Posts Tagged 'Birds'

Vanishing Species – Indian Owls

An article by Mohan Pai

The Indian Owls

Owls are considered Demon Birds and attract foreboding and superstitious epithets. Their nocturnal nature, their devil-like horns, their sudden screeching from ancient tree-hollows in cemeteries or their piercing lidless stare – all of these have long earned them pride of place, along with the bat, in the spook hierarchy of folk tales and horror films.
Added to this are the tantriks and medicine men, who use them in black magic rituals and ‘miracle cures’ for their gullible clientele. The most common purpose is witchcraft. As the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi, the owl is associated with wealth. So, those who hope to strike it rich with the help of the occult visit tantriks around the festive seasons of Dipavali and Durga Puja. The tantriks perform owl sacrifices, anoint their clients with sacrificial owl blood and give them an owl claw, guaranteed to bring in a massive fortune! Even educate, urbane citizens of Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Kolkatta indulge in this gruesome ritual.
Clients are willing to fork out up to Rs eight lakh for a gold-and grey barn owl or a great horned owl (Eurasian Eagle Owl) and these are endangered species and hard to find. The owl trade is tough to trace now. Owls are procured specifically on request and kept well out of sight.
Owls are also used in street performances, ‘blessing’ amulets for onlookers to purchase.
In South Indian cities, however, owls are not so welcome due to prevalent superstitious beliefs. But word of growing demand for the owls and the astronomical prices they can fetch has made its way down south. Trappers are descending into forests and grasslands, and coming out with sackfuls of Great Horned Owls, Barn Owls and Scops Owl to be trafficked to the north, according to recent reports from Kerala. Trappers are active in Chennai too.
Indian Eagle Owl
– Bubo bengalensis
Also known as Rock Eagle Owl, Bengal Eagle Owl.
The Rock Eagle Owl also called the Indian Eagle Owl or Bengal Eagle Owl, Bubo bengalensis is a species of large horned owl found in South Asia. They were earlier treated as a subspecies of the Eurasian Eagle Owl. They are found in hilly and rocky scrub forests, and are usually seen in pairs. They have a deep resonant booming call that may be heard at dawn and dusk. They are typically large owls, and have “tufts” on their heads. They are splashed with brown, and gray and have a white throat patch with black small stripes.They are seen in scrub and light to medium forests but are especially seen near rocky places. Humid evergreen forest and pure desert are avoided. Bush covered rocky hillocks and ravines, and steep, scored banks of rivers and streams are favourite haunts. It spends the day under the shelter of a bush or rocky projection, or in a large mango or similar thickly foliaged tree near villages. Their diet consists of mice and any small rodents and mammals, and sometimes birds.The deep resonant two note calls are characteristic and males deliver these “long calls” mainly during dusk in the breeding season. The peak calling intensity is noticed in February. Young birds produce clicks, hisses and open up their wings to appear larger than they are. Nesting adults will fly in zig zag patterns and mob any potential predators (including humans) who approach the nest. When feeding on rodents, they tear up the prey rather than swallow them whole. The nesting season is November to April. The eggs number three to four and are creamy white, broad roundish ovals with a smooth texture. They are laid on bare soil in a natural recess in an earth bank, on the ledge of a cliff, or under the shelter of a bush on level ground.
The Indian Eagle Owl is confined to peninsular India, Sind in Pakistan and Marakan in Burma (where it may now be extinct), it faces a high risk of total extinction in the near future (conservative estimates put the country-wide population of breeding birds at less than 2,000 pairs).Endangered condition An inhabitant of the deeply scored ravines and gullies, it clings to a precarious existence as human pressure drives it out of its preferred habitat (land development activities,using ravines and gullies as sewage dumps, the rock faces are intensely mined for slowly but steadily fills up the canyons). The indiscriminate use of pesticides in the environment, which steadily build up in the tissues of this bird, rendering it infertile (adding to its mortality), is another apparently insurmountable problem. Add to this local mythical beliefs (which consider owls as creatures of ill omen and harbingers of death) and the general apathy towards the plight of this species by environmentalists themselves, and their future looks very bleak indeed.Peculiar ‘who-whooo’ call It spends the day sitting motionless in a cleft in a rock face or under a bush, relying on its cryptically coloured plumage for camouflage. At dusk it sets out from its hiding place, preceded and accompanied by its peculiar and distinctive ‘who-whooo’ call, which though not loud, has a curious far-carrying quality.
Predatory nature
The various species of rodents found in these parts (gerbils, mice, mole rats and rats) constitute the prey base of ‘Bubo bubo’ (a single owl has been known to consume nearly 300 rodents in a year), and the predatory nature of the species keeps their numbers in check. At times other birds, snakes, lizards, frogs and even other owls are consumed.
Breeding habits
The breeding period in these parts of its range is from December to April. Sometimes three, but more commonly two, eggs are laid on the ground in a sheltered spot among the rocky cliffs (no nest is made) at staggered intervals. After an incubation period of approximately 45 days, the eggs hatch, again at irregular intervals, so much so that when the last chick emerges the eldest is 15 days old and capable of feeding by itself. Usually only one chick survives (cannibalism is all too frequent – the larger chick killing and eating its younger nest mates). The survivor matures rapidly, and is capable of flying in less than 45 days. Unfortunately, most details concerning the natural history of this bird remain unknown and shrouded in myth.
What used to be called the Great Horned Owl (Bubo Bubo Bengalensis) in Salim Ali, is now sometimes merged with The Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo Bubo) (Grimmett). However, some others (Grewal) maintain the subspecies distinction between and bengalensis and hemachalana, calling the first Eurasian Eagle owl (this is the Himalayan race), and the latter the Rock Eagle Owl. One characteristic is that the Rock Eagle Owl has streaks on the neck going down to the belly – which this bird seems to have.
Short-eared Owl
– Asio flammeus

