Who can be more farmer friendly than birds?

“Wow! It’s a beautiful bird. But why do we need birds?”

This was a question asked to me by few colleagues. I pointed at a bird, a bee eater and told them that it is an insectivorous bird and it feeds on insects. I thought let me do a back of the envelop calculation about the utility of these birds to instill some sense in my colleagues.

I have seen bee-eaters consuming about one insect per minute. However it is not fair to assume them to work at their rated capacity. In office we spend time in moving around various desks, sipping tea, stretching legs, phonecalls and ofcourse meetings. Though the birds are not bogged down by these kind of factors that afflict our performance, let’s assume that the bee eater consumes one insect every five minutes giving allowances for finding insects, calling, fighting with others of their ilk etc etc. This will give the lowest number as opposed to our dams and infrastructure projects that claim much more than they deliver.

• Assume a 10 hour working day (well they don’t have any labour laws)
• So a typical work day can see a green bee eater catching and eating 10*12=120 insects per day.
• In the forest the Bee-eater density is roughly about 5-6 per hectare (again approximation).
• So the number of insects consumed = 600 to 720 per hectare per day.
• Monthly consumption = 18000 to 21600 per month
• You can find about 30-40 insectivorous birds like Shrikes, Drongos, Flycatchers, Warblers etc. in a patch of forest land. So you can make your own estimations and sensitivity analyses.

Imagine what will happen if the insects are not eaten by birds…

There are birds like the Rosy Pastor and the Himalayan Starling who are winter visitors in India. These little birds possess scissor like beaks. They love to kill locusts. When ever they find a swarm of locusts, the finish of a swarm in no time.

My colleague interrupts me to say that “Ohh! So these birds act like pesticides?”

I said, as a kid we were taught that prevention is better than cure. And these birds already know that. A major difference in pest contol between the pesticide method and through birds is that the birds don’t allow build up of pests to a big level. The Rosy Pastor and the Himalayan Starling love to feed on the locust hoppers and prevent them from growing into winged adult locusts.

Some time back, when I was in my village I was taking a stroll in the paddy fields. I observed that wherever there is a pole or bamboo near the paddy field, there was a drongo or a blue jay perched on it. In one of the fields I found lot of drongos and was told by the farmer that these drongos can detect the presence of worms and feed on them. Traditional fields had lots of trees near by to act as a perch for the drongos and other birds. Today, the number of trees and plants can be counted on your finger tips and hence we fail to harness the power of our little winged friends.

If the habitat of these birds is destroyed, then the birds will disappear. In such a scenario, the yield of crops would be lower due to the sudden increase in the insects. In a country, whose economy is still dependent on agriculture, can we ignore the importance of the birds? Who can be more farmer friendly then these birds?

I am not sure whether our farmers clearly track the costs associated with the use of pesticides for pest control and the benefits of birds in reducing their costs and improving their yields. Most of the farmers use the information regarding cost and effectiveness of the pesticides provided by the chemical companies. It is important to educate the farmers and remind them about the effectiveness of birds.

The farmers can make their fields more bird friendly by provide perches for foraging, like tall plants or tall objects like sticks, natural vegetation like shrubs and small water holes or ponds. Natural vegetation provides cover and food for birds. And of course, the protection of these birds by the farmers is also important. These simple acts will help in bringing the birds closer to the farmers and help in pest control.

The birds also perform the role of enriching the soil through their droppings. In the fields bordering bird sanctuaries like Neelapattu and Uppalapadu in Andhra Pradesh, Vedanthangal in Tamil Nadu, Bharatpur in Rajasthan to name a few, the bird droppings enrich the soil. The water carrying the bird droppings flowing to the fields bordering the bird sanctuaries gives a very high yield. Farmers need not use any synthetic fertillisers in these places.

In places like Telineelapuram in Andhra Pradesh the arrival of Painted Storks in the village is taken as an auspicious day. However, not all members of India's huge farming community remember or understand the utility of birds. It is time to educate our farming community about the benefits of having birds around us.