The State of India’s Birds 2023 report is a periodic assessment that examines the geographic distribution, abundance trends, and conservation status of the majority of bird species commonly found in India. The report identified that 178 species of birds needed immediate priority for conservation (High Priority).
Globally, environmental issues have led to a decline in the population of common and widespread bird species. According to ‘State of the World’s Birds 2022’ report, nearly half of all bird species are in decline, with more than one in eight at risk of extinction. About 2.9 billion individual birds are estimated to have been lost in North America since 1970, and 600 million have been lost since 1980 in the European Union which is about 5 times smaller. In short, the status of the world’s birds continues to deteriorate as a result of anthropogenic pressure on the environment such as agricultural expansion and intensification, unsustainable logging, invasive alien species, overexploitation, and climate change. How about in India? Are birds under threat in India as well? The latest State of India’s Birds report provides some answers.
State of India’s Birds report is an assessment of distribution and population of major bird species found in India
The State of India’s Birds 2023 report is a periodic assessment that examines the geographic distribution, abundance trends, and conservation status of the majority of bird species commonly found in India. Birds serve as valuable indicators of the condition of our natural environment and hold significant cultural significance as symbols of nature because of their widespread presence and ecological significance. The report, which is a comprehensive nationwide assessment, provides important insights into the conservation requirements essential for safeguarding India’s avian population.
The State of India’s Birds 2020 report was the first attempt to assess the conservation status of the majority of India’s bird species. (The review of the report by Factly can be read here). Three years later, the second edition of the report was published in August 2023. The latest report is an update that considers a larger information base of more than 30 million field observations from over 30,000 birdwatchers and researchers across India. As a result, a greater number of species of birds have been assessed. The first version of the report was based on more than 10 million observations uploaded by 15,500 + bird watchers.
The report also includes new sections that highlight the threats to the avian population in India and the need for systematic monitoring of birds in the country. 13 organizations including government institutions like the Zoological Survey of India & Wildlife Institute of India, universities like IISc & TIFR, and NGOs like WWF, ATREE, etc. were involved in putting together the report.
60% of the bird species evaluated saw a decline in their population in the last 3 decades
India is home to over 1,350+ species of birds including endemic species such as White-bellied Treepie and Wayanad Laughingthrush which are endemic to the Western Ghats. Based on the availability of data, and significance in the Indian context, 942 bird species were considered to examine their conservation priority, distribution, and population trends.
Of the 338 species which had adequate data for assessing the long-term trends, 60% of the species had witnessed long-term declines. To put it in simpler terms, 204 species have seen decline in their population in over 30 years period. Further, 98 species were more or less stable and 36 species showed an increase.
Current annual trends were analysed for 359 species out of which 40% were declining over the past eight years. Out of the 142 species witnessing a decline, 64 were witnessing a rapid decline. 189 species were more or less stable, and 28 species were increasing.
178 species of birds require immediate priority for conservation
The report identified that 178 species of birds needed immediate priority for conservation (High Priority). Species of High Priority include those whose abundance indices have declined considerably in the long term and continue to decline today. It also includes species whose current range is very restricted, that is, the bird species are found only in less than 7,500 square kilometres. Those birds whose abundance trend could not be assessed but they are classified as ‘Globally Threatened’ in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List are also included in the category. The report categorized another 323 species as Moderate Priority and 441 as Low Priority.
Among the birds on the high priority list, 94 species, including the Great White Pelican, Greater Flamingo, Common Tern, and Indian Vulture, were added to the list based on declining abundance trends and restricted range. Bird species like the Marbled Duck, White-bellied Heron, Brown-winged Kingfisher, Baer’s Pochard, and Blood Pheasant are among the 45 bird species added to the list because of their restricted range. The remaining 39 were included based on a combination of their range and IUCN Red List status. Some of the bird species in this group include the Great Indian Bustard, Lesser Florican, and Himalayan Quail.
Telangana’s state bird among 16 others have been recommended for reassessment of IUCN’s status
The 2023 report further highlights four priority species from each of the 36 states and UTs that require conservation attention. It recommended a reassessment of the status of 17 species which are listed by the IUCN as being of ‘least concern’ but are either ‘endangered’, ‘vulnerable’ or ‘nearly threatened’ in India. Telangana’s state bird, the Indian Roller (commonly known as Palapitta) saw a 30% decline in abundance in 12 years, Northern Shoveler declined by 58% in 14 years, and Baillon’s Crake which declined by 51% in 10 years are part of the list.