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is a medium-sized owl that frequently flies during daylight, especially at dusk and dawn, as it forages for rodents. This owl is usually found in grasslands, shrub lands, and other open habitats. It is nomadic, often choosing a new breeding site each year, depending on local rodent densities. During the day, they may be found roosting on the ground or on open, low perches. The population of Short-eared Owl is declining throughout most of its range.
Short-eared Owls are so named for the erect but barely visible ear tufts atop their heads. As the most aerial of all owls, this tawny-colored owl can be mistaken for the Northern Harrier at a distance. At 38 cm, these owls are medium-sized, with long, narrow wings. Tawny overall, they are spotted above and boldly streaked below, although streaking fades on the paler belly. Dark eye-patches offset the large golden eyes that adorn their broad facial disks. In flight, their outstretched wings expose the buffy patches above and black wrist-marks below. Their easy, wavering flight is characterized by stiff, erratic wingbeats and is very moth-like in appearance.
Calls: Silent except in the nesting season, the male Short-eared Owl gives a muffled “poo, poo, poo” in short series. When alarmed, both sexes bark out high, raspy, nasal notes “cheef, cheef, cheewaay”. Nests: Short-eared Owl nests beginning in April on the ground in a small depression excavated by the female and sometimes in ground burrows. Females select the nest site and only sparsely line it (if at all) with grasses, weeds and occasionally feathers. Often concealed by low vegetation, the nest is safe haven for the 4-14, 39 mm, creamy white, unmarked eggs of the clutch. The number of eggs laid is said to be dependant on the abundance of rodents. While the female alone incubates the clutch for 25-28 days, the male feeds her during this time. Young birds hatch asynchronously producing variously sized siblings in the nest. Both parents rear the young birds and fledging occurs in 31-36 days post-hatching
Although Short-eared Owls predominantly hunt small mammals, they also consume small birds and insects. These owls hunt at dusk and dawn and may hunt communally when prey is abundant. The primary feathers of their wings are modified to eliminate the noise of airflow, creating virtually silent flight for hunting. Soaring low over open country, these owls swoop down from the air or their perches (hawking) to snatch-up their victims with their sharp talons.

Spotted Eagle Owl
-(Bubo africanus)
The Spotted Eagle Owl is one of the smallest of the Eagle Owls. On average they weigh around one quarter of the weight of the largest of the Eagle Owl family, the Eurasian Eagle Owl. The Spotted Eagle Owl is found throughout most Africa south of the Sahara, with the exception of very dense forests. Up until 1999, it was considered that there were two subspecies of Spotted Eagle Owl found in Africa, but one of the subspecies, (Bubo africanus cinerascens), is now treated as a separate species, the Vermiculated Eagle Owl (Bubo cinerascens). In Africa there is now only one subspecies, (Bubo africanus africanus), and there is a second subspecies, (Bubo africanus milesi), is that is found found in the southern western parts of Arabian peninsula. The Spotted Eagle Owls hunt predominantly at dusk, spending most of the day concealed in trees, on rock ledges or even in burrows of other animals. They will take a large variety of prey, from small mammals, birds in flight, reptiles, scorpions, crabs, frogs, bats & insects. They are often seen hunting around streetlights in towns, which is where insects, & consequently bats hunting insects, tend to congregate at dusk. When preying on insects, it is necessary for the owls to eat a very large number, as they are quite small & take a lot of effort & energy to catch. Despite this, many Spotted Eagle Owls live on a diet of predominantly insects. When preying on mammals, the Spotted Eagle Owls will usually use the technique of still hunting, often catching the prey on the ground with a single steep swoop from their perch. If the prey is energetic, the Spotted Eagle Owls will often chase the prey for considerable distances. Investigations into the birds that the Spotted Eagle Owls prey on show a large variety, including terns, hornbills & even Lanner Falcons (Falco biarmicus). Basically, the Spotted Eagle Owls are very versatile when it comes to prey, feeding off anything they are able to catch, which enables them to survive fluctuations in prey populations. Spotted Eagle Owls usually mate for life. They usually nest on the ground or in disused nests in trees, though they have also been known to lay eggs on window ledges of large buildings. When nesting & incubating the eggs, most of the defence of the nest site is done mainly vocally, rather than by attacking. Their breeding season starts in July and lasts until late January or early February (as they live in the Southern Hemisphere, this corresponds to late winter/early summer breeding seasons of the owls in the Northern Hemisphere). 2 to 4 eggs are normally laid, and the female does all of the incubation, rarely leaving the nest, except to feed on prey brought to it by the male. Incubation takes around 30 to 32 days. At around 7 weeks from hatching, the young are able to fly competently, often following their parents calling loudly for food. The young are dependant on their parents for up to 5 weeks after learning to fly.

