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The Birds Are Vanishing – And We Are Why

The Birds Are Vanishing – And We Are Why

A small minivet male in Narlai, Rajasthan. Photo: Sharp Photography/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Bird populations have been falling steadily in the last three decades – and we are why.
  • We have hunted birds, destroyed their habitats and kickstarted climate change.
  • We know very little about how climate change is affecting India’s birds.
  • A new study recommends creating more ‘important bird areas’, but they may not work in India.

Kochi: Fifty-two year-old Kanwar Singh has been observing birds in and around New Delhi for more than three decades now. While maintaining ‘bird lists’ of bird species and their numbers, he’s seen several changes over the years.

“Bird numbers are definitely lower now than they were even a decade ago,” Singh said. “To long-term birdwatchers, it’s very obvious.”

This is actually a worldwide pattern, according to a new study. It found that around the world, the number of birds has been falling steadily in the last three decades.

We are the reason why. Humans have changed land-use patterns, causing habitat loss and degradation, and have accelerated climate change. We have also hunted birds.

An obvious way to counter this trend is for us to become better at protecting bird habitats – but this has been surprisingly difficult. For example, designating ‘important bird areas’ – safe places set aside for birds – is one solution, but they appear to be ineffective in India. Second, we know shockingly little about how climate change is affecting Indian birds. And third, we need to pay attention to the human dimensions of conservation.

A steady decline

A team of scientists, including Ashwin Vishwanathan of the Nature Conservation Foundation in Bengaluru, examined changes in global bird populations and the threats they face. They compiled findings from previous studies and analysed open-source data from bird surveys across the world.

They also used findings from the ‘State of India’s Birds’ report that some governmental and non-governmental organisations released in February 2020. Finally, the team-members also reviewed changes in the conservation status of birds on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

Their findings, compiled in a new ‘State of the World’s Birds’ report, found that the populations of 48% of existing bird species worldwide are diving. This is because, among other things, of the two bird habitats most under threat: tropical forests and natural grasslands. The study found the declines to be especially strong among grassland birds in North America, Europe and India.

This global trend mirrors the bird decline described in the 2020 report on India’s birds. This report found that the birds we always thought were common in the Indian subcontinent are actually steadily becoming less common, according to Rajah Jayapal, senior principal scientist at the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore, who contributed to the 2020 report.

“These include [the] small minivet, common woodshrike, Indian thick-knee, cotton teal and rufous-tailed lark.”

While the 2020 report and the new report differ in their methods, their findings are comparable because both used index-based abundance estimates, Jayapal added. These numbers include abundance or population indices and the birds’ Red List indices.

The human hand

The recent study found that changes in land-use caused by human activities have meant that crucial bird habitats worldwide are now lost. We have also degraded many others.

The urban sprawl of Delhi has increased steadily over the last decade, likely longer. Some birding pockets Kanwar Singh used to frequent no longer exist. At this rate, he estimated that at least half a dozen bird species will go extinct in our lifetimes due to habitat loss alone.

“The great Indian bustard is one of them, considering how we’re losing our grasslands.”

There are direct causes as well: we have hunted and trapped birds for food, sport and for the pet trade. Northeast India is one particular place where such “defaunation is pervasive,” the study pointed out.

Then there is climate change – which has affected migratory birds by altering their natural habitats in radical ways.

Curiously, we know very little about the specific impact of climate change on Indian birds, their range sizes or habitats, Jayapal said. “Of particular concern are habitat specialists that are typically found in coastal wetlands, montane grasslands and alpine scrub.”

Reversing decline

For most bird species around the world, it is crucial to conserve some important bird habitats. The study recommends scaling up site-based conservation methods, like designating more ‘important bird areas’ (IBAs) and ‘key biodiversity areas’, as laid down by BirdLife International and the IUCN, respectively.

This said, India may not get much out of IBAs, according to Jayapal.

“IBAs, though a laudable effort beyond legislation towards site-based conservation of birds and their habitats, are unfortunately ineffectual in India, where conservation is often mediated only through strong federal laws,” he told The Wire Science. “The absence of legal sanctity, and therefore state support, for IBAs means that a large number of IBAs outside protected areas in the country remain only on paper.”

He also said IBAs are distributed in a “very patchy” fashion in India. Assam, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have over 30 IBAs each. But Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Meghalaya – “though exceptionally rich in bird diversity” – have fewer than 10 each.

The study also recommended an “increased consideration of the social context of bird conservation interventions”.

This means being mindful of the social dimensions of environmental issues. In India, this means encouraging local people to become “custodians of birds and other wildlife in their own regions”, according to co-author Vishwanathan. One way is using citizen science – where citizens collect scientific data from their backyards and the places they visit.

“I believe that bird conservation cannot be sustained when socioeconomic realities in an area are ignored and people aren’t a part of the initiative.”

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