No more birds?

Feb 17, 2013, 10:11 IST | Phorum Dalal

Unplanned urbanisation, increasing pollution and trigger-happy humans have come together to make sure some of India's prettiest native birds and most exotic avian visitors may soon be history. What can be done to save them?

When did you last see a Golden Oriole or a Fantail Flycatcher in your locality? Forget the fancy names, do you remember clicking a Woodpecker or a Hornbill, or even the common sparrow? Once a common sight everywhere in the city, from Malabar Hills and Chembur to Goregaon and Uran, these birds have all but disappeared from the city today. Halfway across the country, in the colder climes of the Eastern Himalayas, many of the sparrow and woodpeckers’ distant cousins, are facing the same threat. The main culprit? Human beings. 

Spotbill ducks are no longer seen in Mumbai due to the disappearance  of wetlands. Pic Courtesy/ Adesh Shivkar 

Last week, UK’s Durham University and Birdlife International, which is a global alliance of conservation organisations, published the findings of a three-year-long research project on Asian bird species in the journal Global Change Biology. It reveals that many species in the Eastern Himalayan region and the Mekong Valley in China are likely to suffer under climate change and will require not just enhanced protection, but also better management. In extreme cases, some species may need to be physically moved to new areas for survival. Supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the team collected data on 370 bird species that faced a serious threat.

Jacanas  are found in ponds, which have been lost to urbanisation

“We used this bird distribution data and current climate data to understand the climatic tolerances of each species. We then looked at where preferred types of climate for each species would be in future, under different scenarios of climate change. This allowed us to estimate, which Important Bird Areas (IBA) would remain climatically suitable for particular species in the future,” says Dr Stephen Willis, co-lead author of the study from Durham University. The survey also examined the potential future distribution of species where suitable climate is likely to remain within protected areas and conservation sites, such as Important Bird Areas (IBA) and also the likelihood of an IBA network to maintain suitable habitats outside protected areas.

The Indian Hornbill  is no longer a common sight in Mumbai. Pic Couresy/ BNHS

The India story
In metropolitan India, the situation is worse. Here birds are fighting a combination of land sharks, encroaching slum dwellers and a resultant reduction of water bodies and forest cover every day. Speaking to Sunday MiD DAY, director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), which was the India counterpart on the research project, Dr Asad Rahmani says, “This study proves that we need landscape-based conservation, particularly in high biodiversity areas.

Copper smith barbets have dwindled in number due to fewer native trees

Climate change will impact the distribution of many bird species due to the changes in their habitat. Some species of birds that now live in protected areas, may find these areas unsuitable in the next five or 10 years due to climate change.” According to Atul Sathe, manager, communications at BNHS, the current model of conservation keeps a check on protected areas where particular species are known to breed and feed. “But birds don’t know boundaries, and we have many non-protected areas, which are left unmanned and if the habitat of the area undergoes a change, a species can be lost forever,” says Sathe.

Little Cormorant is found near lakes, but due to pollution, they are rarely seen in Mumbai now

In India, only four per cent of the country’s land is protected area for birds. “We need to tap alternative bird sites which should have connectivity — which means conserving the landscape at large — so birds can migrate to it,” says Sathe, giving an example of alternative sites such as Bandhardhara and Gondia, two villages in Vidarbha in east Maharashtra. Here, the Saras cranes are known to reside in the paddy fields. “The farmers have accepted the presence of these birds, and the birds have a vast area to feed and breed. But, the climate may not suit them after 10 years,” explains Sathe.

Meanwhile, in Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri, most of the forest cover is privately-owned by villagers, who are taking initiatives to protect both local and migrating bird species. The mango orchards here alternate with grass patches and the area is home to the Indian, Grey and the Malabar Hornbill. “If infrastructure development takes places, the alternate habitats will be lost. So we really need landscape level management,” explains Sathe.

Due to decrease in native trees, such as peepul, banyan and fig trees, golden orioles have fallen in number

Mumbai’s flight
The story is the same everywhere, including in Mumbai. Says photographer and writer Adesh Shivkar, who runs a travel company called Nature India Tours, “every species of bird is used to a certain habitat, which if lost, might force the bird to fly in search of alternate homes. And every years birds lose more of their habitats to human encroachment in the name of Special Economic Zones or townships,” says Shivkar, adding that it is not just forest cover that needs to be preserved. Wetlands or shallow lands are also of great importance. “People term them as barren wastelands and build skyscrapers there, but these are proper habitats for many birds,” says Shivkar.

