Muthumani : Cattle Egrets
Biodiversity Forestry Op-ed

Revealing the Perils of Feathered creatures | 2018 Year of the Birds special article

2018 is Year of the Bird..!

To mark the 100th anniversary of Migratory Birds treaty act of U.S.A – one of the oldest and most powerful acts passed in favor of birds National Geographic along with many other International organisations declared 2018 as the Year of the Bird.

Birds are one of the most studied organisms on earth. Over 95% of birds are already studied and described. And an average number of 1206 conservation articles (highest in the animal kingdom) about birds are published worldwide every year since 2013. But the conservation of a species doesn’t only lie on how much a species is studied and the number of scientific articles but also depends on how many people know the outcome of these studied and how efforts are taken to pass that knowledge to ordinary people. And the truth is most of our folks don’t even know ten birds. (Knowing a bird is quite different from knowing only the name).

Here I want to ask a question. Which is the national bird of India? I think most of your answer will be PeaCOCK (This is the so-called gender discrimination!). Peacock is the term used to denote only the male bird. And PeaHEN is the female bird. Combining both comes the PeaFOWL which is the National bird of India.

peacock threats of birds
Peahen

State of Birds in India

India is home to 1263 species of birds which is almost 12% of the total bird species found on earth. Also, more than 350 migratory birds visit our country every year. And our country has more than 460 important bird areas (IBA), 72 bird sanctuaries, 26 Ramsar sites all these are created for the better conservation and management of birds. But at the same time according to IUCN red list out of the 1263 birds, 96 are near threatened, 53 are vulnerable, 17 are endangered and 16 species are critically endangered. Of these 16 critically endangered species vultures alone contribute 4 species and a bird called Great Indian Bustard which once considered to be declared as the national bird of India is also on verge of extinction.

Muthumani: Artic Tern ; birds in india
Artic Tern 90

Arrows that kills

Unlike animals and plants, birds can fly which makes it less vulnerable to threats. Then how these many bird species are facing extinction? The reason is they are birds and not humans. Humans think that they are the superior species living on the earth and for the betterment of that superior species any other species can be harmed and killed.

Hunting & trapping, Invasive Alien Species (IAS), Overexploitation, Climate Change and Pollution are the major arrows which kill birds and leads to the decline of the bird population. All these factors are only due to the human activities. Most of us are thinking that hunting is the prime most factor which causes a drastic decline in the bird population. But for your information of these threats hunting and trapping affects the least number of birds which are critically endangered. Every other factor is responsible for more birds to become critically endangered while compared to hunting.

Copper smith barbet p.c. muthumani
Copper Smith Barbet

Villain No. 1 – Over exploitation

Human started clearing forest and made them into agricultural lands to feed our ever growing population. He again cleared forest and used the logs for construction and feed his paper and pulp industries. But what happens when a forest is cleared? All the wildlife in those places lose their habitats. But in the case of birds, it is quite interesting to know what happens when a forest is cleared. Forest birds can be divided into two types – Forest Specialists and Generalists. The specialists are the one which lives only in a particular type of forest or found only in a particular elevation and their food source is also very limited. For example, The Great Indian Bustard which is found only in the open dry grasslands and they can’t live in other forest types which makes it a Forest specialist. The generalists are the one which can live in many forest types and in various elevations and has a wide range of diet. For example, Red Vented Bulbul can survive in many types of forest and in various elevations. And hence when a forest is cleared or selectively logged the specialist birds losses it’s only habitat and its food sources further shrink at the same time the generalist’s habitat and food sources expand. And today majority of the birds which are critically endangered are forest specialist and are endemic to some particular places.

And next comes the over exploitation of food resources. The whole world is talking about undernutrition. But there is another category of people who are overweight or over-nourished who are is very much high (1.9 billion) while comparing the number of undernourished (0.462 billion). And here too our birds are worst affected due to this over consumption because birds always occupy a higher position in our menu. And this is the sad story of Yellow Breasted Bunting – once a common bird that is found in millions in the Eurasian region. The bird migrates to China in large number during winter. In China, it was called as Rice Bird. And the bird is a highly preferred food there. A study in the mid-1990’s reveals that bird population has drastically declined. In 2001 alone around one million buntings were consumed in China’s Guangdong province alone. In 2000 the bird was categorised as least concern by IUCN but in 2017 it was upgraded to critically endangered. Within a span of 17 years, millions and millions of birds were eaten to extinction. And in India Amur Falcons also experienced the same issue that the local tribes killed these birds in thousands but the timely action taken by the local government and many NGOs saved them. And now they were celebrating Falcon Festival to raise awareness about Amur Falcons.

And finally, in recent years we are hearing many issues related to overfishing. Does overfishing affect birds? You may think that the problem is due to overfishing the marine birds will lose their food. Of course, it is true but my concern is not about this. But about a sparsely known issue called Seabird Bycatch. The modern nets and trawls used by the fishermen not only capture marine organisms but also the marine birds which dive into the sea to catch fishes. Gillnet and longline fisheries affect the most. The gillnet is one which catches the fish which swim through the net by holding their gills and also by warping around them. But when the birds dive for fishes also got trapped in these nets. Annually 4,00,000 seabirds die by getting trapped in this gillnets alone. On the other hand, the longlines are mostly used to catch tuna like fishes. These are bait nets and have numerous baits all along its 250m to 800m length. And the birds which dive for fishes catch the fishes in those baits and get trapped. The longline fisheries alone responsible for 1,60,000 seabird deaths. Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters are the major groups of birds affected by the catch.

