Archive for August, 2009

Vanishing Species: Hanuman Langur

Sunday article by Mohan Pai

Hello friends,

Good morning. This sunday’s article is about the Hanuman langur, a very bold and rowdy primate.
Hanuman langur is associated with Lord Hanuman of Ramayana and is revered by the Hindus, it is seldom molested and they have lost all fear of man. It’s also known as the temple monkey. Considered as a single species earlier, 7 distinct subspecies are now recognised in India. Hanuman langur is widely distributed over the subcontinent.
Ms Sucheta Chatterjee (facebook) has provided link to a very lucid essay by Steven Weinberg:
Very best wishes,
Mohan Pai.

Hanuman Langur
One of the rowdiest primates, even the Indian Parliament is not out of bounds for them.
Hanuman Langur is believed to be one of the Old World monkeys, belonging to the Semnopithecus Genus. They comprise of 15 subspecies and are terrestrial in nature. Earlier, hanuman langurs were believed to comprise of a single species. However, now they are recognized as seven distinct species. Hanuman langur is also known by the name of Gray Langur, Entellus Langur and Common Indian Langur. Venerated by the Hindus and seldom molested, they have lost all fear of man.
This is the long-limbed, long-tailed, black-faced monkey, seen as much about towns and villages as in forests of India. Animals from the Himalayas are more heavily whiskered and coated, their pale almost white heads, standing out in sharp contrast to the darker colour of the body. The contrast is much less apparent in peninsular animals. Langurs living in the rain-swept hill regions of the Western Ghats are generally darker then those from the drier eastern zone.

Species list
Nepal Gray Langur, Semnopithecus schistaceus
Kashmir Gray Langur, Semnopithecus ajax
Terai Gray Langur, Semnopithecus hector
Northern Plains Gray Langur, Semnopithecus entellus
Black-footed Gray Langur, Semnopithecus hypoleucos
Southern Plains Gray Langur, Semnopithecus dussumieri
Tufted Gray Langur, Semnopithecus priam

In religion and mythology
Hindus revere the Hanuman langur as associated with Lord Hanuman, an ardent and loyal devotee of Shri Rama an incarnations of Lord Vishnu. An army of monkeys or the vanara sena under the leadership of Hanuman was instrumental in the defeat of Ravana by Lord Rama. Other notable vanaras who feature in the epic Ramayana are Sugriva , Vali and Angada.The Hanuman langur has a black face because according to the mythology, Hanuman burnt his hands and face while trying to rescue Sita. The langurs often live in and around Hindu temples, where they are fed by devotees. The Jakhu Hanuman temple in Shimla is a famous example. It is often referred to as the ‘monkey temple’ because of the countless monkeys it houses.
Bold & rowdy
This is the one of the rowdiest relatives of mankind, at least in India. Hanuman langurs are experts at depriving you of your food. and those living near temples are particularly adept at this art. Not just temples, even the Indian Parliament is not out of bounds for them. For the past few years, the parliament has been losing a ‘few important files’, thanks to these simian creatures that react quite adversely if left unfed during the lunch hour. But when threatened, they retreat immediately.
