India’s hypnotising biological diversity is the grand result of the cumulative effects of various factors including its geography, geomprohology, climate and the defining events that transpired through Earth’s history. The fascinating range of extreme landscapes and habitats and everything in between that India supports, holds within it a dazzling array of bird life. Over 1,300 species of birds have been scientifically described from India so far. From the ubiquitous national bird, the Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus), to the critically endangered Jerdon’s Courser (Rhinoptilus bitorquatus) that was last recorded in 1986 when it was rediscovered after having been believed to have gone extinct. From our common, urban co-inhabitant the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) to one of the heaviest flying birds in the world, the Great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), which is teetering on the brink of extinction, the sheer variety of birds found here is exemplary.
The many ecological roles that birds play in sustaining ecosystems only further stresses their incredible importance as purveyors and indicators of the health of these ecosystems. Ubiquitous as they are, they play the role of pollinators, seed dispensers, predators, scavengers and even prey for so many other species.
A forest greatly depends on birds to grow and regenerate. The fates of innumerable species of trees are tied to birds that feed on their fruits and disperse their seeds far and wide, thus helping to “sow” and spread their genes across the range. Large frugivores, with big beaks and mouths such as hornbills are specifically lured in by plants producing larger fruits, and many of them are entirely dependent on these birds for dispersal. Similarly, other avian frugivores of myriad sizes such as barbets, bulbuls, parakeets, parrots, etc. are responsible for the propagation of seeds of various other plant species. Upon recognising the innumerable interconnections between plant and bird species, do we realise how declining populations of bird dispersers will seriously impact the plants dependent on them. An interesting example would be that of the Narcondam Hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami), endemic to a tiny (6.8 sq. km.) island, its namesake, in the Andamans in the Bay of Bengal. The Narcondam Hornbill, found nowhere else in the world, is the island’s most important and abundant frugivore responsible for maintaining the population of most plant species found here.
There is another group of birds, whose maligned reputation precedes its hugely significant role in the ecosystem. Vultures are the world’s only obligate terrestrial scavengers, which means they feed exclusively on decaying flesh or carrion, which would prove too toxic for other animals to consume. Without scavengers to do the work of cleaning up carcasses, the world would turn into one big hotbed of diseases! These vultures which are immune to highly toxic bacteria are today gravely threatened by man-made veterinary drugs and poisons. Once numbering in hundreds of thousands in India, by the 1990s, the populations of several vulture species such as Long-billed Vulture (Gyps indicus) and White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) catastrophically crashed by over 90%. The cattle-treating drug Diclofenac was to blame. Today, four of nine vulture species found in India are listed as Critically Endangered in the International Union for Conservation for Nature Red List.
In 2020, ten research and conservation organisations from across India produced a report titled ‘State of India’s Birds 2020’ that was based on an extensive, country wide analysis and assessment of bird species to determine their conservation status, for the first time in India at this scale. Based on the 867 species assessed, the report shows a stark decline in 52% of the species in the past few decades and 101 species have been considered to be of High Conservation Concern, demanding urgent attention including the grassland specialist – critically endangered Great Indian Bustard. The report also called for greater research and conservation attention to be accorded to various lesser-known, and hitherto relatively neglected bird species such as the rapidly declining Finn’s Weaver (Ploceus megarhynchus) and the vulnerable Green Munia (Amandava formosa).
Birds, all over the world, are faced with mounting troubles over and above the severe primary threats of habitat loss, land use change, logging, hunting for meat and parts and trapping for pet trade. Building of dams, expanding linear infrastructure (roads, railway lines, power lines), pollution, including noise pollution, are some other biotic pressures that have caused bird populations to be directly affected. Climate change is further worsening matters by accentuating these anthropogenic impacts.