Freedom is a bird taking to the skies

Photo: Alan Abraham/PETA

In recognising for our birds the fundamental right to ‘live with dignity’, the Delhi High Court has done a commendable job.

The rose-ringed parakeet sat dolefully on a window ledge. Like countless other birds raised in captivity, Shawnu couldn’t fly because his wing feathers had been clipped, condemning him to a life where he had to hop from one place to another. Which is why he sat on the wrong side of the window – inside a house, rather than outside perched on a tree or flying happily with his friends.

Rescued from a fortune teller by volunteers of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Mumbai, the rose-ringed parakeet was tiny, almost as if his growth had been stunted from spending a lifetime in a dingy cage the size of an iPad Mini. When anyone came close to Shawnu, he would fluff up his feathers, roll his eyes in fear and make an angry, throaty sound. He constantly groomed himself, to the point that his fragile body was dappled with bald, grey patches. This obsessive, repetitive behaviour called zoochosis is often seen in animals in captivity.

Who could blame Shawnu for being so angry and frightened of human beings? Although trade in indigenous bird species is banned in India, thousands of parakeets, munias and other birds are snatched from their forest homes and smuggled in atrocious conditions to different parts of the country and the world, destined to live a miserable life in captivity. Earlier this month, alarming pictures of yellow-crested cockatoos squeezed into plastic water bottles and smuggled from Indonesia were published online. The photos are truly horrific. The birds look like lifeless feather dusters shoved inside water bottles, their eyes glazed by the trauma. When I worked with PETA India, I came across appalling instances of cruelty to birds – from hornbills being used as roadside entertainment to munias being hawked at traffic signals and chicks being dunked in lurid colours to be sold at Rs 10 apiece.

 The Delhi HC gives ammunition to fight cruelty to birds. Photocredit: Alan Abraham/ PETA India

That is why the Delhi High Court’s observation on May 17 was a shot in the arm for the anti-trafficking movement. Justice Manmohan Singh said, “Birds have the fundamental right to ‘live with dignity’ and fly in the sky without being kept in cages or subjected to cruelty” and “running their trade was a violation of their rights”. It’s a fact that India has strong laws to protect wildlife. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 prohibits the trade in over 1,800 species of wild animals, plants and their derivatives, and so does the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

But ultimately, this violation of rights is down to our apathy and greed. Our desire for entrapping these winged beauties has led to centuries of torture and violence on birds. In his piece Animal Magnetism, evolutionary biologist David P Barash explores our obsession with watching animals and writes, “Animals in captivity might satisfy our desire to cross the existential barrier that separates us from other creatures”. He then goes on to point out, “But for sheer pleasure, there is little doubt that watching birds tops the list. Despite their dinosaur origins… birds are the most assiduously watched wild animals and for good reason: many of them are fantastically lovely, brightly coloured or gloriously iridescent”.

Indeed, there’s nothing more wonderful than watching a bird in the wild – whether it’s a pair of brown sparrows scratching in the dust, a serpent eagle perched majestically on a tree or an owl peeking out of her tree hole. And you don’t have to visit a forest to watch birds. On hot summer days like these, my mother leaves out a bowl of fresh water for birds on our window ledge, and parakeets, mynahs and sparrows swing by for a drink or two. I have spent many mornings standing in my balcony in Bangalore, watching kites soar gracefully above the cityscape.

In the introduction to his book Birds from My Window and the Antics They Get Up To, Ranjit Lal talks about urban bird life. He writes that he has been watching birds from his window and balcony for several years and finds it a “wonderful way of never having to get bored… Peacocks, bulbuls, babblers and sparrows are always at hand to distract him”. And then it’s not hard to understand, why the caged bird does not sing.

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