Given sufficient food in their territory, Spotted Eagle Owls may start breeding at 1 year old. As with all of the birds of prey, they suffer fairly high mortality rates in their first year of life, but if they survive that first year, then they are likely to live around 11-12 years in the wild.. Spotted Eagle Owls do not have a tendency to avoid populated areas, and many of their deaths are as a consequence. Quite a lot of their hunting is done by the sides of roads & many are killed by collisions with vehicles. Another cause of deaths is flying into, or becoming trapped by, fences & overhead cables. But by far the largest cause of deaths of Spotted Eagle Owls in Africa is pesticides, many of which are banned in Europe and America, such as DDT. Their natural predators include amongst other things, is the Osprey.

Indian Scops Owl
– Otus lettia

Small to medium sized owl, with distinctive ear tufts. Upper-parts light sandy brown marked with black and buff, under-parts grey (gray) or rufous buff, with darker arrowhead streaks and fine vermiculations. Distinct pale collar, and dark eyes.

References: Wikipedia, Shruti Ravindran in Outlook,,,

Vanishing Species – The Painted Stork

An article by Mohan Pai


The Painted Storks of Veerapuram & Kaggaladu

Pic by Geeta Shankar

These migratory birds are endangered species who find a haven in the understanding and caring villagers.

Last week April 22-23), we made a trip to two heronries of painted stork near Tumkur. The first site we visited was Kaggaladu village near Sira and the second nesting site, a village called Veerapuram, just across the border in Andhra Pradesh. Karnataka (Kokrebellur, Rangantitthu, Kaggaladu etc.) and Andhra Pradesh ( Kolleru Lake, Pulicat, Neelapatu, Veerapuram, etc.} have sizeable colonies of these migratory birds.

These birds are thought to have migrated originally from the Great Russian ice desert in Siberia. They went south towards Asia, seeking warmer and more comfortable places of the world like India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia. However, they seemed especially drawn to the Indian Peninsula. They come to breed in and around large bodies of water and coastal areas.

Standing from a distance, heronries of painted storks look like cluttered dirty blobs of white on the tree tops. One really has to strain his eyes to make out what exactly the entire scene represents. A closer look brings in view spectacular ‘hunched up’ colony of large birds. Built on tree one might find as many as 10-20 nests on a single tree, almost touching each other.
Painted Stork is a massive bird with a yellow, long and heavy bill, slightly curved near the tip. The plumage is white and closely barred, marked with glistening black above and with a black band across the breast.


Statue of two painted storks adorn the entrance to Veerapuram Village – Pic by Geeta Shankar

It’s wonderful but difficult to understand the bond between the painted storks from Siberia and Veerapuram, a tiny remote village in Anantapura district, about 140 km from Bangalore. The Painted Storks have settled down in Veeepuram for more than a century now. The chemistry of love between the storks and Veerapuram is unfathomable as the birds are found nestled only on the trees within the village and not even on the outskirts.

Idyllic scene – Veerapuram Village – pic by Geeta Shankar

The villagers claim it is their “love for the guest birds” which keeps them in the village. Though the village has a small water body (a tank) it dries up by the time the guests arrive in the village or it doesn’t get the water at all due to the poor rainfall in the area. Nestled in the village the male birds fly even up to a couple of hundred km every night to fetch food from the water bodies. However, they return to the nests by dawn. The painted storks from Siberia and Algeria fly across the seas and mainland for about 6,000 km to reach Veerapuram. The migration starts from December and ends in May-June when the birds return to their homelands along with their new borns.

They start hatching immediately after reaching the tropical areas. After a gap of four years, an estimated 2,500 birds have migrated to the village last year. The villagers see the war in Afghanistan and severe drought conditions in the district for the last four years as the reason for the absence of the guests in the recent years.

The young chicks often fall down to the ground from their nests and are injured. The caring villagers have set aside a nursing hut for these injured birds. A vet is called in to treat the sick.

Chicks fallen to the ground are being nursed by the villagers – pic by Mohan Pai

It is amazing to see and know that these birds have chosen this village as their breeding centre. It is presumed that because these villagers take care of the birds by not harming them, they repeatedly come every year. The Care and concern shown to these birds by very enthusiastic children and the old of the village was very evident. We saw a big net which was tied under the trees to safeguard the eggs from falling onto the road.

Enthusiastic youngsters of Veerapuram

There are some 20 tamarind trees full of painted storks. But we also found a nest (above) in a gulmohar tree! – pic by Geeta Shankar

Feeding ground – A lake near Veerapuram Pic: Mohan Pai


Kaggaladu village near Sira, about 128 km from Bangalore, has become a potential bird sanctuary. The birds first started nesting here about 12 years ago. Around 10-12 tamarind trees turn into home for the painted storks from November to May every year. The painted storks come here in November from far away Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Kaggaladu Village – pic by Geeta Shankar

The villagers treat the birds as family members and never pluck the tamarind as it would disturb the nest. Every villager has turned into an ornithologist and they have a good account of the life-style of the birds. Adding to the presence of the painted storks there is a sizeable population of grey herons. There are also some Spot billed pelicans around.

