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Does India need a nodal agency for bird studies?

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Does India need a nodal agency for bird studies?

With their ubiquity and ecological importance, birds are excellent indicators of the state of our natural world and potent cultural symbols of nature. Their conservation is of utmost importance...

Does India need a nodal agency for bird studies?

Thinking Point

With their ubiquity and ecological importance, birds are excellent indicators of the state of our natural world and potent cultural symbols of nature. Their conservation is of utmost importance. For that, tapping the massive potential for increased public involvement in conservation monitoring becomes a must. This is especially important in the light of an insufficient data on some species. There is also a need for greater collaboration between researchers and the larger public

Binay Singh

Birds are not just beautiful creatures of nature but they are also important members of the ecosystem, acting as pollinators and playing an important role in controlling pests in the agricultural setting.  They play vital roles in the health of ecosystems through their actions as pollinators, seed dispersers, predators, scavengers, and as prey for other species. In Indian culture, there are references of bird and animal characters in the ancient texts like Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Jataka tales. The birds have long been associated in Hinduism. The peacock, which is connected to many deities, is India's national bird. With their ubiquity and ecological importance, birds are excellent indicators of the state of our natural world and potent cultural symbols of nature. However, there is a lack of data regarding their exact numbers and species.

The annual ‘Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) 2022’ was conducted in February by ‘Bird Count India’, an informal partnership of organisations and groups working together to increase collective knowledge about bird distributions and populations. During the four-day event of the GBBC, birders across the world take time out to watch birds and record the birds they see and hear. Since GBBC is carried out at around the same time of the year in February, it helps to create an annual real-time snapshot of bird distributions.  According to the results of the Great Backyard Bird Count 2021, India saw a considerable increase in the number of birders, checklists, and the number of person-hours spent birding from previous editions. In India, 2954 birders uploaded 31,355 lists with 952 species. Previously, during GBBC, a lot of birding was concentrated in the southern states of India, but in 2021 there was a dramatic increase in participation from other parts of the country – particularly the Western Himalayas, Central India, and Gujarat. The top three states in terms of checklists were Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. Tamil Nadu uploaded a whopping 11,293 checklists. Salem district in Tamil Nadu alone uploaded over 9,000 checklists during 2021 GBBC.

The Campus Bird Count also runs alongside GBBC in India to record the birdlife in the multiple campuses across the country and to promote birdwatching within institutions. Campuses include educational and training institutions, government institutions, research stations, corporate campuses, and so on. In 2021, a total of 143 campuses across India participated in the Campus Bird Count, uploading a total of 2,222 unique checklists. Similarly, the Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) takes place every January. This citizen-science event is a part of the global International Waterbird Census (IWC) that supports the conservation and management of wetlands and waterbirds worldwide. By using eBird and filling an additional site form, one can take part in this multi-country effort to document the state of the wetlands and waterbirds. To take part in it, people can simply visit a wetland and count the birds they see there. The AWC is the longest running citizen science programme that systematically monitors waterbird numbers and wetland conditions in India.

The AWC began in the Indian subcontinent in 1987 and now covers a large proportion of the East Asian–Australasian Flyway and the Central Asian Flyway. In India, this effort is coordinated by the ‘Wetlands International South Asia’ and the ‘Bombay Natural History Society’. The annual AWC effort takes place in January, and includes bird count estimation and wetland assessment. While paper forms were earlier used to record and submit data, digital technology is now being used to enhance the reach and effectiveness of the AWC. The AWC database has counts from over 1,400 coastal and inland wetlands in India, including Protected Areas, Important Bird Areas, Ramsar Wetlands and other wetland types. AWC has become an important repository of information on waterbirds and wetlands, which supports policy-making and conservation programmes at national and international scales. The information has been used to inform and influence various national programmes such as National Action Plan on Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystem, National Biodiversity Action Plan and National Action Plan for Conservation of Migratory Birds and their Habitats along Central Asian Flyway (2018- 2023). It is also used to fulfil international commitments like the Convention on Migratory Species and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

But, is there a need for more collective effort?

“There is a need for a nodal agency in the country for scientific collection and documentation of birds found across the country. Although there are organisations like ‘Bird Count India’ and groups of birders working together to increase collective knowledge about birds, a forum like ‘British Trust for Ornithology’ (BTO) is needed for the collection of authentic and comprehensive data,” says Dr Asad Rahmani, noted ornithologist and member of Governing Body of Wetlands International South Asia and former director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).

The BTO was founded in 1932 for the study of birds in the British Isles. It carries out research into the lives of birds, chiefly by conducting population and breeding surveys and by bird ringing, largely carried out by a large number of volunteers. However, the BNHS has a vibrant presence at dozens of places across India covering diverse habitats such as forests, grasslands, wetlands, mountains, deserts and marine areas. Over 150 scientists and professionals work on and off the field to further the tasks of research, conservation and nature education. BNHS has been designated as a Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (SIRO) by the Department of Science & Technology, Government of India, and is the partner of ‘BirdLife International’ in India.