Physical traits
The fur of the gray langur of India may be gray, dark brown or even golden in color. The face is black and the size varies from one subspecies to another. Male langurs grow to a length of 51 cm to 78 cm and weigh about 18 kg. The female langurs are smaller, with a length of 40 cm to 68 cm and weight of about 11 kg. The length of the tail is between 69 cm and 101 cm.
Common Indian langurs survive on a diet comprising of leaves, fruit, buds and flowers. The exact diet, however, changes from season to season. During winters, they survive on a diet of mature leaves. In summer season, they mainly survive on fruits. Insects, tree bark and gum also supplement their diet. Hanuman langurs can easily digest seeds with high levels of the toxins and can eat even soil and stones.
Natural habitat
Hanuman langurs are found inhabiting tropical, dry thorn scrub, pine and alpine forest as well as urban areas of the Indian subcontinent. They spent a major portion of their time on the ground, with the exception of their sleeping time. Presently, common langurs are found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma.
Gray langur of India can usually be found living in large groups, dominated by a male langur. The membership of the group may be anywhere between 11 and 60. However, they hold the dominating position for a very short period only, which may stretch upto 18 months. Whenever a new male takes over the group, all the infants of the previous alpha male are killed. Entellus Langurs of India may form bachelor groups also.
Mating Behavior
Female langurs attain maturity at 3 to 4 years of age, while males achieve the same in 4 to 5 years. However, they start mating in the 6th or 7th year only. The gestation period is 190 to 210 days, after which a single infant is born. Only in very rare cases does a female langur give birth to two infants. Where there are a number of males in a group, only the high-ranking males can mate with any female. The other males get a chance to mate only if they manage to sneak by the high-ranking males.
The inveterate enemy of the Langur is the panther. The sight of one, or of a tiger that rouses suspicion produces the guttural alarm note which sends the whole troop bolting. Quite distinct is the joyous ’whoop’ emitted when bounding from tree to tree or otherwise contentedly occupied. An interesting relationship has been observed between herds of Chital deer and troops of the Northern Plains Gray Langur. Chital apparently benefit from the langur’s good eyesight and ability to post a lookout in a treetop, helping to raise the alarm when a predator approaches. For the langur’s part, the Chital’s superior sense of smell would seem to assist in early predator warning, and it is common to see langurs foraging on the ground in the presence of Chital. The Chital also benefit from fruits dropped by the langurs from trees such as Terminalia bellerica. Alarm calls of either species can be indicative of the presence of a predator such as the Bengal Tiger.
Common Indian langur is listed in the lower risk category by the IUCN

