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Among dwindling numbers, some bright spots for India’s birds

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17 Feb 2020
Among dwindling numbers, some bright spots for India’s birds

Powered by citizen science, the State of India’s Birds report calls for conservation efforts to save India’s aves.

With about 1300 species, India is among the top ten countries with the most avian diversity. But, if you grew up in one of the six metro cities, you might have seen a few crows and pigeons and might wonder where have all these birds gone. Most of India’s bird numbers have plummeted to new lows in the last two decades, reveals a new report titled State of India’s Birds. Released during the 13th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species, Gandhinagar, the report finds that raptors, migratory birds, water birds and those that need unique habitats have seen a decline in their numbers. The silver lining, however, is that India has more peacocks than before, house sparrow populations have stabilised during this period.

The report is a result of a collaboration between ten research and conservation organisations within the country. They include the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Wetlands International South Asia (WI-SA), Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and World Wide Fund for Nature India (WWF-India). It used data citizen science data to assess the distribution and trends in the abundance of birds that are found in India.

The report, a first-of-its-kind based on data and evidence, analysed 867 species of birds from over 10 million observations collected by over 15,500 birdwatchers across the country.

“Earlier, many conservation decisions pertaining to birds were not based on much evidence. This report helps to bring much-needed data to bear on these issues,” says Dr Dhananjai Mohan from WII.

The report identifies 101 species as those that need conservation and has identified species of conservation concern for each state and union territory. It also notes the need for policy and action needed to conserve these threatened species and urges for increased research and monitoring of them.

“We hope that this information translates into many voices being raised for bird conservation, both among conservation bodies, and the general public,” says Dr Mousumi Ghosh from NCBS, who was a part of the team that worked on the report.

Winners and Losers

Raptors, which prey on small vertebrates and include vultures, eagles and harriers, has shown a rapid decline in numbers, according to the report. Poisoning of vultures due to the drug diclofenac has resulted in a slump in vulture numbers since 1990, with the White-rumped vulture, Indian vulture and Egyptian vulture being the most affected. Other raptor species, like the White-eyed Buzzard and the Common Kestrel, also show a significant decline. Carnivorous birds showed a whopping 50% decrease in their abundance in the last two decades.

The story is no different for waterbirds in the long run as their numbers are also projected to fall steeply. The most affected are the migratory shorebirds and gulls and terns, while the numbers of waterfowls like geese and ducks, and other waterbirds have also declined. The report does not identify a cause for this decline, and the authors urge to investigate this deeper.

Birds play a vital role in maintaining forest ecosystems and the report casts a cloud on the future of forest species. Other species that thrive in a particular habitat, like grasslands and wetlands, have also fallen. A point in case is the story of the bustards, which includes the Great Indian Bustard, now classified as ‘Critically Endangered’.

Long-distance migratory birds, like the Forest Wagtail and Common Greenshank, saw the most decline in the numbers and so did short-distance migratory birds like the Large-billed leaf warbler. On the other hand, resident species had a mixed tale—some, like the Cotton Teal, saw a decline while others saw a marked increase.

“Migratory shorebirds provide an interesting case study here. These birds largely migrate to India from the Arctic where very similar declines have been observed,” says Dr Ashwin Vishwanathan from NCF. “Interestingly, the part of the Arctic where these shorebirds come to India from is relatively poorly monitored and this assessment provides a glimpse into the status of those breeding populations,” he adds.

The happy story is of the Indian Peafowl, a magnificent bird that is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The report shows that there has been an increase in its abundance in both long and short terms. Aridity in parts of Kerala and expansion of their ranges may have resulted in the rise in their numbers, says the report. As a result, these birds have now begun to damage crops in some parts of the country. 

House sparrows, which were falsely thought to have vanished due to radiations from the cellular towers, also have some good news. The trends indicate that, on average, sparrow populations have stabilised over the last two decades. However, their numbers have fallen in the cities of Bengaluru, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai.

Cries for help from the small and insignificant

The report highlights the plight of the endemic birds of India, mostly found in the Western Ghats and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Among the 12 endemics of the Western Ghats that were studied, the report found a 75% decrease in their abundance since 2000. While the numbers of some common species, like the Crimson-backed Sunbird and Yellow-browed Bulbul, are stable today, they could drop in the long term. As shola sky islands in the Western Ghats are increasingly being converted int tea plantations, species like the Nilgiri Pipit and Nilgiri Thrush, have shown a decline.

Often, iconic bird species, like the Great Bustard and Gyps vultures hog the limelight of conservation at the expense of several neglected species. The report mentions that Green Munia, found in the Eastern Ghats, is being increasingly trapped for the pet trade. Swamp Grass Babbler is another bird with a restricted distribution in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra. North East India has many such endemic small birds that need more monitoring and research to understand their trends, says the report.

Citizen Science: The catalyst for conservation

A significant contribution to the report has come from citizen scientists, who are birdwatchers and report sightings of different bird species from across the country over time.

“Gathering such information across a huge country like India is impossible without the participation of birdwatchers,” says Dr Girish Jathar from BNHS.

These birdwatchers use tools to systematically collect data on their sightings and make it available for the public. The advent of the internet and mobile devices has made this process easier than before.

One such platform for citizen scientists to participate in bird-monitoring programs is the eBird platform, which powers birding with technology. In India, the platform is hosted by Bird Count India (BCI) and users can report their sightings. BCI also organises national birdwatching events like the Great Backyard Bird Count and Campus Bird Count. The data collected during these events help to better document and understand trends in the distribution, abundance and seasonality of Indian birds, from the finest to the largest scale in the country. It is this data that has been used in the current report to present the state of birds in India.

“Given that birds are thought to be in global decline, it was important that we understood the status of our birds so that species and habitats can be prioritized for conservation. We were lacking information in the past, but with birdwatchers now uploading thousands of observations to eBird, we could finally go ahead with this much-needed assessment,” shares Dr Vishwanathan. 

Initiatives like the Asian Waterbird Census monitors the waterbird numbers and wetlands in India from over 1400 coastal and inland wetlands. The Common Bird Monitoring Program by BNHS is another effort to encourage more people to watch and observe birds in their backyard or in locations they frequently visit. Thanks to citizen science, Kerala has developed its own bird atlas and has the distinction of knowing its bird better than any other state in the country.

The report urges to expand monitoring efforts to track the abundance and ranges of species that can help research and conservation policies. The reason for the decline of threatened species needs additional investigation to identify the causes and frame policies that can help mitigate them. Besides, the report also calls for researchers to collaborate with birdwatchers and citizen scientists to deepen and strengthen monitoring programs. Lesser-known and neglected species need focused research efforts to identify conservation interventions. It calls for citizens to help and involve themselves in structured birdwatching programs that can translate into conservation.

“The Government can use this report to prioritise conservation plans and funding, both for species and habitats in need of attention,” signs off Dr Vishwanathan.

Are now inspired to be a birdwatcher? Here are some tips to get you started!

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with inputs from Dr Ashwin Vishwanathan from Nature Conservation Foundation.