Mumbai’s diverse natural habitats are conducive for bird diversity, making a strong case for protecting the landscape.Around 234 bird species were spotted this year in Mumbai as part of popular birdwatching event, the Mumbai Bird Race. Birdwatching events are a stepping stone to awareness about ecology.Bird observations also offer an insight into the status of the environment, like increasing pollution levels and drought.Crowdsourced data collected in events like the India Bird Race and Great Backyard Bird Count inform conservation efforts and can be used as evidence to influence policy. Early on a Sunday morning, before the sun had even risen, hundreds of Mumbaikars stumbled out of their beds. They went crisscrossing through the city and then flocked to certain spots, where they were seen craning their necks towards trees, in near silence. It was unexpected for Mumbai – a gathering of people and yet, the sounds of morning birds were louder than the sounds of humans themselves. But the cheeping, whistling and gurgling sounds were exactly what these groups of people had woken up for – these were birding enthusiasts racing through the concrete jungle trying to spot as many avian species as they could, as part of India Bird Race, a multi-city birding event that took place in Mumbai on February 10. At Bhandup Pumping Station, off the Eastern Express Highway, we walk past the salt pans and the electricity poles on one side and a sewage treatment plant on the other and land up at what is one of the hotspots for birding in Mumbai. “Rosy starling,” whispers the team leader, Tushar Nidambur, as a cluster of the noisy, rose-pink and black birds makes its way to a flowering thicket for breakfast. For a first-time birdwatcher, it seems hard to wrap one’s head around how the location of one of the city’s main sewage treatment plants attracts birds. “This area in fact has a variety of habitats – scrubland, grassland, wetland, mangroves – which make an ideal mix of habitats to spot more birds,” said expert birder Nidambur, revealing what’s perhaps the key to an event like the India Bird Race – cover more habitats to spot more birds. Within a few hours, Tushar and his team comprising Sanjeev Jain and novice bird-watcher Suvrat Jain had noted more than 65 bird species at the Bhandup Pumping Station alone, ranging from the ubiquitous house crow to the fascinating bird of prey, the marsh harrier, as well as waders such as ducks, egrets and gulls that have found a sanctuary where the wastewater channel goes on to meet the Thane creek. The area, once fading towards degradation, has been revived over the recent years with efforts by activists, NGOs like Vanashakti and the state’s Mangrove Cell. Participants of the 2019 India Bird Race scan a beach for shorebirds in the Mumbai metropolitan region. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli. The Mumbai Bird Race, started in 2005, has now grown into a nation-wide event across 13 cities this year where birding enthusiasts, including many first-timers, participate to spot as many birds as they can, within a single day, from dawn to dusk, in their respective cities. In Mumbai alone, the Bird Race this year saw over 350 participants who covered the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region during the course of the day and spotted at least 234 bird species across the region. For the urban jungle that is Mumbai, associated frequently with the less pleasant bird species like pigeons and crows, it’s a revealing figure of the biodiversity that even a densely populated city can hold. “Bird species seen in Mumbai are around 20 percent of total bird species in the country,” said Nidambur, an active birder for 13 years who has been participating in the Mumbai Bird Race right since its inception. Around the same time as the India Bird Race takes place across the country, there are other events like the Great Backyard Bird Count India, conducted for four days each February, which encourage birders and even first-timers to step out into their immediate environment and record the avian residents of the city. Mumbai, the urban nest Alongside skyscrapers, malls and industries, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, covering over 4,000 square kilometres, also houses a variety of natural habitats that make it conducive for birds and biodiversity to thrive. As per data currently recorded on the eBird monitoring app, hotspots in Mumbai, based on the variety of species include Sewri Jetty, Mahim Nature Park, Lokhandwala Lake, Bombay Veterinary College Campus and the Mumbai Port Trust (BPT) Park – all right in the midst of the bustling metropolis. Naturalist and bird expert Sunjoy Monga, coordinator of the India Bird Race, elaborated that, “on an average, any city in India would have about 160-200 bird species. But some have more because either they lie in important migratory pathways or have varied habitats. Mumbai benefits from its location and its biogeographical positioning – we’ve got the hilly areas of the Sahyadris nearby and adjoining mountain ranges, different types of forests, freshwater wetlands, we had grass and scrub, mangrove trees and tidal estuaries and of course the coastal area also.” Monga added that Mumbai’s built-up city itself can be considered as a landscape attractive to birds, with “lots of garbage dumps which are a sort of bonanza for birds”. Black kites cover the sky near a garbage dump in Mumbai. The population of some birds such as black kites has increased due to the increase in garbage. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli. “All of that sort of hotchpotch of habitats conspires to create conditions where there is a lot of diversity of birds, of which some birds benefit more and are more in numbers. And then there some which are lesser numbers because it all depends on how they can exploit the food sources and the various ecological advantages they can take,” he told Mongabay-India. In this year’s Mumbai Bird Race, more than 90 species of birds were spotted in urban precincts itself. However, more birds isn’t necessarily an indicator of a healthy environment. In fact, the kind of birds observed could be an indicator of higher pollution and garbage – of something that is not right. “You are watching these beautiful creatures on dirt and filth. They are there only because they can manage to find their sustenance there. It robs away from the essence of that natural feel, of the design of ecology,” said Monga. While in terms of numbers it’s great to see lakhs of birds on garbage, it is not the ideal scenario one would want, he emphasises.