Pic Courtesy: Animal Diversity Web

References: S. H. Prater The book of Indian Animals), Wikipedia, Animal Diversity Web,

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Vanishing Species: Chinkara – Indian gazelle

Sunday article by Mohan Pai

Hello friends,
Good morning. I am writing about the vanishing species after a gap of a month. Last three articles were on biodiversity (You may please read my blogs, in case you have missed them).This week’s species is the Chinkara gazelle, a slender and graceful deer. Their population is mostly confined to north western and central parts of India. The threats for its existence are the common threats: indiscriminate hunting and habitat loss. They could be spotted in Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore National Parks.
I am grateful to Mr. Vinay Somani of Karmayog who has just sent the link to “State of Environment: India 2009” recently released by MOeF. It is important for every one of us to look at the report, especially Chapter 3 on Climate Change. The picture for India, I am afraid, is very, very grim! The Ministry of Environment and Forests recently released thecomprehensive report on the state of India’s environment, 2009.
This is the online report
Cross-posted: karmayog
Very best wishes,
Mohan Pai
Indian gazelle
(Gazella bennettii)

A small gazelle of slender, graceful build.
The Chinkara (Gazella bennettii) or Indian Gazelle is a species of gazelle found in south Asia. It lives in grasslands and desert areas in India, Bangladesh and parts of Iran and Pakistan. It is also known as the Indian Gazelle (Gazella gazella bennetti). A small, gazelle of slender graceful build it stands at 65 centimetres and weighs about 23 kilograms. There is the usual white streak down each side of the face, so chararacteristic of all gazelles and a dusky patch above the nose. Its summer coat is a reddish-buff colour, with smooth, glossy fur. In winter the white belly and throat fur is in greater contrast. The sides of the face have dark chestnut stripes from the corner of the eye to the muzzle, bordered by white stripes. The horns of the male appear almost straight when seen from the front; in profile they take lightly S-shaped curve with 15 to 25 rings and average 25-30 centimetres. Hornless females are not uncommon.It is a shy animal and avoids human habitation. It can go without water for long periods and can get sufficient fluids from plants and dew. Although most individuals are seen alone, they can sometimes be spotted in groups of up to four animals.Certain researchers consider the decline in the Chinkara population as the reason behind the extinction of the Asiatic Cheetah in India. Its population is on the decline due to it being hunted for game.
Distribution :
Chinkar are less gregarious than Blackbuck and live in smaller herds. The average size of group is 3 but occasionally herds of up to 25 animals are seen. .Chinkara is widely distributed in India. It is mostly found in Rajasthan, north western and central parts of India. They could also be spotted in the Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore National Park.
Weaning: At about two months. Sexual Maturity: At two years of age. Life span: Unknown. Gestation Period: About five to five and a half months. Young per Birth: Generally 1, but twins have been reported quite frequently. The rut appears to occur in two seasons, one lasting from the end of monsoon up to early October and again in the late Spring from March to the end of April. The births occur mainly in April.Social Behavior: In its wide roaming habits, tendency to keep to small groups of two to three individuals and its general alertness, the Chinkara is very similar to the Goitered Gazelle. The Chinkara is almost wholly nocturnal in foraging activity, though they will emerge to start feeding before sunset.Diet: The food consists of grass, of various leaves, crops, and fruits such as pumpkins and melons and can go without water for days.
Range covers much of western and central India, extending through Pakistan, south-western Afghanistan into north-central Iran. The Thar Desert of western India remains a stronghold. Distribution in Pakistan has been greatly reduced by overhunting and although still widespread, populations are scattered (Habibi 2001b). In Iran, distribution is also scattered extending to Kavir NP in Tehran Province (Hemami and Groves 2001)
Range map of Indian gazelle (IUCN)
Numbers in India have been estimated at more than 100,000 with 80,000 in the Tahr Desert (Rahmani 2001). Numbers in Pakistan have declined due to overhunting, but no current estimate is available (Habibi 2001b). Current status in Afghanistan is unknown but they are also believed to be very rare (Habibi 2001a). Around 1300 were estimated for Iran (Hemami and Groves 2001). Population Trend: Stable
Habitat and Ecology:
Inhabits arid areas, including sand deserts, flat plains and hills, dry scrub and light forest. Ranges to 1,500 m in Pakistan (Habibi 2001b). They are facultative drinkers, and so can live in very arid areas. They sometimes raid fields cultivated with rape seed and sorghum in desert regions (Habibi 2001b). Systems: Terrestrial
Major Threat(s):
Indiscriminate hunting has adversely affected gazelles in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan (hunted for meat and to a lesser degree for trophies). Habitat loss through overgrazing, conversion to agriculture and industrial development is also a factor.
Trouble for film stars
Aamir was accused of filming a Chinkara deer, a Schedule I animal under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, for commercial purposes without taking due permission, during the shooting of the movie Laagan, for which most of the shooting was held in Kutch in 2000.
The Bollywood actor Salman Khan was also accused of the alleged killing of chinkara gazelles in Kutch in 1998.
References: S. H. Prater “ The Book of Indian Animals, Wikipedia, IUCN Red List
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Sunday article of Mohan Pai