“It is good that the bird count activities involving the interested people for bird watching create awareness and discover new bird habitats, but for scientific data we need to have an independent nodal agency,” explains Dr Rahmani. He was the director of BNHS for 18 years from 1997 to 2015 till his retirement. He is Scientific Consultant to the Corbett Foundation and Hem Chandra Mahindra Trust. His main interest is in grassland and wetland birds, and to highlight the plight of lesser known species and habitats. “One of the important things of bird count or bird watching is that we come to know about the new habitats of birds,” says Dr Rahmani.

Dr Amita Kanaujia, a faculty of Zoology in Lucknow University working in the field of biodiversity and wildlife conservation, says it is hard to say that the outcomes of the bird count are scientific but such activities explore the species of birds. One of her studies on the diversity of water bird in Lucknow and adjacent areas identified 71 species of water bird representing nine orders and 21 families from five different localities. Out of them 25 species were residential, 14 species were residential/local migratory, two species were local migratory, 27 species were migratory while two species were residential/migratory. Her study reveals that in Lucknow there are maximum populations of migratory water birds followed by residential, residential/local migratory and residential/migratory species. “The bird surveys are generally done in protected areas across the country,” she says, adding that there is a list of wetlands existing in different parts of the country.

A network -the Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN) - has been established to promote the conservation of birds in India and, through them, all biodiversity. The IBCN will promote conservation action based on sound research.  It will be open to all those who share the view that the conservation of birds can contribute to the conservation of all biodiversity. BNHS has become the Indian partner of the global NGO family, ‘BirdLife International’. Through the ‘BirdLife’ network, BNHS has secured some support for the operation of the IBCN from the RSPB, the UK BirdLife Partner. It is intended that as well as encouraging local projects, BNHS will run nation-wide data gathering projects which all members of the network can participate in. The first of these will be the Indian Important Bird Areas project. This project, part of a global initiative by ‘BirdLife International’, uses the presence of threatened or habitat-specific birds to identify a minimum set of sites for conservation.  The project will have major advocacy, education and scientific components, and discussions have begun about how it can complement and support the existing conservation initiatives such as the ‘Biodiversity Conservation Prioritisation Project’.

Two new Ramsar sites (Wetlands of International Importance) were announced by Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Bhupender Yadav on World Wetlands Day on February 2, 2022 thus increasing the total number of Ramsar sites to 49. The two new Ramsar sites are Khijadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat and Bakhira Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh.

The state of Indias birds

According a report of the National Action Plan for Conservation of Migratory Birds and their Habitats along Central Asian Flyway (2018-2023), at least 370 species of migratory birds from three flyways including Central Asian Flyway (CAF), East Asian Australasian Flyway (EAAF), and Asian East African Flyway (AEAF) are reported to visit the Indian subcontinent, of which 310 predominantly use wetlands as habitats, the rest being land birds, inhabiting dispersed terrestrial areas. Migrating waterbirds depend on a network of healthy wetlands for completing their migratory cycle. The diverse wetlands in the country, spanning 15.26 million ha and ranging from high altitude lakes in the Himalayas, marshes and swamps in the Terai floodplains, marshes and ox-bows in the Gangetic–Brahmaputra alluvial plains and other riverine systems, saline mudflats in the Rann of Kutch, Thar Desert, tanks and reservoirs in the Deccan region and extensive mangrove marshes and coral reef areas, provide habitats to over 200 species of waterbirds, over half of which are migratory. As per data collected under Asian Waterbird Census (AWC), 480 wetlands are of ornithological importance in terms of populations as well as species of migratory waterbirds supported. Similarly, 190 wetlands have been enlisted as Important Bird Areas (IBA).

Wetland conservation in India is structured around a network of sites, considered to be significant for their biodiversity and ecosystem services values, under criteria of Ramsar Convention (to which India is signatory since 1982) or that of MoEFCC (under its National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems). The network includes 170 wetlands, including 26 wetlands of International Importance under Ramsar Convention. The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 provide the regulatory architecture for wetlands at national level. Provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 defined the regulatory framework for wetlands located within forests and designated protected areas. Similarly, coastal wetlands are protected under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification (2011) and the Island Protection Zone (IPZ) Notification 2011. Despite these measures, wetlands continue under various anthropogenic and nonanthropogenic stress due to fragmentation of hydrological regimes, catchment degradation, pollution, species invasion, overharvesting of resources, unsustainable tourism, and climate change.

 According to a report titled ‘The State of India’s Birds 2020’, published on February 17, 2020 at the 13th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species held at Gandhinagar, Gujarat, while 48percent of common bird species of the country have remained stable or increased in the long term, 79 percent have been on the decline in the past five years. Among them 101 species have been classified as of 'high conservation concern'.  The State of India’s Birds report is the first comprehensive assessment of the distribution range, trends in abundance, and conservation status for most of the bird species that regularly occur in India. This report assessed the status of 867 Indian birds using a massive database of information contributed by birdwatchers. The report was the outcome of a collaboration between ten research and conservation organisations within the country, spanning both governmental and non-governmental institutions: 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-TIFR), 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).