Threats faced by sea birds - Greater Egret (left), Eurasian Curlew (middle), Seagull (right)
Greater Egret (left), Eurasian Curlew (middle), Seagull (right)

Villain No. 2 – Invasive Alien Species

Any species which is not native to a specific region which is introduced or spread outside its natural boundary is known as alien species. But when it threatens the local biodiversity it becomes an Invasive Alien species (IAS). The birds found on the islands are the worst affected by IAS. Unlike terrestrial birds, the island birds have only a minimal number of predators. But when a new predator is introduced in those islands, the eggs and the chicks became the easy prey. Rats, Cats and Domestic Dogs are the invasive alien species which affects most number of birds. And among birds, the Common Pigeon which can be found abundantly in larger cities is slowly becoming an invasive bird. Unlike most other birds the Common Pigeons easily adapted themselves to the city life. They do not require a tree to build its nest and it can live in temple towers, rooftops and even behind your air conditioners. And there are many places in these cities where people voluntarily offer food grains to these pigeons thus the food is easily available to them. And there are no active predators for these pigeons in the cities. All of these factors combine to increase its population. And today in some cities the Common Pigeon population is more than the population of Common Crow. Due to this bird, there will be a shortage of food and habitat to other urban birds which ultimately results in the decline of the other urban birds.

Threats faced by birds in india
Common pigeon

Villain No. 3 – Hunting and Trapping

Game birds are a group of birds which are hunted for sport or food. In some countries hunting of wildlife is done legally and the hunting passes are auctioned. The highest bidder can hunt the allotted number of birds or animals from that reserve. These type of hunting are sustainable and are conducted without affecting the further survival of that species.

But apart from this in some countries, the same process is done illegally and unsustainably which result in a drastic reduction of the bird population. Houbara bustard is a bird which is a close relative of our Great Indian Bustard and is enlisted as vulnerable by IUCN but not found in India. The birds migrate to Pakistan in thousands from central Asia where hunting of this bird is officially banned. But when these birds migrate to this country every year some of the richest Arab Princes and Sheikhs are also coming to this country to hunt the birds as a sport. Despite hunting ban secret passes are given to them. Always the hunting numbers far exceed the allotted numbers which help the birds to become endangered. And next comes the Vultures. Between 1993 and 2000 alone 95% of South Asia’s vulture population declined. The main reason behind is diclofenac. But poaching is another reason behind the decline of vulture population. The vultures are not poached but it is the elephant poaching which affected the vultures. The vultures are known for their scavenging works, and when an animal in a forest dies vultures are the first one to arrive at that place. They have a habit of flying above the prey for some time and it can be easily noticed even from kilometres apart and acts as the indicators of deaths. Hence when an elephant is killed the place can be easily identified by the authorities with help of vultures. To avoid this, poachers first kill vultures by poisoning their prey and makes vultures more vulnerable to extinction. Also, some of our birds are hunted because of some misnomers like that the bird’s body part is having some medicinal values and also they can act as an Aphrodisiac.

Northern Pintail ducks
Northern Pintail ducks

Villain No. 4 – Pollution

At an average, about 2 metric tonnes of plastics enter oceans every year. Ocean gyres are a large system of rotating ocean currents and there are five major ocean gyres in the world due to which larger amount of plastics get accumulated in these five places. One of these gyres located in the north Pacific region has the highest amount of plastics in it. And is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). It spreads over an area of 1.6 million square kilometres and the denser region alone consists of 80,000 tonnes of plastic. Bird life International has identified 203 Marine Important Bird Area in the same Tropical Pacific ocean region. Around half of them were nesting sites for breeding seabirds. Every year millions of seabirds come and breed in these places. The birds in these islands swallow the floating plastics thinking that they are a type of fish. Around the world over 400 species of birds are found to be ingested with plastics. And fishes found in these regions also found to be ingested with plastics. One way or other plastic reaches the bird’s digestive tract. The adult birds can somewhat manage to regurgitate the plastics they swallowed but the chicks can’t. Every year thousands and thousands of seabird chicks die due to this plastic pollution.

Muthumani : Cattle Egrets
Cattle Egrets

Villain 5 – The Climate Change

Each and every process in a bird’s life like mating, egg laying, migration and feeding depend on climate. Each of which occurs in a particular season and it differs from species to species. Even a slight change in temperature leads to the collapse of the entire cycle. Due to climate change, many of the plants began to change its flowering and fruiting period. And the birds which depend on these fruits will suffer due to this. And in migratory birds, their entire migration pattern depends on climate. They have to start their journey before the onset of winter and at the same time, the climatic condition and food availability should be optimum in the destination on their arrival. And in recent years due to the late onset of winter in poles, the birds start their journey late and misses the optimum conditions on their destination land. And due to global warming, the habitats of most endemic and specialist birds are shrinking. The effects of climate change are already noted in many bird species.

Muthumani Asian Paradise Fly catcher
Asian Paradise Fly catcher

What can we do?

Birds are an important link in maintaining the ecological balance and are essential for the survival of humans. But humans are the most important reason behind the drastic decline of birds population. Because most of us don’t know the value of birds. Lack of awareness is the important factor which leads loss of wildlife and its habitat. The conservation is possible only when a large number of people start learning about them. In addition, they should be taught about the effective utilisation of resources and the art of recycling. Efforts like making environmental studies a compulsory subject, giving a permanent slot in commercial newspapers, magazines and television channels about environment, forest and climate change issues and promoting eco-tour in all schools will make some change in conserving the birds, wildlife, forests and environment.

Authored and Clicked by Muthumani.

Muthumani is a forestry graduate and he is also the special reporter of Forestry to IMoT Agri Forum. Feel free to reach him at iammuthu.fcri@gmail.com 

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