Peepal (Ashwatha)
-the Tree of Life
Ficus Religiosa
Black-hooded Oriole eating Peepal fig in Kolkatta
“Among trees, I am the Ashwatha”
– Bhagavad Gita
Flora in general play a central role in the Indian sacred culture. Two varieties of the fig (called Ashvatha in Sanskrit), the banyan tree and the peepal tree are the most revered in the Indian tradition, and both are considered the trees of life. The banyan symbolizes fertility according to the Agni Purana and is worshipped by those wanting children. It is also referred to as the tree of immortality in many Hindu scriptures.
Ashwatha: The Tree of Life
Called Ashvatha in Sanskrit, the Peepal (Ficus religiosa) is a very large tree. Its bark is light grey, smooth and peels in patches. Its heart-shaped leaves have long, tapering tips. The slightest breeze makes them rustle. The fruit is purple when ripe. The Peepal is the earliest-known depicted tree in India: a seal discovered at Mohenjodaro, one of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation (c. 3000 BC – 1700 BC), shows the Peepal being worshipped. During the Vedic period, its wood was used to make fire by friction.
Ashwatha is sacred to Hindus as well as Buddhists. Ashwatha literally means “Where horses stood” (ashwa + tha).Sage Shankaracharya interprets this tree as representing the the entire cosmos. ‘Shwa’ in Sanskrit means tomorrow. ‘a’ indicates negation, and ‘tha’ means one that stands or remains. He interprets Ashwatha to indicate “One which does not remain the same tomorrow”, or the universe itself. Ashwatha tree is quite remarkable because it grows both upwards as well as top to bottom. The branches themselves morph into roots, so even if the original tree decays and perishes, its branches underneath are young and continue to enclose the parent. This eternal life of the the Peepal tree has inspired many Indian philosophers and Hindu thought. Besides harboring thousands of birds, insects, and providing shade to animals and humans, its foliage is very rich in protein and the bark of the tree is used in several native medicinal drugs. There was a time in India when a Peepal tree was planted in the premises of every temple, and was regarded as the Tree of Life.
The Brahma Purana and the Padma Purana, relate how once, when the demons defeated the gods, Vishnu hid in the peepal. Therefore spontaneous worship to Vishnu can be offered to a peepal without needing his image or temple. The Skanda Purana Peepal Tree also considers the peepal a symbol of Vishnu. He is believed to have been born under this tree. Some believe that the tree houses the Trimurti, the roots being Brahma, the trunk Vishnu and the leaves Shiva. The gods are said to hold their councils under this tree and so it is associated with spiritual understanding. The peepal is also closely linked to Krishna. In the Bhagavad Gita, he says: “Among trees, I am the ashvatha.” Krishna is believed to have died under this tree, after which the present Kali Yuga is said to have begun. According to the Skanda Purana, if one does not have a son, the peepal should be regarded as one. As long as the tree lives, the family name will continue. To cut down a peepal is considered a sin equivalent to killing a Brahmin, one of the five deadly sins or Panchapataka. According to the Skanda Purana, a person goes to hell for doing so. Some people are particular to touch the Peepal only on a Saturday. The Brahma Purana explains why, saying that Ashvatha and Peepala were two demons who harassed people. Ashvatha would take the form of a peepal and Peepala the form of a Brahmin. The fake Brahmin would advise people to touch the tree, and as soon as they did, Ashvatha would kill them. Later they were both killed by Shani. Because of his influence, it is considered safe to touch the tree on Saturdays. Lakshmi is also believed to inhabit the tree on Saturdays. Therefore it is considered auspicious to worship it then. Women ask the tree to bless them with a son tying red thread or red cloth around its trunk or on its branches. On Amavasya, villagers perform a symbolic marriage between the neem and the peepal, which are usually grown near each other. Although this practice is not prescribed by any religious text, there are various beliefs on the significance of ‘marrying’ these trees. In one such belief, the fruit of the neem represents the Shivalinga and so, the male. The leaf of the peepal represents the yoni, the power of the female. The fruit of the neem is placed on a peepal leaf to depict the Shivalinga, which symbolises creation through sexual union, and so the two trees are ‘married’. After the ceremony, villagers circle the trees to rid themselves of their sins.
In Buddhism
The Bodhi tree and the Sri Maha Bodhi propagated from it are famous specimens of Sacred Fig. The known planting date of the tree in Sri Lanka is 288 BC which gives it the oldest verified age for any angiosperm plant.This plant is considered sacred by the followers of Buddhism, and hence the name ‘Sacred Fig’ was given to it. Siddhartha Gautama is referred to have been sitting underneath a Bo-Tree when he was enlightened (Bodhi), or “awakened” (Buddha). Thus, the Bo-Tree is well-known symbol for happiness, prosperity, longevity and good luck.
According to the Buddha – ‘He who worships the Peepal tree will receive the same reward as if he worshiped me in person’. The Peepal tree has its own symbolic meaning of enlightenment and peace.

Ram Bahadur Bamjom…the meditating boy under the peepal tree. This scene no doubt has become one of the widely photographed scene in recent times in Nepal. Posters have been circulated in Nepal and people are already wearing lockets with photos of Ram Bahadur Bamjom. Ram, famous as the Buddha Boy or the Little Buddha or the Meditating Boy stayed there meditating for about 10 months “without eating”.