However, Kaggaladu is in need of serious sustainable conservation effort to maintain itself as one of the most important breeding sites for Painted Stork.These large beautiful birds prefer Tamarind trees for nesting, completely avoiding all other trees. Probably the strong stunted branches of Tamarind provide an easy landing for these heavy birds. More over, having no dense foliage, tamarind trees offer relatively lower resistance against stiff wind, which is prevalent in this part of Karnataka. This makes the nesting places safe from dangerous sway. Even though we could see many tamarind trees in the village, the storks choose only 10 of them for reasons completely unknown. Apart from the fact that the villagers take care of the trees, there is no coordinated effort to protect them. Four of the five nesting trees are on government land, by the road and the other one is on private land. We have seen private buses irresponsibly honk their horn loudly and race through the village road directly below the nests.

Painted stork colony in tamarind tree – pic by Geeta Shankar

The tank and its vicinity however, had gone dry in the last four years due to incessant drought in the area. It was yet another reason why nesting activity had come to halt. Birds used to come and leave soon after noticing the dry tank. The tank received some water during the rainfall in September-October year before.

Physical Traits

The Painted stork of India is a tall and slim bird, which grows to a height of 95 to 100 cm. The bird is mostly white in color, with the exception of its wings and chest feathers that have black and white markings. The color of the lower back, along with the legs, is light pink. The head of the Painted storks is only partly covered with feathers and is orange in color.
The bill is long, yellow in color and curves towards the end. The female Painted stork is a little smaller than the male. The young ones are brownish in color when they hatch. Only after they become three years old, do they get adult feathers or plumage. Full maturity comes around the age of four years.


Painted storks of India prefer to eat fish, which also forms a major portion of their diet. However, at times, they consume frogs and snails also. When hunting, the stork puts its head inside the water, with its bill being partly open. The bird keeps swinging its head back and forth in the water, till it catches a prey.

Natural Habitat

Painted storks are seen occupying Indian freshwater marshes, ponds and flooded fields. Apart from India, the bird is found in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, eastern China, Kampuchea and Vietnam. A small population of the Painted stork lives in Thailand also.


Painted stork bird of India has a place in the list of protected species, at the moment.


The predators of Painted stork of India include tigers, leopards, jungle cats, hyenas and crocodiles. Some villagers also kill them for their meet.


Painted Storks are found mostly in large colonies and stay near water. The nests, made up of sticks and leaves, are built close to the edge of the water. One can see other stork species, like herons, ibises, cormorants and spoonbills, sharing the habitat with Painted storks. Till 18 months of age, the young ones can make loud calls to attract their parents. However, after this, they lose their speech and use other signals to convey something to their fellow birds.

Mating Behavior

The breeding season of the Painted stork starts towards the end of the rainy season. The mating period is the time for the male storks to perform ritualistic displays and attract females. After mating, the nest is built and the female lays around 3 to 5 eggs. The incubation period is between 27 and 32 days and the responsibility is shared by the both the parents. The young ones become fully matured when they attain four years of age.


The most important as well as the most developed senses of the Painted stork comprise of its eyesight and hearing. The young ones communicate through loud hoarse call. However, after attaining 18 moths of age, the style of communication changes to clattering of large bills or hissing or bowing to each other or spreading the wings, etc.

References: Wikipedia, Deccan Herald, Hindu, Indian Express.

Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks to Mrs. Geeta Shankar, Mr.Chandrappa, RFO, Sira Division, and Mr. Gurumurthy of Karnataka Forest Dept.

Vanishing Species – The Saurus Crane

An Article by Mohan Pai

 The Saurus Crane
(Grus antigone)
World’s tallest flying bird, the Saurus cranes mate for life and is perhaps the best example of conjugal harmony and fidelity in nature.
Saurus cranes mate for life. The bond is so strong, these birds are a symbol of marital fidelity in many Asian cultures. As with many other crane species, the saurus crane performs a courtship dance mainly during the breeding season. They bow and curtsy, opening up their wings and throwing back their head as they utter their trumpeting call. The Saurus is the only resident crane in India.

The Saurus crane is a large, tall grey bird standing 1.5 to 1.75 m. with long bare red legs and naked red head and upper neck with a wing span of 2.4 m. Cranes are believed to have evolved during Cenozoic period (in the last 60 million years).


The Saurus pairs about cultivations and marshland. Distributed in Northern, Central and NE India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar. The Burmese sharpii is darker than Indian antigone.


Essentially a dweller of open well-watered plains. Normally seen in pairs, occasionally accompanies by one or two young. Said to pair for life, and conjugal devotion has one for the species popular reverence and protection resulting in tameness and lack of fear of man.

It attains flight by slow rhythmical wing strokes, neck outstretched in front, legs trailing behind; swifter than it appears and seldom high up in the air. It is the world’s tallest flying bird (nearly six feet tall).
It gives a loud, sonorous, far-reaching trumpeting sound uttered from ground as well as on wing.
During breeding season pairs indulge in ludicrous and spectacular dancing display, bowing mutually, prancing with outspread wings and leaping around each other.


Grain, shoots and other vegetable matter, insects, reptiles, etc.
NestingThe nest is a huge mass of reed and rush stems and straw, in the midst of a flooded paddy field or a marsh. Lays two pale greenish or pinkish white eggs, sometimes spotted and blotched with brown or purple. Both birds are vigilant in guarding the nest, boldly attacking dogs and cattle encroaching in its neighbourhood.
The young can swim before they walk and quickly learn to get their own food.

