World Wildlife Day 2020: Can India save its dying birds?
A report shows that 101 species of birds in India have been classified as ‘High conservation concern’. The greatest decline has been in the numbers of eagles, vultures, warblers, and migrating shorebirds. But the population of peafowl, the national bird, has increased significantly.
A report called the State of India’s birds was released on 17th February 2020, and the findings of the report require immediate attention, say conservationists. This is the country’s first comprehensive assessment of the distribution range, trends in abundance, and conservation status for most of the bird species that regularly occur in India.
The theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day is “Sustaining all life on earth”. This includes not just wildlife but all flora and fauna. 867 Indian bird species were assessed in this report, which shows that our birds are in overall decline. Many species show a downward trend in population, rather than an upward trend. This is of major concern as birds have a vital role in the health of ecosystems. “Birds are indicators of changes in the environment. Their presence or absence means one has to pay attention to the surroundings,” says J N Prasad, a contributor to the report who has been an avid bird watcher for over 20 years.
Declining bird populations
On an overall scale, the decline of the species in the long term outnumbers those increasing by 135 to 12 (a ratio of 11:1), and species declining currently (over the past 5 years) outnumber those increasing by 116 to 21 (a ratio of over 5 to 1). “Loss of habitat and lack of availability of food and shelter are the main causes for decline in bird populations,” says Prasad.
When the above data is combined with information supplemented by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) -- an international organisation working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources -- Red List categories, a total of 101 species are classified to be of High Conservation Concern for India. “This isn’t just a national phenomenon, this is a global cause for concern,” says Ulhas Anand who has been a bird watcher for about 30 years.
319 species are of Moderate Conservation Concern. Species groups that are faring particularly poorly (> 50% decline in the long term) include scavenging and open-country raptors, migratory shorebirds, gulls and terns, forest and grassland specialists, both long and short distance migrants, Western Ghats endemics, and carnivores.
Formulation of the report
Bird Count India was responsible for creating the State of India’s Birds report after having partnered with 10 organisations. Additionally, the report included over 10 million observations, drawn from sightings and meticulous notes made by over 15,000 professional birdwatchers through a portal called eBird -- adopted by Bird Count India -- a global, internet-based platform for collating observations of birds, and for birders to maintain records of their sightings.
“Continuous research, analysis, workshops and reviews took place to bring the report to life. The report went through independent reviews by experts from our country and abroad to bring the report to life,” says Praveen Jayadevan, Bird Count India Co-ordinator. “While some bird watchers submitted current data (since 2015), others came forward submitted data from nearly two decades ago. This gave us two kinds of trends, the historical kind and the current trend.”
Using these two factors, species of birds were categorised as high concern, medium concern, and low concern under conservation.
Species that have suffered the highest declines: White-rumped Vulture, Richard's Pipit, Indian Vulture, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Pacific Golden Plover, and Curlew Sandpiper.
Species whose numbers have increased: Rosy Starling, Feral Pigeon, Glossy Ibis, Plain Prinia, Ashy Prinia, Indian Peafowl.
These results point to particular ecological traits that increase species vulnerability. “If you take the Lal Bagh lake at Bangalore as an example, the Pied Kingfisher, a bird species which used to frequently visit the lake are now gone. Why? The lake is extremely polluted with sewage and drainage,” says Prasad.
Fruit eating birds (often called frugivores) and nectar feeding birds are affected. Even though the majority of India’s lands are under agriculture, the high usage of insecticides and pesticides reduces their access to their main source of food. “Nowadays people are very restrictive in sharing, there are few spaces to nest. Protein rich insects like caterpillars are inaccessible due to insecticides. What will they do for food?” asks Prasad. He added, “Since nectar feeding birds have shorter beaks and don’t have the curved beak long enough to go into a long flower, they are puncturing the base of the flower to obtain nectar. They are struggling to adapt.”
Birds can be predominantly found around wetlands, marshlands, shorelines, and forests. “Take the Pallikaranai marshland, the leftover 10 per cent is nothing compared to the 90 per cent occupied by humans. What do we call it? IT city,” points out Vinod Sadhasivan, a wildlife blogger and conservationist from Tamil Nadu.
Out of the 867 species analysed, 19 bird species native to Tamil Nadu are listed under conservation concern. Of these 19 species, 11 bird species -- some of which are Nilgiri Laughing thrush (Chilappan), Nilgiri Pipit, Nilgiri Sholakili, Indian Vulture (Southern region), Kashmir Flycatcher, and Red-necked Falcon -- are listed under the 101 species of birds that require high conservation concern.
When forests or grasslands take a hit, bird populations are directly affected. “Eagles and vultures are dependent on prey population, with lack of food their species overtime is affected,” says Vinod.
Over the last decade, there has been a visible correlation in wildlife habitat reduction and growth or development for human comforts. “Governments must preserve more lands for wilderness. In India, a mere 4 per cent is set aside for wildlife. Compare that with the 96 per cent that humans have taken up,” says Ulhas Anand, bird watcher for about 30 years.
“Eco-tourism is another culprit,” points out Vinod. While protected areas exist, the remaining lands are being put to commercial use. Birds need to migrate due to seasons, but nowadays, the face concrete jungles, point out experts. “Near the Western ghats and Kodaikanal falls, birds are disappearing. Real estate is entering every edge of forests under the tag eco-tourism.” Forest areas in Ooty and Coonoor and other hilly areas across the country are dramatically disappearing.
“Can we create more forests? No. Can we reserve more space for wilderness? Yes. Can we make lands more wildlife friendly? Yes,” says Ulhas Anand. Governments must take a look into making better use of reserved land rather than just focusing on increasing forests. “People also assume more forests means more wildlife. That isn’t true. Bringing in eucalyptus, wattle, and pine trees does not do any good for birds. These forests aren’t native to the soil and will not support birds that are reliant on fruits and nectar,” says Vinod.
Making changes on a local level
Continuously monitoring bird species, understanding the pattern in decline of a certain species, and spreading awareness are three major changes that can be adapted by the local public.
Addressing misinformation in social media is an important factor. While many believe that mobile radiation is the reason for the decline in the sparrow population, the report has not mentioned any such correlation. “Community awareness is needed in trying to correct myths and keeping oneself updated,” says Prasad.
“Placing nest boxes dependent on local species, say open-nests or ones with holes can help in restoring habitats. Additionally, small bird baths (water bowl-like structures) could help them get through summer,” says Ulhas Anand. “Education is an important aspect. Given that only a handful of people are interested, spreading the word and involving communities to step forward is key in species restoration.”