The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple. Propagated from the Sri Maha Bodhi, which in turn is propagated from the original Bodhi Tree at this location.

References: Wikipedia,, kamat’s potpourri

For some of my articles visit:
For some key chapters from my book “The Western Ghats”, please log on to:
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Sunday article by Mohan Pai

 Extinction is forever !

Over 99% of the species that ever lived are now extinct.

Mass extinction exhibits a cyclic nature. 5 major extinctions that occurred during the last 540 million years of earth history wiped out most living species.

Mass extinction is a sharp decrease in the number of species in a relatively short period of time. Mass extinctions affect most major taxonomic groups present at the time — birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates and other simpler life forms. They may be caused by one or both of:
*extinction of an unusually large number of species in a short period.
*a sharp drop in the rate of speciation.
 Over 99% of species that ever lived are now extinct, but extinction occurs at an uneven rate. Based on the fossil record, the background rate of extinctions on Earth is about two to five taxonomic families of marine invertebrates and vertebrates every million years. Marine fossils are mostly used to measure extinction rates because they are more plentiful and cover a longer time span than fossils of land organisms. Since life began on earth, several major mass extinctions have significantly exceeded the background extinction rate. The most recent, the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, occurred 65 million years ago, and has attracted more attention than all others as it marks the extinction of nearly all dinosaur species, which were the dominant animal class of the period. In the past 540 million years there have been five major events when over 50% of animal species died. There probably were mass extinctions in the Archean and Proterozoic Eons, but before the Phanerozoic there were no animals with hard body parts to leave a significant fossil record.
 Estimates of the number of major mass extinctions in the last 540 million years range from as few as five to more than twenty. These differences stem from the threshold chosen for describing an extinction event as “major”, and the data chosen to measure past diversity.
 Extinction cycles
It has been suggested by several sources that biodiversity and/or extinction events may be influenced by cyclic processes. The best-known hypothesis of extinction events by a cyclic process is the 26M to 30M year cycle in extinctions proposed by Raup and Sepkoski (1986). More recently, Rohde and Muller (2005) have suggested that biodiversity fluctuates primarily on 62 ± 3 million year cycles.Much early work in this area also suffered from the poor accuracy of geological dating, where errors often exceed 10M years. However, improvements in radiometric dating have reduced the scale of uncertainty to at most 4M years – theoretically adequate for studying these processes.
The concept of periodicity has important implications for determining which factors cause extinction. Hypotheses invoking catastrophism have particularly been advanced utilizing this concept, which imply extra-terrestrial forces as extinction-causing agents. This is because only astronomical forces are known to operate on such a precise periotic time schedule. Contrary to catastrophism are hypotheses which focus on gradualism. These gradualistic hypotheses invoke various terrestrial extinction mechanisms including volcanism, glaciation, global climatic change, and changes in sea level. Most recently hypotheses centered on the new non-linear science of complexity have emerged. Under these hypotheses species-species interactions lead to occasional instability resulting in cascades which may ripple through entire ecosystems, with potentially devastating results.

Major extinction events
The classical “Big Five” mass extinctions: End Ordovician, Late Devonian, End Permian, End Triassic, and End Cretaceous. The Holocene extinction event is referred to as the Sixth Extinction.
Cretaceous-Tertiary. 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs were wiped out in a ma extinction that killed nearly a fifth of land vertebrate families, 16% of marine families and nearly half of all marine animals.
End of Triassic. About 200 million years ago, lava floods erupting from the central Atlantic are thought to have created lethal global warming, killing off more than a fifth of all marine families and half of marine genera.
Permian-Triassic. The worst mass extinction took place 250 million years ago, killing 95% of all species.
Late Devonian. About 360 million years ago, a fifth of marine families were wiped out, alongside more than half of all marine genera.
Ordovician-Silurian. About 440 million years ago, a quarter of all marine families were wiped out.

