Birds of Kerala: Status and Distribution, a compilation of the avifauna wealth in the State, is the work of four birding enthusiasts

Most of us are not ‘tweeters’ (lingo for birders/birding enthusiasts) and would, admittedly, be hard pressed to identify a grey-headed starling from a yellow-throated sparrow or distinguish a red-whiskered bulbul from a red-vented bulbul. These are all birds that we can easily spot on a nearby tree or in our gardens. In fact, Kerala is very rich in avifauna.

Thanks to the variation in altitude that stretches from the misty mountains of the Western Ghats to coastal lowlands and varied vegetation types, ranging from high altitude sholas and grasslands to beaches and islands, Kerala is home to more than 500 species of birds! And now, avid tweeters C. Sashikumar (Ed.), Praveen J., Muhamed Jafer Palot and P.O. Nammer, have compiled them all in the book Birds of Kerala: Status and Distribution, published by DC Books. It’s perhaps the first tome of its kind, published as it is a couple of decades after the last definitive checklist of birds in the State was collated by the late ornithologist K.K. Neelakantan (a.k.a. Induchoodan).

The book, say the quartet, is the result of six years of work sorting through and corroborating “decades of data from multiple sources” that had accumulated on Kerala’s avifauna since the publishing of the landmark books Birds of Kerala (1969) written by ornithologist Salim Ali and Induchoodan’s Keralathile Pakshikal (1984) and A Book of Kerala Birds Part 1 (1993).

Says Dr. Nameer, Associate Professor (Wildlife) and Head, Centre for Wildlife Studies, College of Forestry, Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur: “All of us have been tweeters for at least three decades now. Although we live and work in different places (Sashikumar lives in Kannur, Jafer in Kozhikode and Parveen in Bangalore), we knew each other via the birding network and we often met up for/lead various bird surveys across the State. We had always felt the need to update the checklist of avifauna in Kerala and so got together in Thrissur in January 2005 to flock the birds together.”

What started off as a checklist soon grew into a tome, packed with information related to habitat, status, distribution, breeding, migratory patterns, references from historical records, and wherever possible, threats to and conservation efforts for each of the 491 known species of birds in Kerala, most accompanied by colour photographs.

They also have included a secondary list of 49 species that are occasionally sighted within the State. “We’ve added information about 100 new species of birds that were not part of Ali’s or Induchoodan’s books,” says Jafer, Assistant Zoologist, Zoological Survey of India, Western Ghat Regional Centre, Kozhikode.

Apart from this, the authors have included a broad summary of the history of ornithology in Kerala, an overview of habitats, and brief descriptions of major locations where birds are commonly found in Kerala.

“We collected information from all manner of sources, from books and scientific papers to e-group discussions and also had to sort through and verify unpublished information from the birding community. Thankfully we have an active birding community in Kerala that includes enthusiasts from all walks of life. Most of the birders are also photography enthusiasts so it was relatively easy to get pictures for Birds of Kerala,” says Praveen, moderator of the 750-strong e-group KeralaBirder and coordinator of Kerala Bird Race, who got interested in birding when he read a wildlife week special article that appeared in TheHindu’s YoungWorld supplement back in October 1991.

“Kerala is perhaps the only state in India that already has a wealth of literature in place about its avifauna, besides 30 to 40 knowledgeable ornithologists and hundreds of enthusiastic birders who got about birdwatching in an organised way. Bird surveys have been in vogue in Kerala since 1987 when Induchoodan organised one at Periyar Tiger Reserve. Nowadays, there is an average of six such surveys a year. The nature camp movement started by John C. Jacob at Ezhimala, Kannur, in 1978, also went a long way in drumming up enthusiasm for birding,” says Sashikumar, himself a participant of the first bird survey. He is now a well-known ornithologist with a special interest in raptors (birds of prey) and author of the book Shorebirds of Kerala and co-author of A Book of Kerala Birds.

The quartet now plans to compile a field guide to the birds of Kerala.

Sign of the times

The authors say that they have observed certain “glaring” changes related to avifauna in Kerala in the past 20 or so years.

“Historical records show that the Indian white backed vulture was once common in Kerala. Nowadays, they are on the critically endangered list of the IUCN and only a small breeding population exists in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in the areas bordering Mudumalai-Nagarhole-Bandipur forests,” says Sashikumar, who has been monitoring the vulture population for a few decades now. “Actually, vultures started vanishing in Kerala in the 70s, much before they started declining in the rest of India. The decline is mostly due to the combined effect of habitat loss, excessive use of chemical pesticides, and loss of availability of wayside carcasses,” he explains .

Another significant change, says Dr. Nammer, is the “increased sightings of dry-area dependant birds, most of which are not endemic to Kerala.”

Populations of certain other endemic birds have also taken a beating, it seems. Says Praveen: “Disappearance of lowland evergreen and riverine forests due to multiple river valley projects is perhaps tied with the disappearance of Malabar pied hornbill in Kerala, an abundant species during the colonial times. Absence of high-altitude game birds such as woodcock and wood snipe (interestingly, the word sniper is said to have originated from this bird known for its zig-zag flight patterns that often presented a challenge to hunters) in recent years can be attributed to hunting for sport practiced by Britishers and also the conversion of damp shola-grasslands into tea estates.”

Apparently, there has also been an increase in numbers of wetland birds in Kerala such as northern pintail, glossy ibis, Asian openbill and black-tailed godwit. “All these birds were common in rest of India but rare or absent in Kerala. The influx happened sometime in 1980s and continues to be so. Reasons are unknown – perhaps it’s a natural range expansion,” observes Praveen.

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