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For the love of vultures

 Shiv Kapila |  2015-05-24 02:41:23.0  |  New Delhi

For the love of vultures

Of all the interactions between birds and man, the most oft remembered, sometimes the only example that comes to mind, is of the poor canary accompanying a <g data-gr-id="32">miner</g> down a pit. However, there are many more illustrious cases where birdlife has not only been beneficial to mankind, but of crucial importance.

For millennia birds have been used, regularly exploited, out of necessity. The use of wild raptors to hunt(falconry) began over 4,500 years ago, about the time when the great pyramids were being built, in Persia. It’s a lot easier to catch a bird once and train it, than it is to catch several rabbits every day, year in, year out. For <g data-gr-id="48">centuries</g> this was the only way to get protein, especially in the Mongolian steppes, where hunting hares, foxes and wolves for this very purpose is still done today. 

 Falconry is now experiencing a huge resurgence, purely for the sake of watching a spectacular flight, using techniques and equipment that was perfected before any major modern religion cropped up. Cormorants have been used similarly in China, as controlled fishermen, but sadly this is now very rare.

In modern history, birds have also performed admirably: seagulls and albatrosses seeing in the open ocean are a sure signal of land nearby; pigeons have been trained to relay secret messages during war, with very significant results; vultures are used to dispose of the dead in <g data-gr-id="41">Pharsi</g> and Tibetan culture. Trained falcons are used to keep pigeons away from skyscrapers, gulls from airports, and crows away from Wimbledon during the tennis!

Their ecological importance is unfortunately <g data-gr-id="45">underappreciated,</g> and often damaged by our activities. Every September, millions of birds of thousands of species migrate south, to warmer latitudes. These form a huge army, arriving to control insects, rodents and other birds that would otherwise become pests. They pollinate crops, flowers and trees, spread seeds and their natural fertiliser. They are often shot or trapped before even getting halfway. Bird hunting has been a sport in the Mediterranean and Egypt since guns were invented; falcons have been trapped in huge numbers for food very recently, and Queleas (a tiny finch in Africa that follows the rains) are poisoned by the million. Vultures in both Asia and Africa are being killed off at a remarkable rate, greatly reducing their collective function as savannah-cleaners.

But of <g data-gr-id="36">course</g> what we really value, is food. Chicken, duck, goose, turkey, quail...even ostrich: it seems unlikely that life can be tolerated, let alone enjoyed, without one of those on a plate nearby. Fowl were one day domesticated, now they feed the world. Birds can live on without us, but surely, we wouldn’t last long without them.

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