Tuesday 12 September 2017

Birds in Our Neighbourhood

Birds bring an image of freedom in our minds. These colourful, chirping creatures occupy & adapt to almost every habitat. Birds are important part of ecosystem & food chain. They provide various ecosystem services like nutrient cycling, dispersion of seeds, as bio control agents, as scavengers in many ecosystems etc. With increasing urbanization, worsening pollution & decreasing green cover birds are one the most affected species. Their habitats are disturbed and degraded with which their population is declining, their nesting habits are changing and in this process, birds which cannot adapt fast to the changing environment are disappearing.

Some of the birds which are adapted to the hustle bustle & patterns of the city lives can be observed in our gardens, roadside trees and remaining open areas. Let’s get acquainted with the ecology of some of these birds which are present in our cities and in our neighbourhoods. 
(Glossary which you will need to understand birds has been provided in the end.)
First common bird which comes in our mind is House crow (Corvus splendens). They inhabit any area where humans live and reach highest numbers in dense human settlements where there is plentiful access to garbage, crops and livestock. House crow feeds on refuse around human habitations, carrion, small reptiles, eggs, nestlings, grain and fruits. It is an omnivorous scavenger which helps in cleaning the environment. Crows are absent where humans are few or absent, for example, deserts and dense forests. House Crows are intelligent and resourceful birds & exhibit play behaviour too. Crow has great invasive potential.

One of the most common species of Bulbul which is found all across India and in our cities is Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer). This medium sized bird has a short crest, black head, greyish black body and scarlet red vent (back of the tail). Bulbul is found in dry scrub, open forest, plains and cultivated lands. Now it is adapted to urban areas & nesting is observed in homes & gardens. Red-vented bulbul feeds on fruits, petals of flowers, nectar, insects and occasionally geckos.This is a rather dominating bird.

One of the birds which have been part of our culture & literature. The Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus).The preferred habitat of Koel is light forests, cultivation & thick scrub. Koel feeds on insects & fruits.
One of the interesting facts about Koel is that it is a brood parasite which means It lays its egg in other bird’s nests. Koel  lays egg mostly in the nests of crows. These other birds raise Koel’s young’s as their own.

You must have seen this upright black n white bird chirping around in gardens. This is Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis).The male has black upperparts, head and throat & a white shoulder patch, with white underparts and long white sides of the tail. Females are greyish black above and greyish white below. They are common birds in urban gardens as well as forests. They are known for their melodious song. Try to listen to its call sometime. It is mainly insectivorous bird, but known to occasionally take flower nectar too.

Sunbirds are most common garden birds. The Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus) is a small sunbird & like other sunbirds they feed mainly on nectar & sometimes eat insects. You can identify this bird with its very small size (hardly 10 cm) and curved bill. This down curved bill helps the bird to reach to nectar easily.
The male is glossy metallic bluish to purplish & females are olive above and yellowish below.

One small common garden bird is Indian Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius). It is a brightly coloured bird, with long upright tail, green upper body , creamy underparts and rust coloured forehead. This small bird is typically found in open farmland, scrub, forest edges and gardens. Tailorbirds get their name from the way their nest is constructed, which is made of leaves "sewn” together. Tailorbirds are insectivorous.

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) which was a very common bird once in villages and cities is now has become a rare sight. It is so well adapted to living around humans that it frequently lives and even breeds indoors. It feeds mostly on the seeds of grains and weeds, but it is an opportunistic eater and commonly eats insects.
This small bird’s population is been declining due to various reasons , major found to be shortage of nesting sites caused by changes in urban building design and insufficient supply of insect food for nestling sparrows.

Birds are indicator of our environment health as they are highly visible species. You can help in bird conservation by gaining knowledge about their habitat and their requirements. Maintaining green patches, gardens are very important to provide habitat and food for birds. Not using chemicals in gardens i.e maintaining organic gardens help in conservation as it would make garden insects available as food for birds.
The value we gain from birds deserves serious investigation into causes of decline and provides additional rationale for the study and conservation of these unique animals.

Ecology-Relationship & interactions  of the organisms with each other & with their environment.
Crest- Soft feathers common along the head, neck, and upper back of the birds.
Territorial behaviour- Animals defend territory or area where they live in by fighting or displaying dominating behaviour.
Brood parasites -are organisms that rely on other species to raise their young.
Invasive Potential- Species which has a tendency to spread ,which can cause damage to the environment, human economy or human health.

Start Observing birds which you can see in your neighbourhood. You can listen to their call & can observe what they eat. Make note of observation. 

