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Kerala wraps up Asia’s biggest bird survey

Read time: 4 mins
Kerala wraps up Asia’s biggest bird survey

A group of enthusiastic birders take part in the survey for Kerala Bird Atlas. [Image credits: Kerala Bird Atlas]

Over a thousand birdwatchers, working for over five years, complete Kerala’s first Bird Atlas.

In 2015, a group of bird enthusiasts from Kerala decided to start a new endeavour—creating a bird atlas that can map the distribution and abundance of various birds across the entire state. Little did they know that this effort, of 600 days, would turn into Asia’s largest such endeavour. Multiple floods in recent years and the pandemic did not deter the citizen scientists, who covered an area of 38,863 sq.km with 4,000 sites, on the lookout for the winged beauties. The result is here.

Bird atlases help in monitoring the population of common birds over a long time and gaining insights into their abundance and distribution over time. These insights can then help to identify areas of concern where bird population is dwindling, or regions that seem to be favourable to birds, and then guide conservation practices.

“A systematic, equal-effort survey like the Kerala Bird Atlas gives high quality and fine-scale information on the distribution of birds, to understand how they are related to habitat and climate. Repeated over decades, the Atlas will provide an unprecedented understanding of changes in bird populations,” says Suhel Quader. He is a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation which is a part of Bird Count India. “A unique aspect here is that all the data are freely available for use by others for research and conservation,” he adds.

The team behind documenting the Kerala Bird Atlas consisted of volunteers from Alappuzha Nature History Society (ANHS), Bird Count India (BCI), Birders Ezhupunna, Birdwatchers of Kerala, Chilla Nature Club (CNC), Cochin Natural History Society (CNHS), Hume’s CEntre for Ecology and Wildlife Biology (HCEWB), Idukki Natural History Society (INHS), Kasaragod Birders, KeralaBirder, Kidoor Birders, Kole Birders Collective, Kollam Birding Batallion, Kottayam Nature Society (KNS), Malabar Natural History Society (MNHS), Malappuram Birders, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Natural History Society of Palakkad (NHSP), Pathanamthitta Birders, Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Tropical Institute of Ecological Sciences (TIES), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and Young Birders Club, Palakkad.

“Thanks to the large network of birdwatchers in Kerala, we were able to cover a landscape with thick forests, vast wetlands, croplands and villages. Every district had a dedicated team of birdwatcher networks who executed the surveys efficiently,” says Praveen J, one of the state coordinators of this project.

The Kerala map was gridded into cells using a computer-based Geographic Information System, similar to the mapping applications on the phone. The volunteers used the eBird App to record bird sightings and recorded the location. The results were then consolidated regularly and updated in the dashboard, which had a user-interface. Every district had a team lead by one or two senior birdwatchers, who planned these surveys at the local level. The Kerala Forest Department also had an active role in facilitating these surveys in protected areas and in regions that were hard to reach.

“Bird atlases of a similar kind have been compiled in western countries. However, to execute such a project in a mountainous, tropical state with some of the most impenetrable forests in the world, is a commendable job. Thanks to the ever-supportive Kerala Forest Department––its leaders as well as the staff on the ground––such execution was possible,” says P.O. Nameer, Special Officer, Academy of Climate Change Education and Research, Kerala Agricultural University, Vellanikkara.

The consolidated state-wide report based on this first survey is expected to be released by the end of the year. Ornithologists expect it to provide details on the current distribution of about 150 common birds in the state, a trend in increasing or decreasing numbers in the future, hotspots for endemic and threatened birds, identification of key areas for conservation and the predicted distribution of these birds in the next 25 years under different climatic and land-use scenarios. Do keep an eye!