Kochi: A new report on the status of birds in the country tells a grim story.
The State of India’s Birds 2023, released on August 25, finds that while a few bird species like the Indian peafowl are thriving in India, many are in decline. The report, based on 30 million observations contributed by 30,000 birdwatchers across the country, also highlights major threats – including pollution – to bird populations across the country. It lists 178 bird species in the country as being of “High Priority” for immediate conservation action. These include migratory wetland birds like the Ruddy shelduck, and resident species such as the Indian courser.
Knowing our birds better
India is home to more than 1,350 bird species. Some are endemic: they’re restricted to specific areas such as biodiversity hotspots, and are found nowhere else in the world. Such as the White-bellied blue flycatcher, a small songbird that you can spot only in the Western Ghats of south India. Some are habitat specialists: they are found only in some habitats in the country.
Great Indian bustards, for instance, are ground-dwellers and are restricted to open habitats such as grasslands that are broadly known as open natural ecosystems or ONEs. Generalists, on the other hand, are species that can thrive and adapt to more habitat types and food resources. Such as the national bird, the Indian peafowl.
To understand how birds are faring in the country, 13 institutions in India (six government institutions including the Wildlife Institute of India and seven conservation NGOs) and independent professionals came together to analyse data on bird distribution and population trends of 942 bird species in the country.
For this, they relied mostly on bird observation data collected by citizen scientists – a whopping 30 million bird observations or bird lists uploaded by 30,000 bird watchers and nature enthusiasts – on eBird, an online database of bird observations. The researchers analysed the long-term trends in bird populations (changes over 30 years) and the current annual trends (annual changes over the past eight years). They also analysed birds’ distribution range sizes across India. What they found is worrying.
Of the 338 species that had enough data to assess for long-term trends, 60% of the species showed long-term declines. The trends showed that 204 species have declined in the long term, 98 species declined rapidly, 98 species are more or less stable, and 36 species showed increases. Of the 359 species analysed for current annual trends, 40% are declining. The current trends showed that 142 species are declining (of which 64 are in a “rapid decline”), 189 are stable and 28 are increasing.
Their results, presented in the State of India’s Birds report 2023, show that while a few generalists like the Indian peafowl and Asian koel are thriving in India, many others, especially habitat specialists such as birds found in grasslands and wetlands, are in rapid decline. Birds that feed on vertebrates and carrion – including raptors (specifically habitat-specialist raptors such as some harriers and the Short-toed snake eagle), and vultures – have declined greatly. This could be suggestive of harmful pollutants in their food resources, a decline in prey availability, or both, per the report.
Insectivorous birds are also in peril. The SoIB 2023 notes that birds endemic to the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot have rapidly declined in India over the past few decades. The reasons behind this decline, however, are not clear, the report said.
Other groups of birds that are facing declines include grassland birds such as the Great grey shrike (which has faced a decline of more than 80%) and Great Indian bustards. Wetland species and shorebirds such as the dainty curlew sandpiper have also witnessed declines.
“Considered globally Near Threatened, this species [curlew sandpiper] used to be observed in large numbers in key Indian wintering sites like Point Calimere and Pulicat Lake,” the report noted. “However, it has undergone a decline over the years.”
The existence of Pulicat Lake in Tamil Nadu, the second largest brackish water lake in India, is currently under threat. Local communities and activists are protesting against the expansion of the Adani run-Kattupalli Port. The expansion will impact the Lake in several ways that will affect both the wildlife and people who depend on it.
A few generalist bird species are doing extremely well in the country, per the report. This includes the national bird, the Indian peafowl. There has been a 150% increase in the abundance of peafowl across the country over the past decades, per the report. Peafowl, which occurred only in two districts in Kerala in 1998 and was extremely rare in the state, now occurs in all districts. However, this is not necessarily a good thing.
“The good news of the increase in peafowl must be tempered by a recognition of increased reports of crop damage (and consequent retaliatory poisoning) in different parts of the country, and the speculation that rising peafowl populations may have negative impacts on snakes and other reptiles,” the report noted. “While conservation tends to focus on rare and declining species, it is important to investigate the impacts of this peafowl boom on both people and ecosystems.”
Other species that are doing remarkably well are the Ashy Prinia, the feral Rock pigeon, and the Asian koel.
Species of high conservation priority
Based on these data and the species’ listing in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the SoIB 2023 report classified all 942 species into three categories for priority action. It has classified 178 species as High Priority, 323 as Moderate Priority, and 441 as Low Priority. The High Priority species include migratory wetland birds like the Ruddy shelduck, resident species such as the Indian courser, endemics such as the Narcondam hornbill which is found only on the small, roughly 7 sq km Narcondam island in the Andaman and Nicobar islands and the Nicobar megapode on Nicobar island.
Of the High Priority species, 90 are classified as globally of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List 2022. The report recommended that 17 of these would qualify for a different IUCN threat status nationally. These include the Indian Roller, a grassland and scrub bird which shows a 30% decline in 12 years, and the Northern shoveler, a species of duck that shows a 58% decline in 14 years.
The first SoIB report in 2020 also showed similar trends of decline in bird populations in India. The 2020 report relied on more than 10 million observation records, contributed by over 15,500 birdwatchers in India. The latest SoIB report, however, is a wider assessment: it uses more data, and details the status of 942 species (as opposed to 867 in the previous one). Out of the 101 birds categorized as High Concern (i.e., Priority) in 2020, 74 remain in the same category, the new report noted. An additional 104 species have been newly listed as High Priority in 2023.
Need more action, research
The report also highlighted several major threats – including forest degradation, urbanization and energy infrastructure – that bird species face across the country. Environmental pollutants including veterinary drugs such as nimesulide still threaten vulture populations in India, it noted. Of concern also are the impacts of climate change (such as on migratory species), avian disease and illegal hunting and trade.
The report also points to the need to conserve specific groups of birds. For instance, the report found that grassland specialists have declined by more than 50% – indicating the importance of protecting and maintaining grassland ecosystems. Per the report, systematic monitoring of bird populations over long periods of time is critical to understanding small-scale changes in bird populations. It is becoming clearer that we also need more research to understand the reasons behind the declines or increases, scientists on the team said, in an online press conference on August 25.
“Our laws and policies are largely framed around what we need to do to save threatened species but equally we need to keep common species common,” said Suhel Quader, senior scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation, one of the partner organisations that collaborated on the report. It’s the abundant, widespread species that are providing several ecosystem services, he added. Policies – such as river, water, or wasteland development policies – must also converge, he said. Currently, they sometimes act in opposition to each other.
“For example, wasteland development may act in opposition to conservation needs of ONEs and their biodiversity so we need to see how we can rationalize these policies so that conservation can be a part of all of them,” Quader said.
The report, an outcome of observation records contributed by a large number of birdwatchers across India, augurs well for citizen participation and is an important contributor towards biodiversity conservation, said Ravi Singh, Secretary General and CEO of WWF-India which is one of the partner organizations of the effort. “Following this report, the next step should be an action plan for conservation of bird populations and habitats.”