Wednesday 31 May 2017

Let them be in the Wild

Wild animals proliferate & live freely in the wild. Raising a wild animal as a pet is a tempting and exciting idea but it is not only denying animal of its natural habitat but it’s against law also.
Due to lack of awareness about wildlife conservation laws and conservation status of animals, wild animals are sometimes kept as pets. Parakeets, Turtles, Snakes, Monkeys all are scheduled animals which have been treated as pets since long.
Many of us own or aspire to own species of fishes, birds and turtles that may be caught from the wild and even illegally traded. By buying these, we become a part of the growing trade in wildlife that is becoming a prime conservation threat across the world today.

Few know that our favourite and well-known ‘mithu’ is a protected species in India. For centuries, parakeets have been kept as pets mainly because they are easy to keep & their ability to mimic. This demand of seeking parakeets as pets has led to an organized illegal trade in parakeets. Their chicks are captured brutally from the wild & sold as pets.

Let’s understand the terms Parrot and Parakeet first.
Parrot is a broad term for birds which includes Parakeets, Cockatiels, Lovebirds, Lorries, Macaws, Amazons, and Cockatoos are some other groups. Parrots have strong and curved bill, upright posture & zygodactyle feet means two digits directed forward and two backward. They are known of their attractive colours & the ability to mimic.
Parakeets  are a type of parrots known for their long tail feathers which distinguishes them from other parrots.

Parakeets are under schedule IV of The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
Despite the blanket ban since 1990-91 on trade in all India bird species, hundreds of parakeets are collected and traded annually in India.
They are taken from the wild and smuggled to various parts of the country and beyond. The bulk of the trade is in three to four week old chicks.
Adult parakeets are traded throughout the year, with chicks are traded between December and June. For every bird that reaches the market place, several are believed to die en route.

Of the 12 native species, eight which are regularly found being illegally trade are-Alexandrine parakeet, Rose-ringed parakeet, Plum-headed parakeet, Red-breasted parakeet, Malabar parakeet, Himalayan parakeet, Finsch’s Parakeet and Vernal Hanging-parrot.

The Alexandrine Parakeet is one of the most sought after species in the Indian live bird trade and is traded in large volumes throughout the year. This is the parakeet most of us have seen in cages, at homes.
The chicks of this parakeet are collected from forested areas and transported to bird markets in Indian cities & to bird markets in various parts of the world.
Due to this, a very common bird once in India, is now Near threatened, as per IUCN red list category. (The International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN, is a global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it. IUCN red list is the catalogue evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species of all over the world)
Other three species of Indian parakeets—Nicobar, Long-tailed & Derby’s Parakeets are also considered by IUCN as Near Threatened with extinction. Illegal trade of this bird is the biggest threat to its survival.

Trade in foreign birds is restricted by CITES -Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, to which India is a signatory ,assures full protection to all migratory species, making it illegal to trap, capture, keep, kill or trade these birds.
Despite the restriction on trade in many countries however, the market still operates both legally and illegally.
Treaties & bans are not being effective in preventing the illegal wildlife trade of parakeets and parrots. We are more closely linked to the wildlife trafficking market than we think we are. Only decreasing its demand as pet, will protect this bird from being hunted. Mass awareness is the key to the conservation.

Turtle as pet

Turtles or tortoise are also treated as pets due to their low maintenance.
Tortoises and turtles are both reptiles with their both shielded by a shell. The major difference between the two is that tortoises dwell on land, while turtles live in the water some or nearly all of the time. Both are very shy animals.

The Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 lists all species of marine turtles in Schedule I of The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 thereby offering them the highest degree of protection. Sea turtles and their habitats are also protected by other coastal laws.
Asian giant soft shell turtle, Eastern hill turtle, Indian soft shell turtle, Green sea turtle, Hawksbill turtle, Indian soft shelled turtle, Indian tent turtle, Cochin forest cane turtle, Leather back turtle, Logger Head Turtle, Olive Ridley sea turtle, Peacock soft shell turtle, Painted roofed turtle, Spotted black terrapin are all protected under scheduled II & Indian star tortoise, Travancore tortoise & Sal forest tortoise are under schedule IV of The WPA, 1972.
The Indian star tortoise, which is extremely popular as a pet across the world, is relentlessly smuggled out from the forests of India. Other species available for sale commonly like red-eared slider, red-crowned roofed turtle would most likely be wild-caught and illegally traded.

Turtles kept at home will not survive in a small tub. They need the right lighting, temperature and water .Countless pet turtles die from being kept in inadequate conditions. Turtles shipped by mail and other delivery services often die on the way.
People sometimes turn turtles loose their pets, thinking they are "freeing" them, but it's illegal to release them anywhere in the wild without knowing its natural habitat or range. To release any animal in the wild, it’s very important to know its ecology & its natural habitat. To release back any wild animal, one should take help of authorized wild animals care centres or experts.

India is a signatory to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and the CMS (Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals). CITES regulates international trade on sea turtles and their products.
The legal trade in other Asian countries appears to be undermining India’s efforts to protect the Turtles & Tortoise.

