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It’s astonishing to what extent some birds go in order to survive, what they’re willing to put up with. Take the black-headed and brown-headed gulls that fly down to the Yamuna in Delhi, and other water bodies all around India in winter. They breed in the pristine high-altitude regions of Ladakh and further north, on sapphire lakes or nutrient-rich bogs, where they bring up their babies. You would imagine that they would be fussy about water purity and air pollution and the quality of their food, but no! They are quite happy to fly down and spend four to six months on the foamy and toxic sludge that is the Yamuna. Here, they wait for people to throw them junk food upon which they fall like it were manna from heaven.
They’re attractive birds, angelic white or pearl-grey in this season. The brown-headed gull has tell-tale white wing mirrors on black wing-tips, the black-headed is pearly grey, with a pure white leading edge to its wings, and is a little smaller. It’s only by around February that their heads begin turning black or coffee-brown. Their bills are red. They have a languorous way of flying but can jink and dive with heart-stopping suddenness in order not to miss a flying morsel, or attempt to rob a fellow gull. They have learned to come when called; stand on a bridge or at the river bank or a sea wall and yell “aao-aao-aao’”and in no time you will be surrounded by a maelstrom of gulls, diving and swerving and calling querulously at each other. They have rather benign-looking faces, but if you look deep into their eyes you will notice an implacable, glacial glint: here is a bird that is all for itself, and that will show no mercy. I once watched a Pallas’s gull, a whopper of a bird, flap languidly over the main water body of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park. There was an icy, nonchalant menace about it which chilled the blood: the way it angled its great head as it flew, with easy, deep wing-beats over the massed, nervous ducks, coots and moorhens, circumambulating the water body several times before suddenly vanishing; a grim reaper in brownish-white – promising to be back at any time!
All over the world, gulls have learned to adapt. Their favourite food at one time may have been fish, but then they learned to follow fishing trawlers, which threw a lot of what they caught back into the sea. So they followed us like a flock of hustlers, and on land discovered that buffet with a limitless choice of junk food — the landfill and garbage dump. Tragically, they’ve also developed a nose for plastic: more accurately, they always had a nose for the odour of dimethyl sulphide, a distinctly marine smell given off when microscopic organisms eat algae. Seagulls follow this odour because it usually leads to large areas of plankton. The vast quantities of plastic we dump in the ocean apparently provide a hard and suitable surface for the algae and plankton to grow on so that the plastic starts smelling like dimethyl sulphide, which attract the birds, mistaking it for food. Further consequences could not be pretty or pleasant.
A long time ago, when I lived in Bombay, I used to watch and photograph the gulls that flocked to Marine Drive every winter. They would congregate opposite a working women’s hostel and it was here that I turned up with binoculars and camera with a telephoto lens, attempting to catch them in flight. I used black-and-white film and if you put a red filter on you’d get a pitch-black sky, with these blazing white birds standing out stunningly. Select a slow shutter speed like 1/30 or 1/60 of a second and you’d blur the motion of their wing-beats very pleasingly. Though it was a hit-and-miss operation, it was worth trying for the odd, astonishing image. I was, of course, hugely lucky that cops in Bombay in those days generally left you alone. Otherwise, there could have been trouble. A conversation with a busybody cop would have gone like this: ‘Abbe, kya kar rahe ho? (Hey, what are you doing?)’ ‘Gulls dekh raha hoon, unke tasveer kheench raha ho (I’m watching gulls and taking pictures of them!)’ ‘Abbe saala, sharam nahin aa raha hain? Chhokri dekh raha hain!
Chhokri ka tasveer kheench raha hain! Chal thane! (Hey aren’t you ashamed? Watching girls! Taking pictures of them! Come to the police station!)’
Here in Delhi, large flocks congregate along the Yamuna every winter, and I can only assume they come here because they’re hooked on to junk food and offal. It’s one of those quirky tricks of nature that birds eating such bilge and filth are clad in such pristine white glad rags. It would, of course, be even nicer to think that all the people stopping by to feed them do so because they appreciate the birds’ beauty and grace and not because they’re hoping to win brownie points with the guy up there.