Excerpts from the book “The Dance of the Saurus” by S. Theodore Baskaran:

“Winter in Western India and there is a nip in the air. The slanting rays of the early morning sun lift the mist slowly, revealing a brilliant carpet of yellow flowers in the mustard field. And at the edge of the expanse are two Saurus Cranes. Few other sights are so stirring to a birdwatcher as a pair of these cranes. They are always seen as twosome.

They bond for life and their marital devotion is legendary. In the world of birds , one that lasts just for breeding season, like the hornbill’s, and the other, that lasts for a lifetime like that of the Saurus. In Gujarat, one of the strongholds of these cranes, there is a touching custom. If a husband and wife are given to quarreling frequently, the elders persuade them to go and watch a pair of Saurus in the field, echoing the ritual spotting of the star Arundhathi in a marriage ceremony.
“… Due to rapidly expanding agriculture and human settlements, wetlands are disappearing fast and what is left is polluted with pesticides and industrial effluent. … Increasingly, these cranes choose to nest in paddy fields, which are after all, temporary wetland. The farmer suffers heavy losses as bird takes a toll of paddy. So they try to prevent the Saurus nesting in their fields and each season quite a few pairs fail to breed. In the Kheda area, traditional breeding ground of the Saurus where you get the highest concentration of nesting pairs, every year there is a decline of fifteen per cent and that is an alarming rate indeed.”

References: The Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali, The Dance of the Saurus by S. Theodore Baskaran
 Pic: Courtsey, E. J. Peiker
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Vanishing Species – Great Pied Hornbill

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Great Pied Hornbill

(Buceros bicornis)

Another of our big bird on its way to extinction

Hornbills attract naturalists the world over on account of their large size, bizarre bill, projecting casque, colourful beaks, feathers, and peculiar breeding habits. Most of the hornbill species nest in cavities of old trees. The breeding pairs usually exhibit high nest site fidelity as they tend to use the same nest site every year. After selecting a suitable nest hole, the female goes in and incarcerates herself by sealing the entrance leaving a narrow slit, through which she, and later her chicks, receive food from the male.

The Great Hornbill, Buceros bicornis also known asThe Great Pied Hornbill, is the largest member of the hornbill family. Great Hornbill is distributed in the forests of India, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, Indonesia. Their impressive size and colour have helped make them a part of local tribal cultures and rituals. The Great Hornbill is long-lived with a life-span approaching 50 years in captivity.The Great Hornbill is a large bird, nearly four feet tall with a 60-inch wingspan, tail feathers reaching 36 inches and a weight of approximately six pounds. The most prominent feature of the hornbill is the bright yellow and black casque on top of its massive bill. The casque is hollow and serves no known purpose (“tame” hornbills are known to enjoy having them scratched) although they are believed to be the result of sexual selection. Male hornbills have been known to indulge in aerial casque butting flights. Females are smaller than males and have blue instead of red eyes. The male spreads the preen gland secretion which is yellow onto the primaries to give them the bright yellow colour.


The largest of the nine hornbill species found on the Indian subcontinent, the Great Pied hornbill also has one of the widest ranges, living everywhere from sea level to heights of nearly 5,000 feet.The Great Pied hornbill can have wingspans of nearly five feet, with tails that can measure three feet. It is an incredibly beautiful bird as well, covered in black plumage, with a yellow bill that curves downward. Most distinctively, the hornbill’s head is topped with an ivory formation, also known as a casque. The Great Pied hornbill’s diet consists mostly of fruit, which it collects inside its beak during feedings. A male hornbill will collect as much food as it can, swallow it, and then return to its mate, and regurgitate the meal into her mouth. The wing beat of a Great Pied hornbill can be heard more than a half mile away.

The Malabar Pied Hornbill occurs more frequently and abundantly in the northern part of the Western Ghats, with a key conservation area being the Amboli-Madei-Mollem-Dandeli region spanning three states. The strongholds of Great Pied Hornbill populations appear to be localised at a few sites in the southern half of the Western Ghats (e.g., Anamalai hills).

In India, nine species of hornbills occur, of which four species have been recorded in the Western Ghats. They are the Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornius), Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus), Malabar Grey Hornbill and Common Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris). The Malabar Grey Hornbill is endemic to the southern portion of the Western Ghats. In Nilgiris and the adjoining hill areas, the hornbills are known by various names by the different groups of indigenous people. The Great Pied Hornbill is known as Ongil by Kurumbas, Haradaya by Kattunayakkas, Peraanthi by Irulas. In the adjoining state of Kerala, where Great Pied Hornbill is the state bird, it is known as Malamuzhakki and Pondan Vezhambal . All the hornbill species are known by a common name aanthi by Irulas. Intensive bird surveys in Nilgiris and the adjoining Coimbatore district covering seven localities indicate the presence of all four hornbill species here. While Malabar Pied Hornbill and Common Grey Hornbill were sighted in only one locality, the Great Pied Hornbill was sighted in three localities and Malabar Grey Hornbill in two localities. Studies conducted by other ornithologists in the southern part of Western Ghats indicate that these birds are also sighted frequently in Anamalai hills, Mundanthurai-Kalakad hills, Silent Valley, Parambikulam, Periyar Tiger Reserve and in the forests of North Kanara districts.Trends indicate that the pied hornbills are threatened with local extirpation.

