By Neha Sinha
India has more than 1,300 bird species. Yet there may be names in this list which you may not have heard of: birds that are also rapidly disappearing. Not all of these birds rank high on the IUCN Red List, or in the higher schedules of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. On the occasion of Sálim Ali’s birthday on November 12, it is important to revisit what we think we know, to trace historically neglected and lesser-known birds, that need immediate attention. These are the birds, along with their habitats, that Sanctuary’s editors urge must be protected immediately.
The Great Indian Bustard Ardeotis nigriceps, a spectacularly large flying bird once widespread across India and Pakistan, is at the verge of extinction. Today, only 150 individuals are estimated to be in the wild, their grassland habitat decimated by massive industrialisation and pesticide-heavy farming. Newer threats include low-lying electrical wires and solar power plants. Photo: Dhananjay Joshi
In 1961, the grand old man of Indian birding, Sálim Ali, wrote a few rather pointed lines.
“I submit that the selection of the peacock by the Indian Board for Wildlife is totally misconceived and Sanctuary Asia, October 202024meaningless... it is obvious that the Great Indian Bustard is a species that merits this distinction. This bustard is a large and spectacular bird, indigenous to India, whose numbers, in spite of the legislative ban on its killing, are dwindling at an alarming rate due to poaching by vandalistic gunners and also encroachment upon its natural habitat. It needs an urgent nation-wide effort to save the bird from its impending doom.” (Newsletter for Indian Birdwatchers, 1961).
This really isn’t a diatribe against the resplendent peafowl, a bird that has had a remarkable range expansion in the last few years. Rather, it is a passionate call for saving the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), a bird that will never have the kind of visibility a peacock enjoys. On a rainy day in Sariska Tiger Reserve, my vehicle was held up because a peacock was dancing in the middle of the path. The sky was azure, the peacock’s tail was shimmering like mercury, and I watched as it carried on like it had been dancing forever. On another morning, in a very different place – the National Capital – I would witness a peacock casually sitting on a black plastic water tank, perfectly at ease. The peafowl is a generalist bird which does well in both forests and cities. The GIB has no such luck. For decades in fact, the bird’s luck has been running out. A creature of arid grassland, the GIB is disenfranchised as grasslands are gobbled up for industrialisation, pesticide-heavy farming, and solar plants. And the heavy bird is felled by wires that cut through the skyline. As I write, news of the death of a female GIB from Jaisalmer comes in. Like many before her, the GIB was flying when she collided with a wire she couldn’t see, crashing to her death.
It seems barbaric that for 50 years, we have not been able to save a species of bird. A conservation breeding centre has been set up to preserve the GIB gene pool. But this isn’t of much use if its preferred grassland habitat is not saved – from the scythe of wires, the scourge of pesticide, and the rash of industries determined to dig for metaphoric gold in the desert. The last stand of the GIB is the Desert National Park in Rajasthan and its vicinity, and to a lesser extent, Kutchh in Gujarat.
A rare, shy and secretive bird, the White-winged Wood Duck Asarcornis scutulata can be found, if you’re lucky, within small pockets of Assam’s forest wetlands, a habitat threatened by oil explorations and disasters. Photo: Public Domain.
Imagine the most secretive place in the world. It could be a cave furrowing down from the earth’s surface, nestled in a dark tropical jungle, unseen and shining with secrets – holding creatures with fierce beauty, like a colony of bats that rises as one being in the evenings. It could be a deep forest pool, shaded by leaves, under tiers of lacy green that draw patterns on the water and flourish in a biodiversity hotspot. The White-winged Wood Duck, a resident of Assam, prefers the latter – forest pools and river edges in Assam’s many-layered forests.
In May 2020, India was in a COVID-19 induced lockdown. Local conservationists from Assam were bristling – Oil India Limited (OIL) had secured clearances for prospecting for oil in seven locations inside Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. The area holds the rare White-winged Wood Duck.
Ornithologist Bikram Grewal, who grew up in Assam, says a particular arc of Assam is key to saving the duck. This encompasses Dihing-Patkai, Dibru-Saikowa, Maguri beel, Soraipong and Jeypore forests. Apart from White-winged Wood Ducks, Bengal Floricans and vagrant White-Bellied Herons, the area also holds coal and oil, dead things the government values more than living birds. The oil company made assurances that its operations would be underground. As a matter of fact, the environmental clearances for prospecting inside the park hinged on procedural safety, with assurances that no damage would be done to the habitat. Conservationists said that the digging would mean habitat loss. Some uttered the ‘D’ word – what if disaster struck? Other ‘sustainable development’ advocates – including a section of conservationists – said the pipes were underground and we should allow them; how would Assam grow if it didn’t dig out its oil?
