Dr Asad Rahmani
The writer is an ornithologist and conservationist; former director of BNHS and now the scientific adviser to The Corbett Foundation as well as the governing council member of Wetlands International, South Asia
When I read in a research paper, published in the prestigious journal ‘Science’ (366, (6461):120-124, 2019) that 3 billion birds have disappeared since 1970, when proper bird monitoring started in the USA and Canada, I thought that if we have bird monitoring data in India, we will find similar results. The paper showed regular losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds. Birds of some habitats were more affected, for example, grassland birds saw a 53 percent reduction in population – more than 720 million birds – since 1970. Shorebirds, most of which frequent sensitive coastal habitats, were already at dangerously low numbers and have lost more than one-third of their population.
Another paper, much closer to our country, showed that in the last 40 years, Europe had lost 550 million birds, mainly due to wrong agricultural practices where huge amounts of pesticides/herbicides are used in agri-business. The paper is based on the monitoring of 170 bird species in Europe, using data collected from more than 20,000 monitoring sites across 28 countries over 37 years. Other factors are climate change and its influence on temperatures, changes in forest cover, urbanization, killing by high-tension wires, hitting tall buildings, and illegal shooting.
I do not have to wait for long to get similar shocking results in India. Recently released report, State of India’s Birds (SoIB 2023), led by a young team of Dr Suhal Qader, J. Praveen, Ashwin Viswanathan, and many researchers proved what we all senior ornithologists and birdwatchers had suspected for a long time: birds are declining everywhere, even so-called common birds are no more so common. We all know the huge and shameful decline of vultures due to diclofenac and other NSIADs; decline of Great Indian Bustard due to habitat destruction, poaching and high-tension wires; disappearing of Black-breasted Parrotbill due to destruction and fragmentation of its grassland habitat; killing of Black-necked Crane chicks by free-ranging dogs -- I can go on describing 203 bird species that are mentioned in the Red List of BirdLife International/IUCN as Threatened and Near Threatened in India. SoIB has included 178 species that need top conservation priority in India. SoIB shows that 323 species need moderate conservation priority status, and 441 are of low priority.
The report is heavy on data and statistics, the result of eBird data collected from 30 million observations from about 30,000 birdwatchers over a time span of 25+ years to assess how the abundance of hundreds of bird species has been changing over time. Every page needs careful reading to understand what is going wrong with Indian birds.
The massive and quick decline of Indian vultures is too well-known to be told again. Vultures decline is also not connected with the overall decline of common birds as vultures were killed by diclofenac when this drug was released for veterinary use in the early 1990s in India. No one knew that this painkiller, given to livestock, is lethal if the livestock dies and the vulture eat the carcass. However, the decline of larger eagles and many raptors is connected with poisoning, death by hitting high-tension wires or blades of windmills, pesticides, and lack of prey due to poaching. The report finds that generalist raptors, like Shikra and Brahminy Kites are doing well, but habitat specialists are not doing so well. If we take pre-2000 as a baseline, forest and open-countryside raptors show 40% to 50% decline. More specifically, Pallid Harrier (which breeds in temperate regions and winters in India) has shown over 70% decline. Open country raptors such as the Short-toed Snake-eagle, Black-shouldered Kite, and Red-necked Falcon, all breeding in India, have also shown a massive decline – 50% in the case of Snake-eagle. Only the urban-dwelling Black Kite or Cheel is maintaining its population to pre-2000 levels.
The Pallas’s Fish-eagle that breeds in winter in India and migrates to Mongolia, China and other countries has disappeared from most of its former breeding habitats. For example, in the 1980s, there used to be two nests in Keoladeo NP, Rajasthan – both gone now. Occasionally a juvenile is seen in winter in this famous bird park. I knew a nest on a tall tree in Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in the 1980s and 1990s. The tree is there but Pallas does not breed there anymore. Similarly, the pair found breeding in Samaspur Bird Sanctuary is also gone. Now, I know only two areas, Corbett and Kaziranga, where this bird still breeds in moderate numbers. Occasional nests are found in Manas and the Brahmaputra floodplains, but in general, the species is hurtling towards extinction in India.
India has a coastline of nearly 8,000 km with mangroves, mudflats, sandbars, and estuaries where millions of waders used to forage. The report finds that the populations of several species are going down. For example, Terek Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, and Lesser Sand Plover have declined by 70 to 80 percent to their pre-2000 levels. Habitat destruction, massive illegal trapping, climate change, and death by powerlines and windmills are the main reasons. For instance, in my recent visit to the Gujarat coast in September 2023, I saw an expansion of salt pans after cutting mangroves and a string of windmills along the coast. Vidhi Modi, a young researcher at the Corbett Foundation is studying the impact of windmills and their powerlines on birds.
In a study by SR Kumar, SPR Arun and AMS. Ali of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and Salim Ali Institute of Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), of windmills in Katch, it was found bird species’ richness and diversity were higher in the control site (with no wind mills), and the abundance of most passerine species was lower in the wind farm area, although the abundance of larks and wheatears was higher in the wind farm areas. Species composition was significantly different in both the sites. This difference is attributed to the presence of wind turbines and a difference in land use patterns. The study was funded by Genting Energy Pvt Ltd., so the paper is silent on the mortality issue. However, an independent study by scientists of the Wildlife Institute of India in the Thar desert shows that more than 85,000 birds are killed every year in a 4,200 km2 study area. Although windmills, solar panels, and powerlines are not present in the whole Thar desert (198,000 km2), even if they are present in 20% of the area, just imagine how many birds are being killed every year.
