Even in a bustling city like Chennai (south India) one can come across small pockets of greenery. Among the less noted ones is the Madras Christian College Campus in East Tambaram. I recall with a tremendous sense of nostalgia the days and nights I used to wander along the many footpaths that criss-cross this amazing piece of green land in the late seventies and early eighties. I am also now amazed at the amount of bird and insect life I have recorded in the small pocket diaries I used to carry during those days. I have among my old papers a short write-up – among the many such–of those days that I presented as a record of natural history activities at one of our monthly get-togethers in Trivandrum–that small town tucked away deep down in south India . We had a small group of enthusiastic naturalists and amateur birdwatchers and our society was registered as the Kerala Natural History Society, presided over by none other than the pioneer of bird study in our part of the world—Prof K.K. Neelakantan (@ Induchoodan). Among the many field activities of our society was this monthly meeting at every last Saturdays of each month when we shared notes and reports. As a youngster I used to look forward eagerly to these evenings. I have now before me one of my early papers where in I had waxed eloquent about the Madras Christian College Campus. These days when we celebrate Wild Life Week and World Bird Watch Day, it is in the scheme of things that we also cast a backward glance at our past.
This beautiful campus situated about 15 kilometers south of Madras is an interesting place for the bird watcher. Indeed he can spend days on end wandering through the many forest footpaths or tracks that run through the 300 acre scrub and thorny jungle. Continuous with the Vandalur reserve forest, this wonderful piece of wilderness was once mostly undisturbed except for occasional clearings for the college buildings, hostels, playground etc. In fact it is in and around the clearings that the amateur bird watcher spots his heart’s desire.
Large flocks of white browed Bulbul (Pycnonotus luteolus) occur near the footpaths or among adjacent bushes searching for food, frequently bursting forth into loud rattling calls. The Indian Robin (Saxicoloides fulicata) with its conspicuous wing-patch and rusty red under-tail coverts frequents the fringe of the jungle and open grassy patches. It is a more quiet bird. By far the most widely distributed and fairly commonly seen bird of the campus is the Indian Spotted Dove. Apart from these the more vociferous and vocal birds of the early dawns and late evenings are the Ioras, the Coppersmith Barbets, the Red Vented and Red Whiskered Bulbuls, and the White headed Babblers.
Hoopoe and the Black Drongos are found around the tennis courts and the cricket grounds. I have come across many a cup-shaped nest on a forking branch often about 20 feet off the ground, with the Drongo parent bird sitting on its eggs, tail hanging limply over the edge!
I did frequently meet with the shy and silent Green Billed Malkoha (Rhopodytes viridirostris) in the thick scrub bordering the cricket grounds. It was seldom seen in the open, always skulking in the bushes, much a Crow Pheasant, but never once descending to the ground. One hot summer midday, seeing a long, graduated, white tail disappearing into a bush, I moved closer quietly to investigate. And the bird froze. The heavy bright and green bill and the sky blue eye patch confirmed its identity. The bird is really good and adept at disappearing rapidly through the bushes.
Another bird of the thorny bush was the Common Hawk Cuckoo (Cuculus varius). One day hearing its loud screams rising in crescendo I hastened to the spot. The bird the size of a pigeon, but more slender and with broadly barred tail was perching on an exposed branch. Its cry rose: brainfever…brainfever…brainfever….Suddenly on catching sight of me the scream stopped halfway. The bird watched me for some time and then with heavy wing beats flew off in to the next bush.
The pied crested Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus) is a local migrant in these parts. I usually met with this beautiful black and white bird that haunted the open thorny patch on the western edge of the campus. It is not normally a shy bird and is really quite a handsome sight with its black crest. I have often listened to its metallic call peepipiu…ringing across the fields. Once or twice I have recorded the Grey Patridge and Blackbreasted Rain Quail.
Further west in the campus there was a great Baya Colony on palm trees. This was a centre of great activity. The entire palm was covered with quaint hanging nests—a remarkable sign of instinct and craftsmanship. Unfortunately I was never able to record a whole day’s activity under the bustling colony. However I could observe some interesting factors in their community life. I remember having collected a number of half completed and discarded nests. In those days I did not understand the significance of these thrown away nests. Much later I came to understand how the males first began the nest-building activity; when it was half completed the female would join him and together they would complete it. However, if by any chance there were no female takers the male abandoned the half done nest and moves on to the next.
There are no records of the Common or Jungle Crows or the otherwise ubiquitous Small Green Barbet anywhere in my notes of those days. They are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps that would go a long way to establish the pristine quality of the campus of those day—with little debris or garbage! Among the other birds I have recorded are the following–
Golden backed woodpecker
Rose ringed parakeet
Black headed Oriole
Brahminy or Black headed myna
I have recorded that on 14th June 1979 early dawn while I was just entering the campus from its eastern gate I heard a harsh croak of a Night Heron to my right. The bird was apparently sitting on a low branch of a thorny tree spreading over the path from the left and disturbed by my sudden appearance had taken off to my right where there was a big patch of thick undergrowth and thorn. (Much later when I published my first volume of poetry I titled it Night Heron) Cautious, watching my steps, I tried to follow the bird, but then found it wasn’t necessary. Even from where I stood I could spy the swaying tops of the trees that were virtually covered with roosting birds. There were Pond Herons (Ardeola grayii) Little Egrets(Egretta garzetta) Night Herons(Nycticorax nycticorax) and to my pleasant surprise the Indian Reef Herons(Egretta gularis). I cannot find any records of having sighted any Bitterns among them. However I recall that the entire place was reeking of the heavy stench from their smelly white droppings!
On the 29th of June 79 evening at around 6 pm I saw a large flock of Night Herons flying over Tambaram in the direction of Chengalpet lake. So it appeared that as the diurnal birds like the Pond herons and egrets return by evening to roost the Night Herons take off from their roosting place inside the campus, and they settle down for their rest only during the day.
These notes bespeak of those wonderful days of bird-watching I did in what appeared to be an unending campus of delight for me then. Even in the midst of a fast developing city and an equally fast depleting wilderness one could find solace at the thought of such small green pockets. They survive as memory. But just imagine the plight of its feathered denizens. Perhaps they are forced to seek out other dwellings or quietly succumb to the pressures of urbanization and perish. When we celebrate these wildlife weeks and bird-watch days it is time for us to remember what we did, have done, and are doing. As the Upanishad says: krato smara, krtam smara—remember what has been done. And finally perhaps, what we can do is to take measures to protect and preserve what we are left with— and to give it a personal responsibility let’s call it my beloved wilderness!