Using data uploaded by birdwatchers to the online platform ‘eBird’, the report identified species that are high in conservation concern, and those that are doing relatively well. The analysis indicates 48percent of species have remained stable or increasing in the long term, while 79percent show declines in the past five years. In some welcome news, the House Sparrow was found to be roughly stable across the country as a whole, although declining in the major cities. In all, 101 species have been classified as of high conservation concern. The groups that show the greatest decline are raptors, migratory shorebirds, and habitat specialists, among others. The overall decline in species demands research into the causes, and action to protect the high concern species. With their ubiquity and ecological importance, birds are excellent indicators of the state of our natural world and potent cultural symbols of nature. The report is a significant step forward in our understanding of India’s rich and varied biodiversity and its conservation. It is also a step toward utilizing more citizen science with a sound scientific approach in the conservation space. The report relies on more than 10 million observations contributed by over 15,500 birdwatchers, which is a testament to the passion of nature-lovers in the country, and suggests there is massive potential for increased public involvement in conservation monitoring. This is especially important in light of the insufficient data on some species, and the report calls for greater collaboration between researchers and the larger public.

 Bird Sanctuaries in Uttar Pradesh

 Bakhira Sanctuary (Sant Kabir Nagar district):  It was established in 1980. The grey-headed swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus) also called the Indian Purple moorhen or Purple Swamp-hen is one of the beautiful common water birds found in this Sanctuary.

 Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary (Chandauli district): It is blessed by beautiful picnic spots, dense forests, and scenic waterfalls like Rajdari and Devdari and was established in May 1957. It is a home of around 150 species of birds. Blackbucks, chital, sambar, nilgai, wild boar, porcupine and chinkara as well as the reptilian species include gharial and python are also found here.

 Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary (Amroha, Bijnor, Ghaziabad, Meerut, and Muzzafarnagar districts): It was founded in 1986 and named after the ancient city of Hastinapur. Over 350 species of birds are found here such as painted stork, black and white necked stork, sarus crane, as well as night birds of prey, ranging from the great Indian horned owl to the jungle owlet, colourful woodpecker, barbet, kingfisher, minivet, bee-eater and bulbul.

Lakh Bahosi Sanctuary (Kannauj district): It is one of India's larger bird sanctuaries, covering 80 square km. It is home to various migratory birds. Jackal, blue bull, mongoose, fishing cat and monkeys are also found here.

Nawabganj Bird Sanctuary (Unnao district): This sanctuary provides protection for 250 species of migratory birds like greylag goose, pintail, cotton teal, red-crested pochard, gadwall, shoveller, coot, mallard, sarus crane, painted stork, peafowl, white ibis, dabchick, whistling teal, open-bill stork, white-necked stork, pheasant-tailed jacana, bronze winged jacana, purple moorhen, lapwing, tern, vulture, pigeon, king crow, Indian roller and bee-eater. The cobra, viper, krait, ratsnake and water snakes are also found here.

 Okhla Sanctuary (Ghaziabad, and Gautam Buddha Nagar districts): It was declared a protected area in 1990, under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.  This sanctuary hosts 30 percent of the 1200 to 1300 bird species recorded in the Indian sub-continent.


Parvati Arga Bird Sanctuary (Gonda district): It was declared a bird sanctuary on May 23, 1990. It is home to 212 species of angiosperms, belonging to 152 genera and 57 families, and three species of pteridophytes, belonging to three genera and three families.

 Patna Bird Sanctuary (Etah district): It was founded in 1991.More than 106 species of migratory and resident birds here.

Saman Sanctuary (Mainpuri district): It was established in 1990. It is home to the different animals such as jackal, mongoose, hare and various local and migratory birds.

 Samaspur Sanctuary (Rae Bareli district): It was established in 1987. Greylag Goose, Pintail, Common Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Shelduck (Surkhab), Knob-billed Duck, Lesser Whistling-duck, Indian Spot-billed Duck, Eurasian Spoon-bill, Kingfishers, Vultures are migratory birds come here for natural habitation.

 Sandi Bird Sanctuary (Hardoi district): It was founded in 1990 to protect the natural habitats and aquatic vegetation for the local residents and migratory birds.

Sur Sarovar Sanctuary (Agra district): It is also known as Keetham lake Sanctuary. It is home to more than 106 species of migratory and resident birds. This sanctuary is also famous for the aquatic birds inhabiting Keetham lake are: Little gerbs, cormorants, darter, grey heron, purple heron, paddy bird, cattle egrets, large egrets, smaller egrets, little egrets, night heron, Indian reef heron, black necked stork, white Ibis, spoon bill, greying goose, bar headed goose, lesser whistling teal, ruddy shelduck, pintail, common teal, spot billed duck, gadwall, wigeon, shoveler, and comb duck.

Suraha Tal Sanctuary (Ballia district): It is famous for the variety of migratory and native birds. It was declared a Bird Sanctuary in 1991.

Vijai Sagar Sanctuary (Mahoba district): It was founded in 1990. Jackal, mongoose, wildcat and various local and migratory birds found here.


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