With 94% literates, Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India. This is also reflected in their ornithological work. The Annual Waterbird Count (AWC) has been going on in India since 1987. Most states show annual fluctuation in the number of participants and the number of wetlands covered so the data across years are not comparable. However, in Kerala, the Kottayam Nature Society has consistently conducted AWC since 2001 in the Vembanad estuary of 1,520 km2, by a team of young volunteers, led by experienced ornithologists like B Sreekumar, S Prasanth Narayana, Dr PO Nameer and others. Despite synchronous count in one day of all 10 counting units of Vembanad wetland by volunteers, waterfowl numbers show great fluctuation from year to year, from as high as 60,000 in 2016 to as low as less than 10 thousand in 2022. This large fluctuation also proves that to get a clear picture of the number of waterfowl in India, we have to upscale the AWC in hundreds of selected wetlands.
The distribution of waterfowl depends on various environmental factors such as the pattern of rainfall, distribution of rainfall, protection level of wetlands, quality of wetlands, and site fidelity of certain species. I will try to explain my above statement. If the rainfall is widespread and timely, there will be many wetlands so the waterfowl will spread out, therefore in a particular wetland, the number will be less. If rainfall is localized and deficit in other areas, waterfowl will concentrate in good wetlands, thus increasing their count. We saw this in 1987, a drought year, as there was a sudden influx of Demoiselle cranes in Goa – they probably could not find good wetlands and foraging areas in Gujarat and Rajasthan, their normal wintering areas. Earlier to 1987 and later, Demoiselle cranes were found in small numbers in Goa.
In well-protected areas where poaching is controlled, more waterfowl will concentrate. But protection sometimes depends on the manager’s attitude and the political bosses. I have seen variable protection levels in bird sanctuaries in UP from year to year. This is reflected in the number of waterfowl numbers.
It has been suggested that many waterfowl had traditional wintering sites and show site fidelity. However, as wetlands are dynamic and change from year to year, waterfowl can also change their wintering areas if a particular site is deteriorated for a long time. Even if a site is restored, it will take many years for the waterfowl to come back. Waterfowl locate new areas and start visiting them regularly. I have seen this in the seepage wetlands of the Indira Gandhi Canal. Some of these seepage wetlands, for example, the Sultana wetland in Mohangarh, Rajasthan have become a good birding area. Similarly, a seepage wetland named Badopal in Sri Gangangar district is now a major habitat for waterfowl.
If we randomly take some “common” species, SoIB-2023, found that Pied Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail, Sarus, and Rosy Starling are declining. Species like Sirkeer Cuckoo or Sirkeer Malkoha have declined as their scrub habitat is under threat. Common Crane breeds in temperate regions across Asia and Europe, and winters in India have also declined rapidly. Most worrisome is the decline of many duck species such as Northern Shoveler, Garganey, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Cotton Pygmy Goose, and Ruddy Shelduck. Besides illegal hunting and trapping, and destruction/deterioration of wetlands, there could be other threats, such as high-tension wires, pollution, invasive species such as water hyacinth, commercial boating in large dams (e.g., Pili Dam), fishing, spread of water-chestnut crops under government schemes, intrusive photographers, and ‘development’ in the name wetland beautification. During my surveys of Sarus Crane in seven districts of Uttar Pradesh, I have seen high-tension wires over many wetlands. Unless we conduct systematic studies, we will not know how many waterfowl die every year after hitting the wires (carcass are disposed of within 1-2 days by predators so not easy to find unless someone is looking for them). In a two-year study in seven districts, we found eight cases of Sarus being killed by high tension wire. Numerous such incidents remain unreported. In the long-living birds, living in low density, any extra mortality can deplete the numbers.
The SoIB report is a cause of concern and also a challenge to all Indians. If we want to keep our common birds common, we have to take many conservation measures. The report also gives solutions to the various problems that our birds are facing. The so-called ‘green energy’ is not so green as it comes from the cadavers of millions of birds that hit the high-tension wires, or are killed by the blades of windmills, or whose grassland habitats are taken over by solar farms. We need to find technological solutions to minimize the death of birds. Putting up bird diverters on wires can reduce bird mortality as they can avoid the high-tension wires.
Windmills can be placed after studying the movement patterns of birds. Experiments in Sweden show that by painting the rotor blades of windmills, bird mortality can be reduced by 70%. Another study suggests adding a low humming sound so birds can take evasive actions. More research is required on these aspects.
Trapping and illegal hunting of birds is a bane in many states. In Bihar we have empty jheels and crop fields – most of the birds are trapped and eaten. In some districts, finding kingfishers, moorhens, and coot – the birds that we take for granted in any wetland – is difficult to find. We can see mile-long nets over the wetlands for birds, and small-mesh nets underwater to trap even the smallest fish. Trapping and shooting of birds have to stop by better governance, strict implementation of the laws, stronger punishment to culprits, and environmental education.
Unregulated use of pesticides is common in India. This is not hazardous to users but to crops, soil, and wildlife. The government gives subsidies to farmers to use more pesticides but does not educate them on how much to use. Encouraging organic farming could be a solution, at least around protected areas. I was told that many big farmers in Punjab, Haryana, and UP, grow fruits, vegetables, and cereals organically for their own consumption, but otherwise depend heavily on pesticides for crops that they are going to sell! More research is required on the impact of pesticides on birds and other organisms, and to find solutions.
The State of India’s Birds is a fine piece of research work, based on data collected by thousands of birdwatchers across India. It should become a guiding document for policy interventions, and if necessary, changes in some laws to keep our country going on the right path of development and environmental protection.