Environment: Rajah Jayapal of SACON discussed common birds in the State that have become rare in the last 100 years.

Garganey, a water bird from Central Asia, regularly visits the Coimbatore wetlands. It has a brown head, brown breast, and a broad white crescent over the eye. Williams, a British Naturalist, recorded numerous garganeys (commonly called Vaalansiragi) at Coimbatore tanks in 1937. Now, they come in less numbers. “This is mainly because of the poor state of the wetlands,” said Rajah Jayapal, principal scientist of Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History. “Garganey is an ecological indicator of the health of the wetlands,” he added.

Another naturalist Nichols, recorded the Cotton Teal (Thamaraisiragi) in the tanks of Madurai in 1944. “Cotton Teal requires wetlands with a good tree cover. We need to spare a couple of old trees around the wetlands to ensure their survival,” said Jayapal.

Rajah Jayapal, has researched for over 15 years on birds of the Himalayas and Central Indian forests. He spoke to an eager audience on the common birds of Tamil Nadu that have become rare in the last 100 years (1877 to 2000). The event was organised by Osai, an environment organisation.

The last recorded sighting of the Great Indian Bustard was in Sulur in 1978. It is a brown and white bird that thrives in grasslands and feeds on insects, worms, grasshoppers and lizards. Now, they are seen in pockets of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. Their dwindling numbers are an indicator of the poor state of the grasslands habitat.

John Williams in 1937 recorded game birds such as the Pintail Snipe (Keeri Ullaan) and the Common Snipe (Mor ullaan) in the Coimbatore wetlands and Podanur. “We have lost them,” regretted Jayapal. The Painted Bush Quail (Malai Kaadai) found in the Western Ghats has also become scarce now.

“Habitat, season, time of activity, and their numbers, determine whether the bird can be classified as a common bird. The Jerdon’s Courser was rediscovered by Bharat Bhushan, an ornithologist in 1986. It was thought to be a diurnal bird, but it actually turned out to be a nocturnal one. The Forest Owlet is also active only in the morning,” said Jayapal

Bird monitoring programme

It is also important to correctly identify the birds. “The Paddyfield Pipits (nettakaal kuruvi) was considered to be a common bird. But a Swedish Ornithologist, recorded that it was actually the Blyth’s Pipit which was common,” he revealed.

Jayapal also discussed issues such as inadequate coverage of habitats, such as the Eastern Ghats, the absence of a proper bird monitoring programme, and a long-term data on birds.

He mentioned the Curlew Sandpiper (ullaan), a winter visitor to the coastal wetlands of Tamil Nadu. British Naturalist Biddulph recorded the birds in the waters of Rameswaram, in great numbers.

Another common winter shore bird is the Sanderling (Vellai Ullaan) that forages in the breaking waves. “We see them only in the beaches of Puducherry or Kalpakkam. In the last 10 years, 30 per cent of the global population of sanderling has declined, according to Birdlife International 2012,” Jayapal revealed.

Pallid Harrier (Poonai Parundhu) once abundant in Tamil Nadu now figures on the IUCN Red List. A grassland bird, it thrives on rodents. Increased pesticide pollution to control rodents led to its decline.

Calling it a tragic story, Jayapal said that a hundred years ago, British naturalists recorded a pair of red headed vultures in every village. Not anymore. He also referred to the red-collared dove or Pudupaanai Pura that lives in secluded open forests, often close to human habitations in the undisturbed countryside of Ramanathapuram and Tirunelveli. The most beautiful White-naped Woodpecker, endemic to the Indian Subcontinent is now restricted to the Palani hills, he recounted.

The song birds

Jayapal also discussed the song birds of Tamil Nadu. The Common Babbler (uncommon these days and spotted only in pockets of Masinagudi and Srivilliputhur), the Yellow-eyed Babbler (you can hear them near Thadagam), and the house sparrows.

“Change in land use pattern, unplanned urbanisation, pesticide pollution…plays havoc with birds, as does the disappearance of the micro habitat. For example, a palm tree. Many birds such as the Black Ibis, Red-necked Falcon, Golden-backed Woodpecker, and Palm Swift depend on the tree for nesting and roosting.”

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