The largest among these four species is the Great Pied Hornbill which is most vulnerable to local extinction in the Western Ghats. This species requires large stretches of evergreen forests. Being large birds, they have to find a sufficiently large sized nest hole in order to house the female and chicks during the long breeding cycle that extends to more than 100 days. Also the slightest disturbance at the nest site can result in the male refusing to feed the nest inmates, thus threatening the survival of the female and chicks. The levels of disturbance are on the increase due to increasing deforestation activities. According to Raghupathy Kannan, who conducted a study on the Great Pied Hornbill in Anamalai hills, poaching of the female and chicks during the breeding season is an immediate threat to these birds

In human culturesLocal tribes further threaten the Great Indian Hornbills with their desire for its various parts. The blood of chicks is said to have a soothing effect on departed souls and before marriage, tribesmen use their feathers for head-dresses, and their skulls are often worn as decorations. Conservation programmes have attempted to provide tribes with feathers from captive hornbills and ceramic casques to substitute natural ones.

A Great Hornbill by the name of William is the symbol of the Bombay Natural History Society. Sir Norman Kinnear described William as follows: “Every visitor to the Society’s room in Appollo Street will remember the great Indian Hornbill, better known as the “office canary” which lived in a cage behind Millard’s chair in Phipson & Co.’s office for 26 years and died in 1920. It is said its death was caused by swallowing a piece of wire, but in the past “William” had swallowed a lighted cigar without ill effects and I for my part think that the loss of his old friend was the principal cause.”

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Vanishing Species – Jerdon’s Courser

An article by Mohan Pai



Jerdon’s Courser

 Rhinoptilus bitorquatus


species, today less than 200 birds survive!


 The Jerdon’s Courser (Rhinoptilus bitorquatus) also known as Doublebanded Courser, is a nocturnal bird belonging to the pratincole and courser family Glareolidae endemic to the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh. The bird was discovered by the surgeon-naturalist Thomas C. Jerdon in 1848 but not seen again until 1986.
Naturalists searched for it in its native habitat in eastern India but without success. In 1975/76 the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) launched another search for it. The BNHS circulated posters showing a coloured picture of the bird in the Pennar river valley in southern Andhra Pradesh. There was a note in Telugu accompanying the posters. One day a tribal said he had seen the bird shown in the poster and that it was known as Kalivi-Kodi in Telugu. He said the birds moved in groups of seven to eight and fed at night.
In January 1976 a poacher caught a Kalivi-Kodi but by the time a representative of the BNHS reached him the bird had died. But the scientists were closing in on the bird and soon afterwards they saw some of them in their natural surroundings. They watched entranced. Their long search was over!The kalivi-kodi was indeed Jerdon’s Courser and it was alive and well!
Historically, it was known from just a few records in the Pennar and Godavari river valleys and was assumed to be extinct until its rediscovery around Lankamalai in 1986. It has since been found at six further localities in the vicinity of the Lankamalai, Velikonda and Palakonda hill-ranges, southern Andhra Pradesh, with all localities probably holding birds from a single population.
Still, with only a few birds sighted, today the Jerdon’s Courser is categorized as critically endangered in the World Conservation Union’s Red List and is also listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, and is considered as priority species under the National Wildlife Action Plan (2002 – 2016) of the Government of India.
This bird was known only from a few historical records and was thought to be extinct until its rediscovery in 1986. It remains critically endangered due to loss of habitat. It is nocturnal in habit and presumed to be insectivorous. Being a rare bird, nothing is known yet about its behaviour and nesting habits.Population estimates for the bird range from between 25 and 200. Recent studies have made use of techniques such as camera trapping and carefully placed strips of fine sand to record footprints from which estimates of population density are made. The known world population of the species is restricted to a very small region and attempts have been made to find new areas by distributing pictures and small electronic call players to people in neighbouring regions that share similar habitats.In 1988 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp to commemorate the rediscovery.




Given that it is so poorly known, it is difficult to identify specific threats, although its habitat is becoming increasingly scarce and fragmented. Following the construction of the Somasilla Dam, 57 villages were displaced and relocated within the Lankamalai, Palgonda and Seshachellam areas, which were previously inaccessible. The dependence of the settlers on the area for resources may pose a serious threat to
habitat through fuelwood-collection and livestock-grazing, and to the birds themselves through increased disturbance. In addition, extensive quarrying is destroying habitat.
The habitat area of Jerdon’s Courser
Suitable habitat for the species lying outside Sri Lankamaleswara Wildlife Sanctuary is threatened by the proposed construction of the Telugu-Ganga Canal in Cuddapah District, although mitigation measures proposed will result in an increased area of habitat becoming available for management by the Forestry Department.


 References: Wikipedia, Birdlife International, Dimdima kids (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan)

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Vanishing Species – the Indian Vultures

An Article by Mohan Pai

 The Indian Vultures

‘God’s own incinerators’
– Dr. Salim Ali

Indian white-rumped vulture G. Bengalensis

The Vultures are not gathering any
They are about to become extinct!