Most widely supported Causes
The most often cited as causes of mass extinctions are:
*Flood basalt events: 11 occurrences, all associated with significant extinctions.
*Sea-level falls: 12, of which 7 were associated with significant extinctions
*Asteroid impacts producing craters over 100km wide: one, associated with one mass extinction. *Asteroid impacts producing craters less than 100km wide: over 50, the great majority not associated with significant extinctions.
Evolutionary importance
Mass extinctions have sometimes accelerated the evolution of life on earth. When dominance of particular ecological niches passes from one group of organisms to another, it is rarely because the new dominant group is “superior” to the old and usually because an extinction event eliminates the old dominant group and makes way for the new one.For example mammaliformes (“almost mammals”) and then mammals existed throughout the reign of the dinosaurs, but could not compete for the large terrestrial vertebrate niches which dinosaurs monopolized. The end-Cretaceous mass extinction removed the non-avian dinosaurs and made it possible for mammals to expand into the large terrestrial vertebrate niches. Many groups which survive mass extinctions do not recover in numbers or diversity, and many of these go into long-term decline.
Sixth Mass Extinction is NOW !
There is little doubt left in the minds of professional biologists that Earth is currently faced with a mounting loss of species that threatens to rival the five great mass extinctions of the geological past.
The classical “Big Five” mass extinctions are End Ordovician, Late Devonian, End Permian, End Triassic, and End Cretaceous. The Holocene extinction event is referred to as the Sixth Extinction, that is the extinction event that is taking place NOW !
A study published in the international journal Conservation Biology reveals a sorry and worsening picture of habitat destruction and species loss. It also describes the deficiencies of and opportunities for governmental action to lessen this mounting regional and global problem. The review highlights destruction and degradation of ecosystems as the main threat.
A study published in the international journal Conservation Biology reveals a sorry and worsening picture of habitat destruction and species loss. It also describes the deficiencies of and opportunities for governmental action to lessen this mounting regional and global problem. The review highlights destruction and degradation of ecosystems as the main threat.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2008
*Nearly 17,000 of the world’s 45,000 assessed species are threatened with extinction (38 percent). Of these, 3,246 are in the highest category of threat, Critically Endangered, 4,770 are Endangered and 8,912 are Vulnerable to extinction.
*Nearly 5,500 animal species are known to be threatened with extinction and at least 1,141 of the 5,487 known mammal species are threatened worldwide.
*In 2008, nearly 450 mammals were listed as Endangered, including the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), after the global population declined by more than 60 percent in the last 10 years.
*Scientists have catalogued relatively little about the rest of the world’s fauna: only 5 percent of fish, 6 percent of reptiles, and 7 percent of amphibians have been evaluated. Of those studied, at least 750 fish species, 290 reptiles, and 150 amphibians are at risk.
*The average extinction rate is now some 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the rate that prevailed over the past 60 million years.

The Passenger Pigeon
In Michigan during a single hunt in 1878 an estimated 1,000 million birds were destroyed at nesting sites. On September 1, 1914 the last Passenger Pigeon named Martha died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo.
 Indian Vultures
In India, the White backed vulture population was estimated at 30 million birds in 1992. Today, it is a mere 11,000 birds and falling due to Diclofenac poisoning.

Extinction is irreversible.
This has been part of the evolutionary process which has produced more advanced forms of life – a process that has occurred over a vast span of time over millions of years. The greatest contribution of Charles Darwin, who propounded the Theory of Evolution, in his logical explanation for evolutionary changes and appearance of new form of life – natural selection – the success of those organisms that are capable of adapting to the environment, to survive and reproduce.

One of the world’s rarest birds and an almost extinct species, today lessthan 200 birds survive!

In India, the Cheetah, the lesser one-horned rhinoceros, the pink- headed duck and the mountain quail have become extinct in the last one century.

The Sangai, the brow-antlered deer is found only in Manipur and only 162 animals survive.
Many mammals and birds have become rare and endangered and many a natural range diminished in size with increasing deforestation, often confining the animals to small territories.
The Golden Toad of Monteverde, Costa Rica was among the first casualties of amphibian decline. Formerly abundant, it was last seen in 1989.