We were all still debating when an oil rig operated by OIL near Dibru-Saikhowa – in a little-known place called Baghjan - burst in an explosion and poured a jet of crude oil towards the sky. The oil covered everything – water, fields, low grasses and tall trees. It was only a matter of time before the kindling caught – and the place went up in flames, the heat from the furnace being felt by people hundreds of metres away. The earth and water were on searing, all-consuming fire – so much so that the charred body of a Ganges river dolphin was found. The fingers of the flame had covered the water, boiling to death the gentlest of creatures. As I write this, the fire is still not fully under control.
“The numbers of the White-winged Wood Duck are now less than 400 in the wild. The duck and its habitat must be accorded the greatest protection that can be afforded, or else it will join its late-departed cousin, the Pink-headed Duck,” Grewal says.
The Masked Finfoot Heliopais personatus, with the body of a duck but a pointed beak, was once found in Northeast India. Now, a few populations survive in the mangroves of the Sundarbans, where rising sea levels pose imminent danger. Photo: Jainy Kuriakose.
The Masked Finfoot reminds conservation biologist Sayam U. Chowdhury of a dinosaur, because the bird is so evolutionarily distinct. It looks like a duck, but the beak is pointed and unlike a duck’s bill. It is loosely related to coots and cranes, and it has a mask-like band over its face. It could well be a masked vigilante: it is so secretive, very few have had the privilege to see it. A bird of freshwater and brackish areas both, it was once found in Assam and Northeast India. Today, it is restricted to the Sundarbans mangroves, as impenetrable as the bird’s preferences for secrecy. No Masked Finfoot has been reliably recorded in India for several decades.
The fact that the bird is now restricted to Sundarbans is a testimony to how we have failed to provide undisturbed habitat for it. Yet, if we provide the right, undisturbed habitat, the bird may yet return.
“We must wake up and accept that the Masked Finfoot has left our land. Unless we make a concerted effort to find it, and if we do, take all measures to conserve it, the Masked finfoot will become just another footnote in our ornithology books,” Grewal says.
There is another, less publicised aspect: sea-level rise is likely affecting the species.
“Results of our study on the Masked Finfoot in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh indicate that there has been a shift in their breeding habitat preference, especially in case of selecting tree species they use for nesting, from sundri Heritiera fomes in 2004 to blinding mangrove Excoecaria agallocha and sundri mix in post-2010. This progressive shift in habitat preference is also visible in their overall breeding distribution, which suggests a changing preference toward freshwater areas upstream,” says Chowdhury, who works in Bangladesh and beyond.
Why is this happening?
“The difference in nesting habitat preference could be attributed to an increasing level of salinity along the coast, possibly forcing the Masked Finfoot to move to less saline areas upstream where higher density of preferred nesting trees occur. It is possible that Masked Finfoots are nesting in environments that barely fulfil their requirements, switching to narrower creeks and less preferred trees for nesting. Our findings also suggest a sharp decline of the Masked Finfoot in its coastal sites (this may be linked with several super tropical cyclones that took place in the last decade) of the Sundarbans concomitant with a northward shift in nesting habitat,” Chowdhury adds.
The Jerdon’s Babbler Chrysomma altirostre, a passerine that frequents tall grasslands, can be found in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and parts of Assam. Photo: Saurabh Sawant.
We don’t value grasses, though they are in our plates, and on our minds every day – in the form of pearls of rice and filaments of wheat. Yet an area covered with a mosaic of grasses looks unkempt to us. We prefer jade forests with ancient brown trunks and impressive roots, or mountains with trees spearing into the sky. We are impressed by size and discernible shapes; a stand of slender, amorphous grasses appears a waste of space for us. If we are to consider the humble grass at all, we prefer neat lawns of manicured grass. Our disdain for grasses is the reason why most birds in big trouble today are birds of grassland.
