Wild animals were frequently reported in cities across India within weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown from March 25, 2020. To determine whether this was due to wildlife returning to urban habitats in the absence of human activity, or a result of people paying more attention to nature, scientists turned to birds.
Data from the citizen science platform, eBird, where observers log sightings, showed a 16% rise in the number of species spotted per birding ‘trip’ during March to April 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. A trip can be stationary, during which a user watches and identifies birds from the same spot, or travelling, in which a user goes from point A to B in search of birds.
During the lockdown, people took to watching birds from their homes. “We’d heard that there was a balcony birding phenomenon,” says Sumeet Gulati, professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada. This was reflected in the data he analysed.
The number of eBird users who were birding from the same spot rose the day after lockdown began. Predictably, travelling trips decreased.
Regardless of the type of birding session, the total number of species observed reduced during the lockdown. Gulati explains that this was because people were no longer travelling to birding hotspots.
The 16% spike in species diversity was observed during stationary trips, meaning people saw more birds in their urban neighbourhoods during the lockdown. The effect was evident in 20 densely populated cities, including Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi and Puducherry.
From the dataset of more than a million bird sightings, Gulati eliminated data from new users who had signed up on eBird during the lockdown for accurate pre- and post-lockdown comparisons.
It was in the second and third week after the lockdown that people started seeing a lot more species — not in the first week, says Gulati, attributing the spike to birds flocking to cities than to more people tuning into nature.
It’s not just that people saw more crows, pigeons or mynas, which are common in India, says Gulati. “People saw some species which are typically rare.”
For instance, the black-rumped flameback, a woodpecker, was frequently spotted in Bengaluru during the lockdown. It had not been reported in the city in 2019 or before the lockdown in 2020.
“I’ve only seen it in the forest,” says Gulati.
Other species, such as the black-headed ibis, though observed frequently in both years in Bengaluru, recorded more sightings during the 2020 lockdown than in the corresponding period of 2019.
“It’s clear now that it’s us keeping these species out of our own cities,” says Gulati. “We need to make our cities more friendly to our wildlife.” This can be achieved with policies aimed at reducing noise and air pollution, both of which had reduced during the lockdown. Studies have shown that light pollution disrupts the nesting cycle of birds and noise interferes with birdsong —essential to finding mates and defending territories.
Building a bird-friendly urban habitat is not only good for birds, but also for environmental and human health. In addition to being pollinators and seed-dispersers, birds keep insects and rodents in check.