References: Wikipedia, J. C. Daniel (’Extinction is for ever’), IUCN Red List,, Mohan Pai.

For some of my articles visit:
For some key chapters from my book “The Western Ghats”, please log on to:
For detailed blog (6 Chapters from my book) on Mahadayi/Mandovi River Valley, please log on to:
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Bird Migration

An article by Mohan Pai



Mystery of Nature

The Arctic tern flies a phenomenal round trip of 34,000 km per year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back !

The longest known migratory journey is performed twice a year by the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) which from the Arctic winter travels south, right across the world to the Antarctic summer and back again – a distance of over 17,000 km each way.

Arctic tern


What is bird migration ?
Bird migration refers to the regular seasonal journeys undertaken by many species of birds. Bird movements include those made in response to changes in food availability, habitat or weather. These however are usually irregular or in only one direction and are termed variously as nomadism, invasions, dispersal or irruptions. Migration is marked by its annual seasonality. In contrast, birds that are non-migratory are said to be resident or sedentary.

Indian Migratory Birds
Indian subcontinent plays host to a number of migratory birds in summers as well as winters. It is estimated that over hundred species of migratory birds fly to India, either in search of feeding grounds or to escape the severe winter of their native habitat. This is because winds usually prevail at higher altitudes and at the same time, the cold temperature at these altitudes helps them in diffusing the body heat, which is generated by their flight muscles. The timing of the migration is usually a mixture of internal and external stimulus.
Migrating birds start on a journey when they feel that they have put on enough fat to provide them energy throughout the journey. Then, the tendency to aggregate into flocks is another determinant of the time of migration. Even after the flock, which has to fly together, has gathered, the birds keep on feeding till the weather conditions become favorable. Thus, apart from the internal clock of the birds and their flock, it is also the availability of food and the weather conditions that play a role in the determination of the time of migration.

Why birds migrate?
Food, water, protective cover, and a sheltered place to nest and breed are basic to a bird’s survival. But the changing seasons can transform a comfortable environment into an unlivable one — the food and water supply can dwindle or disappear, plant cover can vanish, and competition with other animals can increaseMost wild animals face the problem of occupying a habitat that is suitable for only a portion of the year. Fortunately, however, nature has provided methods for coping with the situation. One method, known as hibernation, involves entering a dormant state during the winter season. The other method, known as migration, involves escaping the area entirely. Because of the powers of flight, most birds adapt to seasonal changes in the environment by migrating. How they do it ? Some birds make the long journey in easy stages, stopping to rest on the way. Others fly great distances without pausing to rest and feed. Some fly by day, some both by day and by night, but most of them speed on their way through darkness after the sun has set. Birds usually travel in flocks. The V-shaped formation of cranes and geese attracts much attention as the bird’s speed across the sky. Swallows, flycatchers, warblers, shore birds and water-birds being to gather in flocks- each with its own kind-and, after a great deal of excited fluttering, twittering and calling, they rise up into the air and away they go. Usually the male birds go first to their breeding grounds in bachelor parties and the female birds follow them in a few days!
Griffon Vulture
The movement of birds with the changing seasons was known from the earliest times, but people had strange ideas as to why the birds traveled, or where they went. To explain their absence from a place in a particular season, they said that the birds buried themselves in the mud and slept there throughout the winter! Later, detailed studies of migration started. Information was gained by directly observing the habits of birds, and also by ringing. Bird movements are also studied by creating artificial conditions and studying their effects on birds. Today, most of the information on migration has come from ringing young and adult birds. Ringing is done by capturing a bird and putting on to its leg a light band of metal or plastic. The band bears a number, date, identification mark, and the address to which the finder is requested to return the ring. The bird is then set free. The place where such a bird is shot captured or found dead gives clue to the direction and locality to which the bird has migrated.