Birds restricted to certain habitats and dietary requirements are witnessing more decline
The report also examines birds within three specific groupings viz: ecological groups, including diet and habitat specialization, habitat groups, including open habitats and rivers, and taxonomic groups, including raptors, woodpeckers, ducks, large waterbirds, and bustards. This analysis is useful in getting inputs for arriving at targeted conservation interventions. Some of the key findings of the analysis are:
- Birds that are restricted to a certain habitat type have declined steeply. For instance, Grassland specialists, however, have declined by more than 50% which calls for protecting and maintaining grassland ecosystems. Birds that are woodland specialists (forests or plantations) have also declined calling for conserving natural forest habitats. On the other hand, generalist birds, or those which can live in multiple habitat types are doing better and require less conservation attention.
- India is a very important non-breeding destination for many migratory birds. These birds undergo several threats during migration such as extreme weather events, predation, starvation, and hunting/illegal killing. Long-distance migrants have declined by over 50% while short distance migrants have also declined at a lower rate. Shorebirds that breed in the Arctic have declined by close to 80% as a group. However, resident birds are more stable.
- When categorized by diet, birds that feed on invertebrates (including insects) are declining rapidly. This needs to be taken along with recent findings that insect populations worldwide have reduced, and that pesticides are thought to be a main contributor to massive declines in European insectivorous birds. Meanwhile, birds that feed on fruits and nectar are doing better.
- India is home to 232 endemic species which cannot be found elsewhere in the world. Birds that are endemic to the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot have rapidly declined in India over the past few decades.
- Vultures were nearly driven to extinction by consuming carcasses contaminated with diclofenac. Their numbers had dropped to near zero in the 1990s and early 2000s. The chemical was later banned in 2008. White-rumped Vulture, Indian Vulture, and Red-headed Vulture have witnessed the greatest long-term declines by 98%, 95%, and 91% respectively. Raptors are one of the most affected species in the country due to agrochemicals.
- Bustards are disproportionately endangered due to their slow life-history traits and specialized ecological needs. While half of all bustards worldwide are threatened, the three species that breed in India face imminent extinction.
- Ducks are also rapidly declining in India. India hosts eight resident and 35 migratory species, which occupy a range of habitats, including inland lakes and tanks, submerged paddy fields, rivers, forest pools, and coastal lagoons.
Population of Asian Koel, Rock Pigeon and Indian Peafowl have increased substantially
While globally avian population is declining at alarming rates, there are few species which are adapting to the modified landscapes and thriving. Ashy Prinia, Rock Pigeon, Asian Koel, and Indian Peafowl have increased dramatically. Rock pigeon and Indian peafowl populations have increased by 150% in the last 30 years. House Crow, Rock Pigeon, and the Alexandrine Parakeet are some other species that have established new populations in several cities.
In the last 20+ years, Indian Peafowl has expanded into the high Himalaya and the rainforests of the Western Ghats. It now occurs in every district in Kerala, a state where it was once extremely rare. Though increasing population may sound like good news, this increase comes along with increased reports of crop damage. Further, increasing population of only one species will result in ecological imbalance as the rising peafowl populations may have negative impacts on snakes and other reptiles. According to studies, peafowls are usually arid land species and an indicator of drought.
Compared to the first edition of the report, 101 birds were listed as High Priority; out of this, the status of 74 species has remained unchanged. An additional 104 species have been newly listed as High Priority in 2023. Most of these additions (68%) have resulted from the increased trend data.
Immediate conservation efforts are required to save the avian population
The declining population of birds is a cause of concern as it is an important barometer of the environmental conditions. The reasons behind the declining populations are many ranging from urbanization, pollution, ecosystem and habitat degradation, climate change, hunting among others. Most of the threats to the avian family are due to human actions. Immediate efforts need to be put in to save the birds in the high priority category while not ignoring those species in the medium and low priority category.
The report called for dedicated efforts to monitor the health and conduct research on what affects the population dynamics of key group species. Furthermore, since the study was based on data recorded by birdwatchers, rare and nocturnal bird species are underrepresented in the assessment. More research and data collection are required in this aspect as well.