Take the example of Uran, which was once a huge wetland and home to over 200 species of birds. “In the past 10 years, several SEZs have completely reclaimed the mudflats and the soil has been destroyed. The wetlands are home to storks, egrets and flamingos. Earlier, we used to see over 100 birds of one species arrive here every season, but now the number has dropped to 10,” says Shivkar.

The ecosystem has a great role to perform in balancing nature and birds play important roles in this cycle. Primarily, they are pollinators. They visit flowers to suck their nector and help the process of pollination. It is scientifically proved that seeds that are ingested by birds and have passed through the digestive tract have a higher chance of surviving.

Plant native trees
While Mumbai’s protected natural cover includes Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Aarey Colony and BARC, the mangroves, which many birds inhabit, are in grave danger explains Sathe. “Thanks to a sharp rise in urban construction activity, trees have been razed and soil cover eroded. A planted tree must have two feet soil around it. But they are usually suffocated under concrete.”

Mumbaiites talk about planting more trees, but everybody wants to plant Gulmohars for their flowers. “Peepal, Fig and the Banyan tree are native ficus family trees and they attract birds. But most of the time, people plant fast-growing flowering trees for beautification,” says Shivkar. Birds such as the Golden Oriole, Coppersmith Barbet, Fantail Flycatcher, Common Iora, Tickle Flycatcher, Woodpecker, Bee Eaters, Hornbills are some of the endangered species in the city. “The Spotted Owlet and Jacana have almost disappeared.

The need of the hour is to preserve the lost habitat, increase awareness, encourage birdwatching and change one’s attitude towards nature. If the gap between man and nature is not bridged, soon, we may have to buy oxygen for ourselves,” concludes Shivkar. 

Wings of hope


What is the key conclusion of your research?
Many bird species of SE Asia are likely to face serious threat in the near future due to climate change. We examined the potential future distributions within conservation sites (Important Bird Areas) for 370 Asian bird species. Our study found that at least 45 per cent and possibly up to 88 per cent of the 370 species studied will experience climate threat leading to changing species composition at individual sites.

What does it mean for Asian birds?
Species, especially those of greatest conservation concern will require enhanced protection of important sites, better management of the wider countryside, and in some of the most extreme cases may need to be physically moved to climatically-suitable areas to help them survive.

What does the effect of bird extinction have on the environment?
We don’t really know what roles some of these species have. Some could play vital pollinators or seed disperser roles in ecosystems and help maintain forests, which in turn can prevent flash floods. People have likened the loss of species in an ecosystem to losing rivets from an aeroplane wing. Removing an individual rivet has a small impact but at some point a critical load is exceeded and the wing will fall off; the same could happen with an ecosystem losing species.

How is climate change affecting Asian birds?
If climate affects a species directly, eg it gets too hot to survive, then the species may disappear from sites quite rapidly. However, if the species is affected indirectly by climate its response might be slower, buying more time to implement suitable conservation strategies. The problem is, at the moment, we don’t know which species will respond immediately and which might have more time to adapt.

What do you mean by ‘physically move birds to climatically-suitable areas to help them survive’?
If a species cannot alter its range to keep up with the types of climate it prefers (for example, if the climate gets warmer, species might need to follow their favoured climates to higher altitudes), then it could decline rapidly as climate changes within its current range. In extreme situations, there may be a risk of such species going extinct. In such extreme situations it may be possible to physically collect individuals and move them to more suitable locations. However, this should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary, and only after fully establishing that the translocated population can survive in the new environment without harming other species. However, the best solution will be to ensure that species can move across the landscape naturally, in response to the changes in climate. By ensuring we have well-connected protected areas

The road ahead
In India, the Great Indian Bustard, White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, Forest Owlet and Lesser Florican are endangered due to habitat loss, pesticides and rising developmental demands, according to Sunjoy Monga, naturalist, writer and photographer. “We need to increase in the extent of Protected Areas (PA) by implementing effective corridors so that adjoining PAs can be turned into larger, more effective units. We should spread education and awareness of society at large about the values of biodiversity conservation and political awareness about nature and environment wherein the inter-relationship between human existence and nature conservation can be integrated such that it becomes a political imperative to protect nature,” he says.  

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