Diclofenac poisoning

The Indian Vulture, Gyps indicus and the Indian White-rumped Vulture, G. bengalensis species have been almost wiped out (a decline of 99%–97% in population in Pakistan & India) and the cause of this has been identified as poisoning caused by the veterinary drug diclofenac. Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and when given to working animals it can reduce joint pain and so keep them working for longer. The drug is believed to be swallowed by vultures with the flesh of dead cattle which were given diclofenac in the last days of life. Diclofenac causes kidney failure in several species of Vultures. In March 2005 the Indian Government announced its support for a ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac. Another NSAID, meloxicam, has been found to be harmless to vultures and should prove to be an acceptable substitute for diclofenac. In March 2006 diclofenac was still being used for animals throughout India and the changes in Indian legislation are awaited. When meloxicam production is increased it is hoped that it will be as cheap as diclofenac.

The drug is now proven to have been responsible for the near-total collapse of three species of vulture in south Asia – White-rumped Gyps bengalensis, Indian G. indicus and Slender-billed G. tenuirostris. The species are already locally extinct in several parts of the region, but were formerly among the commonest large birds of prey in the world. Without further concerted conservation efforts, we could soon be witnessing one of the most dramatic bird extinctions since the previously abundant Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius was lost at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A virus was the initial suspect for the disappearance of South Asia’s griffon vultures.Then, in 2004, US scientists working in Pakistan – which, unlike India, allowed vulture tissue to be taken out of the country for analysis – discovered that the birds were being poisoned by feeding on the carcasses of cattle that had been treated with the painkiller diclofenac. The drug, commonly used to treat sick cattle, proved to be highly toxic to vultures’ kidneys. Cheap imports: Cheap veterinary diclofenac is imported from China, and the human formulation is also used to treat cattle.

Declining vulture numbers have triggered serious public health problems. Rotting carrion lies around for days in towns and villages across India, and is believed to be spreading communicable infections like tuberculosis, anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease. There has definitely been an “exponential” rise in the number of stray dogs that feed on rotting flesh and spread rabies, experts add. Their concern is high because more than 20,000 Indians die of rabies each year, the highest rate in the world. Carrion-eating dogs can become a major human problem. In Bikaner, Rajasthan, for instance, over 1,000 vicious dogs inhabited a large carrion dumping ground. This poses a serious threat to the local population, many of whom they regularly attack.

A few vultures can efficiently dispose of a cow carcass within minutes, a fact that is important to the followers of the Zoroastrian religion. India’s small Parsee community in Mumbai and Kolkata have been adversely affected by the declining vulture population because, until a decade ago, the birds would scavenge their dead in the secluded ‘Towers of Silence’ in the heart of the city, in keeping with ancient Zoroastrian tradition. The Parsees cannot cremate, bury or submerge their dead in water because they consider a corpse impure, and their Zoroastrian faith does not permit them to defile the elements with it. British expertise in breeding vultures in captivity for the Parsees has been called off, following differences within the orthodox community that had erected solar reflectors to hasten the decomposition of human bodies given the ‘lack’ of vultures.


Pic – Courtsey, Nature Club Surat

The most efficient scavengers in the world are

crashing out of the sky to their extinction.


The staggering decline in the number of Indian vultures due to continued use of drugs in livestock means that the bird could be extinct within a decade.

Bombay Natural History Society’s study across India, Pakistan and Nepal showed that overall numbers of Asian vultures are declining by 50 per cent a year, the fastest decline ever in a bird species.

The White backed vulture has collapsed from about 30 million birds in the early 90s to about 11,000 birds today.The Slender-billed and Long-billed vultures are both down about 97 per cent over the same period.

A single dead cow that has diclofenac in its system is enough to wipe out an entire flock.The vanishing vultures would leave the way open for scavengers such as feral dogs and rats creating dangerous health problems for humans.

Conservation measures

The Indian government has now passed a bill banning the manufacture of the veterinary drug diclofenac that has caused the rapid population decline across the Indian Subcontinent; their aim was to phase out its use by late 2005, although it was still in widespread use in 2007 and is likely to remain so for several years. Similar laws banning import and manufacture of diclofenac are now in place in Nepal and Pakistan. Efforts to replace diclofenac with a suitable alternative are ongoing; drug companies have now developed meloxicam, an alternative to diclofenac. The Report of the International South Asian Vulture Recovery Plan Workshop in 2004 gave a comprehensive list of recommendations including establishing a minimum of three captive breeding centres each capable of holding 25 pairs. Captive breeding efforts are ongoing and met with success when two White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis chicks hatched in early 2007 at a breeding centre in Pinjore, Haryana; similar successes are hoped for in Long-billed Vulture. The centre is part of a captive breeding programme established by the RSPB and Bombay Natural History Society. NGOs like Nature Club Surat have also launched Vulture Conservation programmes.

In India there are eight species of vultures, the commonest being the Indian Scavenger which is found practically all over the country. All species prey on mammals for food.However, over the years, a number of species like the Indian King, Long-Billed Griffon, India Fulvous, Asian White-rumped and the Himalayan Griffon, which inhabited the Himalayas but were also seen around north India, have become a rare sight these days. Many have simply vanished and may only be found in high mountain ranges.

