Wildlife & Biodiversity

World Migratory Birds Day: Save the gulls of the Sangam

Siberian gulls, who migrate to the Triveni Sangam in winter, die because of eating plastic; their habits also change when tourists feed them

By Tripti Shukla
Published: Friday 08 May 2020

Gulls hover around a pilgrim boat at the Sangam. Photo: Tripti Shukla The Triveni Sangam, for which Prayagraj is known, is the union of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswati. The confluence point is sacred to millions of Hindus worldwide and also the site of the Mahakumbh.

Every year, a crowd of about 80 million pilgrims arrive here during the Magh (11th month of the Hindu calendar, corresponding to the months of January / February) mela and spend the entire month in prayers.

Coinciding with the vast gathering of pilgrims, the site welcomes flocks of Siberian seagulls (Larus sp.) who migrate to the subcontinent to escape the harsh Siberian weather.

These migratory birds usually leave the higher latitudes in winter, and migrate to move from areas of low resources to areas of high resources, especially in search for food and nesting locations.

The presence of numerous birds bobbing up and down presents a mesmerising view as if waiting to take holy dip along with the lakhs of pilgrims. According to the local community, the tradition of migratory birds coming to Sangam is an old one.

As the birds flock in the thousands, they are often fed by pilgrims who arrive to bathe in the river. With the increase in tourists, the boat operators have started to lure the migratory birds with balls of flour. This attracts the birds all around the boat, greatly delighting the people sitting inside.

These migratory birds face many threats, not only from natural predators but increasingly from anthropogenic activities like feeding them junk food and items that are packed in plastics which are then discarded carelessly. Confusing plastic waste with food, it fills their guts, causing them to starve and also harm their chicks.

According to a media report, seagulls gain muscle by eating fish and other insects that are rich in protein. But the junk food they are fed with, becomes an obstacle when they have to migrate back, as it does not provide anything but fats, creating indigestion and other illnesses in their bodies.

Some studies have also highlighted changes in the behaviour of these migratory birds where there have been reports of seagulls attacking humans who feed them. 

A Siberian gull eating plastic at the Sangam. Photo: Tripti ShuklaThe whole world is choking on plastic and so too are birds. An assessment of Paulson Institute, Chicago published in 2019, stresses that nearly 1 million seabirds die off due to the effects of plastic every year.

Having wings does not help birds escape the threat of plastic. Imagine how many of these tiny lives are lost every day that we do not even know about.

Our study suggests that improving waste management would directly benefit biodiversity. Single use plastic under 50 microns is banned in the state of Uttar Pradesh since the year 2018 and also under the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), yet the hurdle of convincing crowds has to be dealt with.

There are several other actions we can take, such as reducing plastic used in packaging, proper discarding of fishing nets and rings along with raising awareness on a local level.

This World Migratory Birds Day 2020 is a chance to stop plastic pollution and irresponsible tourism by highlighting its negative effects on migratory birds. It needs special attention to address this rapidly growing environmental concern.

Let us treat them with love and care. After all, they are our guests and we were taught "Atithi devo bhava" — meaning ‘guest is equivalent to god’.

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