It is important to note, wildlife laws and enforcement efforts stand little chance of success unless consumer demand for protected wildlife is also addressed.
If you would like to protect the earth and the animals & help in conservation, do not seek wild animals as pet & create awareness among about it.

(This Article has been appeared in "Tell-Tail" Magazine May-July 2017 issue)

Monday 8 May 2017

Social Forestry

An ever expanding city marked with its towering apartments, sprawling official complexes and imposing malls is what comes to my mind when I think of Pune. Named so after the confluence of Mula and Mutha rivers called as Punya, Pune was once referred to as “Pensioner’s Paradise” as many government officers, civil engineers and Army personnel preferred to settle down in Pune given to the green valleys and hillocks of the Sahyadri range and easy laid back life style.
Today very few remnants of those times are left in this once green city. The grey landscape of Pune is dotted with hillocks which have escaped the ever devouring monster of ‘development’, but not for long.
FORREST took up the responsibility to reforest these denuded hills by planting them with different species of trees with the help of the residents of Pune city. Among these is ‘Kirti Garden Tekri’, named so after the soon to be built residential apartment complex on top of this hill. FORREST decided to salvage the remaining hillock by reforesting it. Social forestry approach is being used for this purpose so as to develop a sense of belongingness and responsibility among the citizens of Pune towards these hills and towards the urban forests.

  The first phase of plantation took place on the dew laden morning of 30th July 2016 on Kirti Garden Tekri, through the enthusiastic hands of young ITians from Talentica. A group of 40 young people showed up at Kirti Garden Tekri, situated on Pashan-Sus road at the given time of 8 am. Their enthusiasm for plantation reflected in their punctuality. Although many of them were not habitual of outdoor activities, they strived to walk up the hill to the site of plantation. Many were panting from the strenuous walk but their eyes gleamed with wonder as they saw the green landscape. Today nothing would keep them from contributing this small token of gratitude to Mother Nature.

The group huddled with childlike eagerness around Neha and Nivedita as they demonstrated how the trees are to be planted. The group was divided into ten teams of four members each. Each team was supposed plant at least four plants in the pre dug holes. Soon the group members formed their teams and volunteered for different tasks. A human chain was formed to get the plants from the top of the hill to the plantation site. This day the usually impeccably groomed ITians, did not mind their cloths getting soiled. Laughter and mirth was written wide on each face as the heavy plants were passed down from one pair of hands to another. With fingers which work computer keys and palms habitual of handling the slick smooth computer mouse, they dextrously dug the shallow holes, lined them with compost and filled them back after gently placing the plants in the pits. Even, little Amodita who accompanied her mother for the activity, worked her little hands and tiny feet with the same enthusiasm as exhibited by her adult counterparts in all the activities from planting to watering the plants. She later said, she had a lot of fun planting trees and she would like to come and do it again.
After the activity got over, the group relaxed while having their breakfast at the Kirti Hill restaurant. Their eyes gleamed with a sense of satisfaction and happiness for having given their time and labour for something worthwhile and precious in the long run. Many members of the group took responsibility of visiting again to take care of the plants and water them at regular intervals.

The whole activity took place in a span of 3 hours. Around noon the young men and women walked down the hill to depart for their respective abodes with determination in their minds to keep these plants alive and see them thriving and their hearts filled with a sense of pride and oneness with the nature.

Identification of Common Indian Raptors

Majority of the world’s human population lives in urban areas. Urban features like less natural environment, air & water pollution, loss of wildlife habitats, habitat fragmentation has lead to numerous negative impacts on urban biodiversity. Such urban habitat supports limited birds and animals. Some of the common urban birds are - Bulbul, Myna, Blue rock pigeon, Oriental Magpie Robin, Crow, Green Bee-eater, Ashy prinia,  Black Kite  and some less common are White-throated Kingfisher, Common Swift, Rose ringed parakeet, Tailor bird, Shikra among others.

Birds can be studied in urban ecosystems because they are highly visible.Study on birds ecology can also shed light on how healthy our urban ecosystem is.Birds and animals occupy any habitat which can supply food, shelter and suitable conditions for breeding.

Bird of prey is known as Raptor. Raptors are distinguished by keen vision, powerful talons and beaks. Keen vision help them in finding food during flight, talons or strong feet are for holding food, and a strong curved beak for tearing flesh. Raptors are mostly diurnal i.e active during the daytime. Some raptors are crepuscular implies active primarily during twilight.
Raptors have a distinguished style of hunting. They use stealth and speed to sneak up on their prey, and once in range, pursue with a great burst of speed, often weaving deftly through tree branches and other obstacles while keeping their eyes trained on their quarry.
There are some small to medium sized bird of prey like Falcons and Baza. These feed upon small mammals, insects, reptiles, small birds and carrion.
Large bird of prey includes Eagles, Vultures, Hawks, Osprey. Their mainly feed upon insects, birds, reptiles, medium-sized mammals, amphibians, fish, crabs, with some on carrion.