And there are many kinds of grasslands. Birds evolved to live in all kinds of grasses. The male Lesser Florican needs short grasses, in which the spectacular leap it makes as a courting display can be visible; some prinias and babblers reside in taller grasses. Some are birds of wet grassland – these are areas where grasses form beautiful, variegated walls, growing near streams or in areas with a lot of rainfall.
Both wet and dry grasslands are endangered ecosystems that desperately need help.
The Jerdon’s Babbler is a bird of tall grasslands. Brown in colour and with a lace-like tail, the bird may remind one of the Yellow-eyed Babbler at first glance. Today, the bird is restricted to Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and some areas in Assam. And Assam also holds the last remnants of the habitats of Marsh Babblers and Swamp Prinias. They stay in forests of grasses in Assam, which are difficult to walk through. These would include Arundo donaxgrasses (also known as elephant grass), Saccharum spontaneum (kaash grass, with white seeds that resemble feathery flowers) and others. You can see the birds only with time, patience – and crawling on your elbows in mud.
The bad news is we have very little information on population numbers. “We actually don’t know exact numbers of these secretive birds,” says Dr. Anwaruddin Choudhury, civil servant and ornithologist. But there is some good news too. “Protecting mosaics of grasslands in Assam, from dry to wet gradients, will protect both Swamp Prinias and Marsh Babblers. That makes it important to save similar habitats which will benefit both species,” he stresses. The call for their conservation is even more urgent today – the Baghjan oil spill and fire have charred Maguri beel, a habitat for both Swamp Prinias and Marsh Babblers. We may just have lost one of the best, and last, habitats for these birds.
A large and slow-growing species, the White-bellied Heron Ardea insignis is the second-largest heron in the world. Recorded mostly from Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh, it is now Critically Endangered as suitable sites for the species are threatened by dam expansion. Photo: Jugal Bharali.
In between sparkling mountain streams, lives the large, cryptic and rare White-bellied Heron. The moment you hear the word ‘heron’ you may imagine a clamorous heronry, with the ubiquitous Pond Heron nesting next to Ibis and egrets. But the White-bellied Heron is a different kind of beast. It does not partake in heronries, or communal living. Instead, it lives a solitary life, coming together with a mate only while breeding and nesting. Like the Great Indian Bustard, this is a large and slow-growing species, and is the second-largest heron in the world after the Goliath Heron. It has been observed to hunt for fish in clear, running water like streams and rivers, spearing its prey from stream-side boulders. It favours the clarity of mountain air and water, and has been recorded mostly from Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh.
Yet, birds have a way of surprising us. In a camera trap image – set to capture creatures of the ground – this secretive heron was found. The place was Kamlang, India’s 50th tiger reserve, also in Arunachal Pradesh. This was a significant finding for a bird that is now down to less than 60 individuals worldwide, making each site globally significant. Yet suitable sites for the heron are threatened by dam expansion in Arunachal Pradesh. The Lower Demwe dam is planned near Kamlang and many other dams are proposed in the state, including places where the heron may exist without us knowing about it.
The almost arcane habits of the birds in this list should add to the richness and complexity of our lives and our planning strategy. There are many other previously widespread birds that require urgent attention, before populations plummet to breaking point. The numbers of Bengal Florican and the Lesser Florican, cousins of the Great Indian Bustard, have declined sharply.
When a GIB gets electrocuted, or when the habitat of the White-bellied Heron gets drowned, or when the White-winged Wood Duck’s wetlands catch a film of fire, the world experiences deaths which are not seen or heard. And therefore, not felt. As climactic processes, unnatural hazards and the industrial footprint grows, birds are also experiencing a slow, but sure, violence towards them. As Sayam’s work shows, rising sea-levels seem to be impacting nesting sites of the Masked Finfoot. And river flooding in Assam, coupled with habitat loss, will also endanger the habitat of the Bengal Florican, and other grassland birds who need wet, not drowned, grasslands.
Such as the habitat of the plain-looking Swamp Prinia, which most of us would spend a lifetime without seeing. This Prinia deserves as much attention as the national bird.
Let the Swamp Prinia not become the missing Masked Finfoot. And let the Masked Finfoot return to India’s shores.
Neha Sinha specialises in environmental policy. She works with the Bombay Natural History Society. Her book on Indian wildlife, Wild and Wilful (Harper Collins India) will be out in early 2021. Views expressed are personal.