State of India's Birds 2020

India's declining birdlife

Print edition : March 27, 2020

Birding on a boat in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. Photo: saravanan janakarajan, www.ogaclicks.com

Population of the Indian vulture (foreground) and the and White-rumped vulture are seeing the greatest decline. Photo: Saravanan Janakarajan, www.ogaclicks.com

Richard’s pipit is also declining rapidly. Photo: Saravanan Janakarajan, www.ogaclicks.com

The house sparrow has been found to be roughly stable across India. Photo: Saravanan Janakarajan, www.ogaclicks.com

There is much concern about the great Indian bustard. Photo: Saravanan Janakarajan, www.ogaclicks.com

The oriental skylark, hithero common, has also declined. Photo: Saravanan Janakarajan, www.ogaclicks.com

The Small minivet (male), hitherto common, has also declined. Photo: Saravanan Janakarajan, www.ogaclicks.com

A comprehensive report on the distribution range, abundance trends and conservation status of birds in India indicates a worrying decline in the populations of 79 per cent of the species.

“The State of India’s Birds 2020” report, which was released at the 13th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, on February 17, provides worrying data about the status of birdlife in the country. 

While it is obvious even to a lay observer that wildlife in India is gradually on the decline, it is disturbing when this observation is confirmed by a scientific study.

The report was put together after a massive national exercise. More than 15,000 birdwatchers contributed over 10 million observations which became the database for the report. Birdwatchers uploaded their data to eBird, an online repository of bird sightings. (The information provided on this website is free to use for education, research and conservation activities.) These data were collated with supporting information such as taxonomic grouping, habitat, endemicity and diet, to create a detailed picture of each species. Using these inputs, the report has assessed the distribution of 867 species of Indian birds, trends in the abundance of birds that occur in India and their conservation status. By collating the data, the report was able to zero in on “species that are high in conservation concern, and those that are doing relatively well”.

The report says that hundreds of Indian bird species are on the decline. Over the past decades, 50 per cent of the Indian species have declined primarily owing to habitat destruction, hunting and the pet trade.

“The State of India’s Birds” is a pioneering report. It has assessed the status of Indian birds not usually covered by conservation efforts or data. It has used citizen science as its database. It is an outcome of the collaboration between concerned citizens and researchers from 10 national research and conservation organisations. It is the “first comprehensive assessment of the distribution range, trends in abundance and conservation status of most of the bird species that regularly occur in India”.

The State of India’s Birds project was conceived in May 2018 to have an informed assessment of the conservation status of Indian birds from the large volume of information available on the eBird platform. Worldwide, common and widespread species are on the decline. In India, a lack of information has meant that conservation attention has focussed only on a few species, usually large, charismatic and threatened species. An existing data and conservation gap needed to be filled, and the report does exactly that. It evaluates the distribution range size of 867 Indian birds and their trends in abundance—both long-term trend (over 25 years, that is, the proportional change in the frequency of reported sightings since 1993) and the current annual trend (the past five years). Using these three measures, plus information from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of global threat status, the report classifies the species into low, moderate and high categories of conservation concern for India. 

The long-term trend shows that more than half of these species have declined in that time period. The short-term trend shows that nearly 80 per cent of the species have declined in the past five years. In all 101 species have been classified as high conservation concern species, “59 based on their range size and abundance trends, and an additional 42 based on their IUCN Red List status”, requiring immediate attention. These include 34 species that are not considered threatened globally by the IUCN. As many as 319 species have been listed under moderate concern and 442 under low concern. 

Raptors, migratory shorebirds and birds endemic to the Western Ghats have suffered the highest declines in the past 25-plus years, with the white-rumped vulture, Richard’s pipit, the Indian vulture, the large-billed leaf warbler, the Pacific golden plover and the curlew sandpiper seeing the greatest decline. Over the decades, the population of raptors, including the species of eagles and harriers, has been badly hit. But it is vultures that have suffered the most severe population decline since the 1990s, largely owing to inadvertent poisoning caused by ingesting the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac used in the treatment of livestock. Of the nine vulture species found in India, seven have been in a critical decline caused by diclofenac. 

