Flamingos and Mumbai: What the Emirates bird strike says about urbanisation | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Flamingos and Mumbai: What the Emirates bird strike says about urbanisation

ByDeepak Apte
May 22, 2024 08:49 AM IST

More detailed analysis is required on assigned and actual flight elevation and paths along with data on the flight altitude of flamingos

The tragic death of 39 flamingos that collided with an Emirates flight landing at the Mumbai airport stands testimony to the risks posed by migratory birds to aviation and the need for a proper understanding and mitigation measures for the same.

Flamingos typically migrate to Mumbai’s wetlands in the winter months(HT Photo)
Flamingos typically migrate to Mumbai’s wetlands in the winter months(HT Photo)

The incident seems to have occurred when conditions were ideal for the return journey of the migratory birds, as May 23 was full moon night. Usually, flamingos do not move between their feeding and resting areas at the altitude of 500-700 ft, the elevation at which the bird hit occurred, except during their inward and outward migratory movement. But more detailed analysis is required on assigned and actual flight elevation and paths along with data on the flight altitude of flamingos based on satellite-tagged birds to nail the exact cause of the accident and prevent such mishaps in future.

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Mumbai is a well-known and important site for migratory birds due to its extensive mudflats, which are favoured foraging areas for shorebirds. This makes the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport very vulnerable to bird hazards. The upcoming Navi Mumbai International Airport will be far more riskier in this regard, as it is nestled between some of the most important and high density resting and feeding sites of migratory birds. Thus, the new airport will require far more intensive monitoring of the movement of migratory birds as well as radars to detect them to avoid bird hits.

However, bird hazard or flamingo issues in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) cannot be understood unless one understands the larger seascape of the region.

The seascape of MMR contains some of the most important sites for migratory birds, including the Thane Creek (western part of the creek has been declared as Flamingo sanctuary), and mudflats around Sewri and Uran, which are foraging or feeding areas. Wetlands of the Training Ship Chanakya (TSC) and DPS, Non-Residential Indian (NRI) Complex Wetland, Panje Wetland, Belpada Wetland, Bhendkhal Wetland, and Bhandup Pumping Station (BPS) Wetland comprise high tide roosting sites. Locals also utilise these wetlands for fishing and salt farming, hence their water level is controlled by tide gates and pipe culverts. These wetlands are diverse in size, depth and distance from the shore as well as their surrounding habitat: Bhendkhal is a smallest (8 ha) and Panje is the largest wetland (124 ha); NRI complex and BPS wetlands are comparatively deeper than others; Belpada and BPS are relatively distant from the shore and embedded in mangroves whereas NRI, TSC and Bhendkhal are surrounded by human settlements. All these factors influence the composition and abundance of the waterbirds in the wetlands.

Also, the seascape of MMR has been changing rapidly over past few decades. Recent studies by Srushti Conservation Foundation clearly establish the link between expanding mudflats and mangroves in MMR with the increasing number of flamingos. Thus, three important aspects need to be understood with respect to bird hazard risks to aviation in the region.

1) Large migratory movement of birds i.e., inward and outward migration: As we know, Lesser Flamingos make annual movement between the MMR seascape and wetlands and coastal habitats in Gujarat (Bhavnagar, Jamnagar and Flamingo City region). Studies undertaken by BNHS while I was the director and thereafter clearly point to this movement pattern. Inward migration usually starts around October and peaks around January-February. Return migration starts around May and continues till June-July. The number of birds vary depending on the season and breeding in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat.

2) Highly dramatic nature of movement of birds between feeding and resting sites: Migratory birds use the mudflats of Sewri, Thane Creek and Uran as feeding areas, while other wetlands serve as resting or roosting areas. The most important part is thus to understand how these migratory birds including flamingos use this larger seascape for movement between feeding and resting areas. It is also important to understand that feeding and resting times change each day with change in tide times. Thus, for any bird hazard-related mitigation, precise understanding of tide time and bird movement is absolutely vital.

3) Habitat squeeze: Several important wetlands in MMR are either degraded or completely lost due to changes in land use. This is squeezing a large number of birds into smaller and smaller areas, which increases their flock size and affects their movement pattern.

Thus, avoiding aviation risks due to birds and conservation of birds per se will require a more holistic, seascape-level approach.

(Deepak Apte is managing director, Srushti Conservation Foundation, and former director of the Bombay Natural History Society)

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