On a plot of marsh next to a half-constructed building in Guwahati’s Ulubari market, crows and egrets peck at offal discarded by the meat shops. A pack of dogs has made the building their home, loitering on the stairs and landings.

Every afternoon at around 3, a well-built man named Khunu Ali makes his way through the municipality building carrying a drum with scraps of meat. As he tosses the pieces into the air, a greater adjutant stork swoops down from a high-rise building and catches them with guile. Soon, three or four more storks join in.

Until the late 2000s, the Ulubari market, teeming with fishmongers, butchers and vegetable vendors, was home to a large population of greater adjutant storks. Known as hargilla (or “bone-swallower”) in Assamese, the adjutant is a globally threatened species whose numbers are on the decline in its habitats in South and Southeast Asia with the swamps where it lives being drained and the large trees on which it nests being felled.

Once so abundant that they featured on the emblem of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation in the 19th century, the birds are now only found in a small part of their former range. Ali has been feeding the storks for the last six years. “They were common here when the market was vibrant,” he said. “The fishmongers fed them, and so did two of my older friends. Storks get hungry too.”

An unusual sight

Bird feeding is a common sight around the world. In India, as in other many places, interdependence between people, birds and other wildlife are crucial elements of urban life. The practice challenges the commonly held idea that nature must be pristine, cordoned off from human activity. The practices and ecologies seen in Ulubari and other parts of the world are a reminder that urbanisation also involves an urbanisation of nature.

In many parts of the West, bird feeding has been commercialised. The United Kingdom, for instance, has a wild bird-seed industry that has moved from crumbs to corporations, becoming a multimillion-pound enterprise.

However, though bird feeding is a common practice, it is laden with tensions. In many places across the world, feeding certain birds is prohibited – gulls in the seaside being a prime example. Birds become bold, and sometimes even labeled a nuisance. Some conservation biologists argue that feeding increases the risk of disease transmission in bird populations.

Ali’s activities are in a sense ordinary, reflecting a common feature of metropolitan life throughout the world. Yet, his actions are also exceptional: adjutant storks descending from high-rises to be fed could not be more different from pigeons in a square or plaza. “They sometimes even come and feed from my hand,” Ali said.

The story of the Ulubari hargillas is a story of decline, one that coincides with urban regeneration and gentrification. In 1995, according to a survey conducted in the area, Ulubari had 26 storks. “There used to be large numbers of storks here,” said Rofiq Rehman, who has run a shop in the Ulubari market for the last 35 years, selling diyas, wool and cloth. But by 2008, as the swamp was drained by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation to build a shopping complex, their numbers declined.

“Shopkeepers moved out, the amount of waste from fish and chicken came down, and there wasn’t much for the storks to eat,” said Rehman.

Long-time residents recall that there used to be around 60-70 shops in the market area selling a range of commodities. Fish used to be a highlight of the market before shops selling broiler chicken began to dominate in the early 2000s. It was fish offal, and the ready availability of roosting trees, that attracted the hargillas back then.

In 2020, Arunav Baruah, a filmmaker and resident of Ulubari, estimated their numbers to be about 12.

The relocation of the Ulubari fish market to BK Kakati Road, half a kilometre away, transformed the urban ecology. Both, the livelihoods of the people and the feeding ground for the greater adjutants were unsettled.

Khunu Ali, the Ulubari resident who feeds the storks, was a professional gym instructor for 14 years. He now works with an electrical contractor, pitching tenders. As a child, hargillas were a prominent feature of Ulubari. “They were everywhere,’’ Ali said. On his way to school, he would see hargillas roosting atop trees. When he was a teenager, Ali and his friends would notice Bipul Khaklari, an older shopkeeper, regularly feeding the hargillas offal.

Ali’s zeal for feeding hargillas was on display during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. Everything was closed, there was little waste being generated and the few birds that remained in Ulubari hardly had anything to eat. Ali got special permission from the police to come and feed the hargillas. He told the local butchers to put aside one drum of offal every day. “I came every afternoon, come what may,” Ali said, “and the number of birds rose from one to 19.”

The adjutants in Ulubari recognise Ali. “Aah aah aah aah,” he calls out, as he places the offal on the concrete floor. Come, come, come, come,

It isn’t only in Ulubari that the decline of Guwahati’s hargillas is visible. The birds were also found in the Borsola and Sorusola beels or wetlands in Paltanbazar, not far from Ulubari. Their numbers came down there too as the wetland was squeezed dry by housing projects and a major fish market relocated to the outskirts of the city.

Other sites that hosted adjutant storks in Guwahati such as the Silsako wetland have witnessed a similar decline, aggravated by the drainage of swamps spurred by home construction.

Nowadays, their major haunt is the city’s main dumping ground near Deepor Beel. Early Birds, a conservation non-profit in the city that has been conducting a census of the city’s storks since 2002, put their number at 300-odd birds in 2021.

Led by Moloy Baruah, one of Assam’s pioneering environmentalists, Early Birds have planted trees throughout the city to provide roosts for the birds. There have also been concerted efforts by Aaranyak, a biodiversity conservation organisation, to preserve the breeding colonies of hargillas located on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, a few kilometers from the city

As wetlands throughout Guwahati have been drained, fish markets have been gradually eased out and trees where the birds roosted have been cut, the question we must confront is what kinds of urban nature – and with them urban practices – are we willing to foster? Herein lies a challenge facing cities today.

Ali’s actions unfold both along and against the grain of planning and expert designs. There is much to be gained from such ordinary practice. It is a small, but by no means insignificant, step towards undoing the forces that render the urban uninhabitable, whether for people or storks.

Aditya Ranjan Pathak is a Research Associate with the ERC Urban Ecologies research project based at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore and University of Cambridge, UK.

Maan Barua is an University Lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge, UK, and is the Principal Investigator on the ERC Urban Ecologies project.

Research for this article was enabled by the European Research Council’s Horizon 2020 Starting Grant (no. 759239), entitled “Urban Ecologies: Governing Nonhuman Life in Global Cities”.