The number of migratory shorebirds has been decreasing in the long term and the abundance of resident species of waterbirds such as geese, ducks and terns have also been on a sharp downslide. The cinnamon bittern, once widespread throughout the country during the monsoon, is now in steep decline and has been marked as “High Conservation Concern”. Hitherto common species such as the small minivet, the common greenshank and the oriental skylark have also declined as have birds that eat invertebrates.

Of continuing concern are the four species of bustards: the great Indian bustard, Macqueen’s bustard, the lesser florican and the Bengal florican. The report says: “All four have suffered continuous population declines because of historical hunting and widespread habitat loss, compounded with their slow growth and reproduction. The largest of them, the great Indian bustard, is classified as “Critically Endangered” in the IUCN Red List 2019 and is in need of urgent conservation action. Surveys... suggest a 90 per cent decline in population size and distribution range over the past five decades. More recently, the single viable great Indian bustard population in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, has been systematically monitored…. Studies identify mortality by collision with power lines to be the prime current threat. The Bombay Natural History Society, BirdLife International, the Wildlife Institute of India and other organisations are undertaking in-situ conservation efforts such as working towards conservation-friendly energy infrastructure in the region. An effort is under way to breed the species in captivity in order to insure against extinction, and to enable reintroduction into the wild once threats are managed.”

Positive news

The data had some positive news as well. They show that the populations of the rosy starling, the feral pigeon, the glossy ibis, the plain prinia, the ashy prinia and the Indian peafowl have increased in the last 25-plus years. Some globally near-threatened species, including the black-headed ibis and the oriental darter, have stable or increasing populations and, therefore, are classified as “low conservation concern” for India. On analysis, the data showed that “48 per cent of the species have remained stable or increasing in the long term, while 79 per cent 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 (those that thrive only in a limited range of habitat conditions), among others. The overall decline in species demands research into the causes, and action to protect the high concern species. This calls for attention from conservation policy, management and funding.”

The disappearance of the house sparrow has touched a chord in everyone’s heart. The report says: “Reasons for the suspected decline of this species are a matter of much speculation and are believed to include decreasing insect populations (a key part of the diet of sparrow chicks) and paucity of suitable nesting sites. The popular theory that radiation from mobile phone towers is a factor is not supported by current evidence. 

Despite the widespread notion that the house sparrow is declining in India, the analysis presented in this report suggests that the species has been fairly stable overall during the past 25+ years. 

“Data from the six largest metro cities (Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai) do indicate a gradual decline in their abundance in urban centres. However, the extremely large range of the species across the country, and the lack of evidence for either long-term or current countrywide decline results in it being classified as of low conservation concern.”

The report is a collaborative effort of 10 government and non-profit research and conservation groups, namely the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, the Bombay Natural History Society, the Foundation for Ecological Security, the National Biodiversity Authority, the National Centre for Biological Sciences-Tata Institute of Fundamental Research(NCBS-TIFR), the Nature Conservation Foundation, the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, the Wetlands International South Asia, the Wildlife Institute of India and the World Wide Fund for Nature India. A series of meetings and workshops between these partners culminated in the report.

Their ubiquity makes birds an excellent indicator of the state of the natural environment. The fact that species are in decline is a red light not just for their own conservation but for the natural world at large. The report sees itself as “a significant step forward in our understanding of India’s rich and varied biodiversity and its conservation. It is also a step toward utilising more citizen science with a sound scientific approach in the conservation space.”

While conservation efforts have been going on for decades, they were not based on well-researched and detailed reports such as this. Conservationists hope that with these extensive data, conservation efforts will focus on protecting the 101 species of “high conservation concern”.

“The State of India’s Birds” clearly shows that there is huge citizen interest in nature and its conservation. That this has translated into accurate research is encouraging. It would be heartening if policymakers see the value of the report and respond with pro-environment policies. 

Mousumi Ghosh of the NCBS-TIFR, who was part of the team, says in the report: “We hope that this information translates into many voices being raised for bird conservation, both among conservation bodies, and the general public.” <z_sym_square_bullet>

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