Bird Sanctuaries in India

Among the most famous bird sanctuaries in India are, the Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur, the Corbett National Park and the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary, part of Project Tiger. These sanctuaries offer wide variety of bird species.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park is one of India’s pioneer wildlife conservation centers. Considered to be the best sites for bird watching in the world, the sanctuary annually hosts thousands of visitors who come to view the spectacular wildlife Spread over an area of 30 square km of marshy swamp, kadam forests, woodland and shallow lakes, the sanctuary offers habitat to both nesting indigenous birds as well as migratory water birds. An amazing number of more than 330 species of birds have been spotted and identified in the sanctuary. The Siberian Crane, the finest and rarest of migratory birds, are the cynosure this sanctuary and are regular visitors.Siberian Crane is believed to have existed in this world for over one million years. However it is of great concern that only 125 pairs of these pure white, crimson-billed cranes estimated to survive worldwide. Profusion of marine vegetation, frogs, fish, insects and mollusks, as well fine setting for migratory birds go a long way to make Keoladeo Ghana National Park an ideal place for pelicans, storks, herons, egrets and kingfishers. Breeding females stay in peaceful co-existence and it is of no surprise that one tree can have nests of different birds. The sanctuary is know to have been the best breeding ground for more than a thousand species of birds. Migratory birds start arriving in the month of October. They include a variety of Geese, Ducks, Raptors, Geese, Warblers and Waders.
Extending over an area of 800 sq km, the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the forest hills of the Aravalli ranges in the state of Rajasthan. It provides habitat to more than 200 species of birds including the Gray Hornbill, Crested Serpent Eagle, Black/Red Headed Bunting, Wryneck Woodpecker Babbler, White Breasted Kingfisher, Little Brown Dove, Small Minivet, Golden Oriole, Great Gray Shrike, Pale Harrier and Tailor Bird. An example of typical dry deciduous forest, the sanctuary remains lush and green during the monsoons and dry during the rest of the seasons.
Other place is the Pong Dam reservoir is 65 km Pathankot and 115 km from Dharamsala. Nestled in the sylvan surroundings of the Kangra valley, the sprawling Pong Dam wetland has emerged as a major habitat for migratory birds in the country as also an attraction for bird watchers. The most common bird species that have arrived and often visit this lake every year include ruddy-shell ducks (surkhab), bar-headed geese, mallards, coots, pochards and pintails besides rare red-necked grebe and gulls. These species come from as far as China, Siberia, Central Asia, Pakistan and Ladakh. According to a census, more than one lakh migratory birds visited the lake last year.
Apart from being home to the tiger, Corbett National Park is also noted for the bird watching. Considered to be one of the best bird watching sites in the world, the park is home to some 600 species of birds. This number exceeds the total number of bird species found in Europe and is about one fourth of the diversity found in India. A case in point is that out of the 69 species of raptors found in India, 49 can be seen in Corbett. Spreading out on an area of 520 sq km, the Corbett National Park is a hot destination for bird-watchers. Bird-watchers from across the world make a beeline to this park during winters when the bird diversity is at its zenith.


Painted Storks – Pic by Geeta Shankar

Threats and conservation

Human activities have threatened many migratory bird species. The distances involved in bird migration mean that they often cross political boundaries of countries and conservation measures require international cooperation. Several international treaties have been signed to protect migratory species including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 of the US and the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement.The concentration of birds during migration can put species at risk. Some spectacular migrants have already gone extinct, the most notable being the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Other significant areas include stop-over sites between the wintering and breeding territories. A capture-recapture study of passerine migrants with high fidelity for breeding and wintering sites did not show similar strict association with stop-over sites.Hunting along the migratory route can also take a heavy toll. The populations of Siberian Cranes that wintered in India declined due to hunting along the route, particularly in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Birds were last seen in their favourite wintering grounds in Keoladeo National Park in 2002.Structures such as power lines, wind farms and offshore oil-rigs have also been known to affect migratory birds. Habitat destruction by land use changes is however the biggest threat and shallow wetlands which are stopover and wintering sites for migratory birds are particularly threatened by draining and reclamation for human use.

Refereces: Salim Ali ‘The book of Indian Birds’, Wikipedia, Indian Wildlife.htm, HSBC’s Environment Forum


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