Welcoming Visitors With Open Arms

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 9 2021
Echo Welcoming Visitors With Open Arms

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

 If you have noticed any unusual bird, a recent visitor, or a bird that you have not seen before in your garden or in the surrounding these days, the chances are high that it is a migratory bird. According to environmentalists, this is the season of migratory birds in our region. These visitors, known as migratory birds are those who migrate from one location to another in order to breed, feed, and raise their offspring.

 This natural phenomenon is also considered a natural miracle as birds fly thousands of kilometres in search of suitable environments. As we observe World Migratory Bird Day 2021 on 8 May and 9 October let us take a moment to understand the world of migratory birds in Sri Lanka. 

This year the theme of World Migratory Bird Day, ‘Sing, Fly, Soar – Like a bird!’ invites people from all over the world to appreciate migratory birds and reflect on their relationship with nature by listening to and watching birds. 

Focusing our attention on the migratory birds in Sri Lanka, we ought to think if these visitors are safe when they visit Sri Lanka. By safety meaning if they are protected by the law in Sri Lanka and how safe the natural environment of the country is for these birds. 

We also need to think about what measures we can take as the public, to be actively involved in contributing towards the protection of migratory birds. Therefore, we contacted Environmentalist and Environmental Lawyer Dr. Jagath Gunawardana, to know about the aspects with regard to the safety of migratory birds in Sri Lanka. 

How protected are they through Sri Lankan law enforcement? 

Dr. Gunawardana explained that all migrant birds that arrive in Sri Lanka are protected under Section 31 of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO). Therefore, it is an offence to kill, harm, injure, maim, capture or sell any migrant bird or sell any part of a migrant bird or keep one under custody or possess any migrant bird or any part of a migrant bird. 

It is also an offence to use any implement, device or substance to commit any of the above offences. He also said that there is a small list of five birds that are not protected and any other bird that is not listed there whether it is a resident or a migrant is protected. “This kind of listing is called ‘negative listing’. 

It helps law enforcement in a great way and it helps the migrant birds also in a big way because even if there is a migrant bird that has been hitherto not reported from Sri Lanka coming to this country for the first time it invariably gets protected the moment it enters our waters. And therefore, it gets the status of a protected bird as long as it remains in Sri Lanka,” he explained. The law is also extended to any species which are stragglers. 

“Stragglers are those who are normally not migrant birds but may come to Sri Lanka by some accident,” said Dr. Gunawardana. Even stragglers are protected under the provisions of Section 31 and vagrants are those are which have not yet been recorded in Sri Lanka or have been recorded only once or twice during the past. So, vagrants are usually migrants but have not yet been seen regularly occurring in this country. 

Even vagrants are protected under these provisions. “The Convention on Migratory Species has made it obligatory for member countries to protect species that have been listed in the appendixes of the convention,” said Dr. Gunawardana. “But Sri Lanka has gone much further in affording protection for all migrant birds including those which are vagrants and even birds that are stragglers to this country. 

Therefore, we not only fulfil obligations of the Convention on Migratory Species but we have also gone even further in granting all migrant birds protection within the country, including the territorial seas as long as they remain in our waters and our country.” As Dr. Gunawardana explained, this is a very positive step compared to some other countries, especially some European countries which still issue quotas to kill migratory birds that are passage migrants and certain other countries in Europe where small birds are killed in their thousands for meat. “But we don’t have such a hazard facing the migrant birds although there maybe small-scale poaching in a very miniscule way. There is no large-scale killing of birds for the past several decades.” 

Do we have a safe environment for these visitors? 

As Dr. Gunawardana explained, migrant birds arrive through two main routes. One is the Western migratory route and the other one is the Northern and Eastern migratory route. Those that come through the Western migratory route have their landfalls from Mannar down to about Panadura or even a little beyond. “We know that most of the area that comes from within the Western migratory route are heavily built up with highrise buildings and other manmade structures. In the night some of these birds are attracted to lights and they bang into the glass panes of buildings or either get injured or fall dead,” he explained. 