Pic – Courtsey, Nature Club Surat

Different species of Indian vultures in Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds:

White-backed Vulture [Gyps bengalensis]. The most common of all vultures found in cities near dumps and slaughter houses. This is one of the endangered species.

Indian King Vulture [Gyps calvus]: Black vulture with scarlet neck. It’s popultion is dwindling sharply in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Cinereous vulture [Aegypius monachus]: Big blackish brown vulture with pinkish neck. A tree nesting variety. Spotted in Assam, Himalayas, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala. Gradually becoming rare.

Indian Long-billed Griffon [Gyps indicus]: A common Himalayan vulture covered with brownish hair life feathers. It’s sightings have reduced considerably in Gwalior, Pachmarhi, Delhi, Agra, Bareilly, Jodhpur and several areas in north-east India.

Indian Griffon [Gyps fulvus] Massive brown vulture with head covered with whitish-yellow hair. A common sight in cities but now gradually disappearing.

White Indian Scavenger [Neophron percnopterus]: This is a rare vulture. White in clolour and somewhat like a kite. Usually found in drier areas of India. It’s polulation has decreased alarmingly in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

References: Wikipedia, Rahul Bedi, New Scientist, BirdLife International.







Vanishing Species – The Great Indian Bustard

An article by Mohan Pai

The Great
Indian Bustard

(Ardeotis nigriceps)
On the verge of extinction.

(Only less than 1,000 birds are now surviving in


The Great Indian Bustard is the most famous endangered and rae bird of India which dates back to the Eocene period 40-50million years ago. It is a large spectacular bird and good to eat and as it frequents open country where there are great pressures of human population and agriculture, protective measures are extremely difficult. The Indian Board of Wildlife, in late 1950s had considered this bird as a possible choice of the National Bird along with the Peacock. Apart from other shortcomings, there was an apprehension about the misspelling and mispronunciation of the word ‘Bustard’ ! It is now on the endangered red list of IUCN due to its small and declining population. In olden days it was widely distributed in almost all the arid and semi-arid plains from Uttarpradesh in the North to Tamilnadu in the South, and, from Rajasthan-Gujarat in the west to Orissa in the east. Spread of agriculture, destruction of its habitat by over grazing by livestock, and indiscriminate shooting has made the bustard a highly endangered species. However it still survives in six states: Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharasthra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradash. Rajasthan state holds more than half of the Great Indian Bustard population.

The main strong hold of the Great Indian Bustard in Rajasthan is the western portion consisting the Great Thar Desert. Some birds are found in Kota, Ajmer and Bhilwara districts. The birds are surviving in the desert regions of Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Barmer and Jalore districts mainly because human population is comparatively low and agricultural activities are minimal. Nevertheless, with the development of the Indira Gandhi Canal in western Rajasthan more and more portions of bustard habitat will go under the plough. But marginal expansion of agriculture does not affect the bird if some areas are left for them to breed undisturbed.

The Great Indian Bustard is classified as Endangered because of its very small, declining population, a result of hunting and continuing agricultural development (Birdlife International 2000). It has entirely disappeared from five Indian and Pakistani states.

It is a large ground dwelling bird with a long neck and long bare legs like that of an ostrich. It stands at about a metre high and is a large, brown and white bird, the male is about 122 cm (48 in) in length, its weight is 18–32 lb (8–14.5 kg) and the female 92 cm (36 in) in length, its weight is 7.8–15 lb (3.5–6.75 kg). The sexes are similar in appearance although the male is deep sandy buff coloured. The crown of the head is black and crested. In the female which is smaller than the male, the head and neck are not pure white and the breast band is either rudimentary or absent.The male is polygamous. The female lays only single egg once in a year and incubates it for about 27 days. Nests are situated in the open ground and males take no part in incubation or care of the developing young. The eggs are at risk of destruction from other animals. The fledglings tend to remain with their mother until the following breeding season.It lives in arid and semi-arid grasslands, open country with thorn scrub, tall grass interspersed with cultivation. It avoids irrigated areas. It is omnivorous in diet feeding on seeds of grasses, small shrubs, insects, rats, grams, groundnuts, millets etc. depending on the season.Breeds during March to September during which time the inflated fluffy white feathers of the male are inflated and displayed. The male also raises the tail and folds it on its back. The neck is folded and the male periodically produces a resonant deep, booming call.The current population is estimated at less than 1,000. The main threat is habitat loss. Ghatigaon and Karera santuaries in Madhya Pradesh had sizeable population earlier but now there is no Great Indian Bustard. Other sanctuaries with the species include Karera wildlife sanctuary in Shivpuri district; Nannaj, 18 km from Solapur in Maharashtra and Shrigonda taluka in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra.


In the 80’s, the five states where the bustards were resident, created 8 protected areas for the birds. But some of these sanctuaries have been destroyed due to bad management and government apathy. According to Dr Asad R. Rahmani, bustard expert and current director of the BNHS, there has been a 50% decline in the bustard population in the last 10 to 15 years. The BNHS is starting a one-year campaign to convince the government to start Project Bustard on the lines of Project Tiger and Project Elephant. Unless there is protection and proper management of the grasslands, the bustards along with his fellow inhabitants of his home may soon disappear altogether.

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