in fruit than in aesthetics, so that the garden consisted of a mixture of trees of many species: mangoes, coconuts, tamarind, drumstick, jamun, chickoo, mulberry, star-berries, phalsa, cocum and figs. These provided sustenance and shelter for birds, and to quench their thirst, there was always the dripping tap with a puddle under it. The birds asked for nothing more.

Of the 8,600 or so species of birds in the world, there are about 1,200 in India. These are divided worldwide into 155 Families, and India has representatives from 78 Families. Of these, we had members of 30 in our garden - an impressive figure for such a small area. We had altogether about 60 species which treated our garden as a home during some part of the year. Some were there as permanent residents; some as native seasonal migrants; and some were foreigners who came south to avoid the harsh winters of the north.

A bird with which I was very close in more senses than one was the Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis). This black-and white bird belongs to the Turdinae Sub-family, of which there are 89 species in India. I once managed to catch a male and put a blue plastic identification ring round its leg, and so watched it for about seven years sure in the knowledge that it was the same bird. This male was a delightful songster and its 14-note call, when it had mastered the tune at the height of the breeding season in May, was unmatched for its quality. Song is the weapon which birds use for keeping their territory free from intruders, and according to nature’s plan, there was never more than one pair of Magpie-Robins in our garden. I feel I owe much to this bird because it was responsible for promoting my career as an amateur columnist on birds. In the early 1950s, there was a reporter in the Times of India who wrote about birds in the Sunday papers to make a side income. He once produced an article purporting to be on the Magpie-Robin, but which was a fanciful concoction of facts relating to the English Magpie (Pica pica) and our own local bird. As we know, their only common feature is the word ‘magpie’. This incensed Salim Ali, who wrote to the then editor, N.J. Nanporia, to stop publishing such rubbish. In turn, Nanporia asked Salim for suggestions about someone who could write about birds. That was the beginning of the ‘Bird-Watchers Diary’ which I wrote for many years,” recalls Futehally.

Sparrows in Bangalore have disappeared and Futehally says that it is because, earlier the traditional way of cleaning rice or wheat in the backyards of homes provided enough food for the sparrows, but now the trend of packed cleaned rice in plastic bags in super markets have deprived the sparrows of their food. “We humans better be careful or rather very cautious that we dare not disturb nature. I strongly wish that there should be a Federation of Bird Watchers in India which will serve as one voice to speak out and work towards the well being of birds,” he says. The book, India Through Its Birds, edited by Zafar Futehally was also released recently.

The pretty chirpy Mynahs keep dropping in to say hello to Futehally as he sips tea sitting in his Oakwood apartment in Bangalore. They know that here is their friend who will listen to their woes and share their joys!

(Zafar Futehally can be reached at