“That is one hazard that is faced by certain migrant species, especially slow fly migrants such as the Indian Pitta who comes rather late in the season.” As Dr. Gunawardana said the other thing is that most of these birds come in rather exhausted condition when entering the country. So, they need some space to rest. “Unless we have enough clean areas for the birds to rest for several days until they gather the strength to go to their usual habitats in the country, they will suffer a lot because they will be too exhausted to carry out their inland flight after they arrive in Sri Lanka,” he explained. 

Places to rest

 “So, this is also another thing that we have to think of to provide sanctuaries and other protected areas in the Western Province and near the coastal areas where birds can rest for a few days before they go inland.” At present, they have enough habitats in the Bolgoda system, the Bellanwila-Attidiya Wetland, the Muthurajawela marshes, the Negombo lagoon area, and other wetland habitats further north. “But if these areas are further decimated or degraded or destroyed, they will face a big issue when they come to this country and once again when they depart from the country. They congregate in the same places so they need such places for their influx and their departure. 

We have to think of maintaining some of the habitats, especially for the wetland birds near the western coastal areas.” He further said that these areas will also serve as tourist attractions and they will serve economic purposes in addition to the ecological role and services that may be provided by these habitats if we preserve them. 

What can we do to protect them? 

“Everyone can play a role in identifying, studying, and protecting migrant birds because we have an obligation to protect the migrant birds who come to this country,” said Dr. Gunawardana. 

Observe them 

“We still don’t know a lot about the behaviour of these migrant birds and even their first arrivals and their departure dates are not very much recorded,” explained Dr. Gunawardana. “Therefore, everyone can become a citizen scientist in recording the migrant birds when they see them. “I have found out from my own observational research for the past 50 years that migrant birds are indicators of the weather and climate conditions.

 So we are monitoring the arrival of migrants and their departure to get a picture of the forthcoming climatic conditions and the changes and the weather patterns which may occur,” said Dr. Gunawardana. Hence, migrant birds are in a way helpful to predict our future weather patterns. 

Some migrant birds have the habit of changing their behaviour before heavy rains. He further explained that the Asian Flycatcher has the habit of calling excitedly during the noon hours if there is rain coming within one or two hours. There may be a rare migrant coming into a totally unexpected location as it has happened in the past and therefore, keeping an eye on migrants and identifying what species comes into one’s neighbourhood is a citizen science project for one to follow which will add not only pleasure and knowledge but will also help gain new insights and new knowledge about the ecology and the behaviour of birds. 

Attract migrant birds to your garden

 As he explained we can keep a little wilderness in our home gardens because even urban home gardens can shelter several species of migrant birds. For instance, in Colombo wherever there is some greenery, migrant species such as the Asian Brown Flycatcher, the Forest Wagtail, and the Indian Paradise Flycatcher may be harboured if they come to this country. 

“The other thing that can be done is attract some of the migrant birds by providing them places to feed such as trees, flowering plants, or other sorts of trees that may attract different migrants. In urban home gardens, a shady area will attract the Forest Wagtail,” explained Dr. Gunawardana. As he further explained if there are tall trees they will attract species such as the Brown Flycatcher. And again, the same habitat with trees and bushes and shrubs will attract the Indian Paradise Flycatcher and the Indian Pitta. 

Providing them safer environments 

The feral cats that crawl in urban and suburban neighbourhoods are a threat to migrant birds. One can help the migrant birds to be in their home gardens by not helping the feral cat to have a dominant presence in their gardens because feral cats are very dangerous predators of some migrant birds, especially the Forest Wagtail and Indian Pitta.

 “I have seen the slow-moving Indian Pitta being preyed upon by cats in many neighbourhoods and that is one reason why they are not quite abundant in the urban and suburban areas, unlike those days where they were present in some urban areas,” concluded Dr. Gunawardana. 

Some of the migrant birds you may see in Colombo and suburb home gardens 

•     Forest Wagtail 

•     Asian Brown Flycatcher

 •     Indian Pitta 

•     Indian Paradise Flycatcher 

•     Blue-tailed Bee-eater 

•     Barn Swallow 

•     Crested Honey Buzzards

 (Pix courtesy Dr. Jagath Gunawardana)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 9 2021

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