Let us try to identify some of these raptors, through their distinctive features. Some of these can be spotted in urban areas but others in urban peripheral areas with open grasslands, cultivation and hills.

1. Black kite
Local Name-Ghaar
It is world’s most abundant bird of prey & widespread resident of India.
It is a medium-sized raptor .,
The plumage varies from moderate to dark brown with irregular light-brown markings
which appears black, from a distance. The tail is forked .The eye is dark brown and the bill is black with a yellow cere (area of skin around the nostrils). Both sexes are similar. Young Black Kites are generally lighter in colour than the adults, and have a comparatively shallower forked tail.
You can easily spot this raptor hovering in sky over river waters of Pune.

2. Black winged Kite
Local name- Kapashi
This is a small sized beautiful raptor. It has strikingly white colour with black shoulder patches. It has rather long wing span which are visible in flight.  It has owl like forward-facing eyes with red irises.
This is not a migratory bird but makes short-distance movements in response to weather.
Black winged kite can be seen in open grasslands or grassland interspersed with agricultural fields or scattered trees.


3. Brahminy Kite
Local Name- Brahmini
It is a medium sized raptor. It has distinctive colour with chestnut plumage except for the white head and breast and black wing tips, which makes them easy to distinguish from other birds of prey.
They are found mainly on the coast and in inland wetlands.        
It is primarily a scavenger, feeding mainly on dead fish and crabs but occasionally hunts live prey such as hares and bats.

Local Name-Shikra
Shikra is small bird of prey. Adults male have greyish upperparts and whitish underside with fine rufous bars .Adult females  have brownish upperparts and  heavier barring on the underparts.
Males have a red iris while the females have yellowish orange iris .
The shikra is found in a wide range of habitats including forests, farmland and urban areas.


5.Common Kestrel
Local Name-Kharuchi
It is a small bird of prey. It has long wings and a distinctive long tail.
Male has greyish head,chestnut brown upperside streaked with blackish spots, pale yellow with narrow blackish streaks on the underside and grey tail..
Female and juvenile have rufous crown, rufous upperparts heavily streaked with brown and black bars on rufous tail.
Female has comparatively more black spots and streaks. The cere ( structure at the base of the bill), feet, and a narrow ring around the eye are bright yellow.
Common kestrels have a prominent black malar stripe,which is the markings immediately beneath the eye which serve as important distinguishing features between species or individuals.
Its habitat is cultivation, grassland, shrubland and it readily adapts to human settlement, as long as sufficient vegetative cover is available.
Common kestrels feed almost totally on mouse-sized mammals & occasionally on small birds and lizards.

6.Indian Vulture
Local Name-Gidhad
A robust and scruffy scavenger which was very common once but now on the verge of extinction .It is a large bird of prey.
The feathers on the back and upperwings are brown, fading to cream on the underside. The thighs are feathered, matching the underside.
It has a pale yellow bill, pale eye rings and a sturdy, black neck and head, with pale down and a white neck-ruff.
As a scavenger, the Indian vulture feeds mainly on carrion from both urban and rural landscapes.
It nests in small colonies, usually on cliffs and ruins. The Indian vulture once used to inhabit cities, towns and villages near cultivated areas, as well as open and wooded areas .
It is critically endangered species on the verge of extinction. The cause of the rapid decline in the population was traced to the drug diclofenac, which is lethal to vultures when they consume the carcasses of dead animals treated with it. Declofenac is used to increase milk production in cattle.
Vultures constituted the natural animal disposal system played an important role in public sanitation and their disappearance has resulted in a number of problems.

7. Short toed snake eagle
Local Name- Garuda
It is a medium sized raptor. They can be recognised in the field by their predominantly white underside, the upper parts being greyish brown. The chin, throat and upper breast are a pale, earthy brown. The tail has 3 or 4 bars. Additional indications are an owl like rounded head, brightly yellow eyes.
It is generally seen soaring over hill slopes and hilltops on wind thermals.
Its prey is mostly reptiles, mainly snakes, but also some lizards.
It is found in open cultivated plains, arid deciduous scrub areas , foothills and semi-desert areas. It requires trees for nesting and open habitats, such as cultivation and grasslands for foraging.

Birds of prey are predators at the top of the food chain & referred as indicator species. The raptors also play an important ecological role as scavengers , control populations of rodents and other small mammals.
They are especially vulnerable to environmental influences, pesticides, drought and habitat loss and changes in their population size can give us early warning regarding the health of the environment.

(This article has been appeared in "Tell Tail" Magazine Feb-Apr 2017 issue)