N. Gopal Raj

Major study in the Gangetic plain finds amazing profusion of birds in farmed regions

Thiruvananthapuram: Is agriculture inevitably inimical to wild birds? Not necessarily so, according to a field survey that was recently carried out in Uttar Pradesh. It found that the vast, fertile Gangetic plain, one of the most densely populated and heavily farmed areas in the world, is nevertheless able to support an amazing profusion of bird life.

“Agriculture is the biggest threat to bird diversity worldwide,” said K.S. Gopi Sundar who is with the International Crane Foundation. As human numbers continue to grow in many developing countries, there is pressure to bring more land under cultivation. Finding ways to allow wild birds to flourish in cultivated landscapes is, therefore, vital for their survival, he pointed out.

Mr. Sundar is in the process of carrying out a two-year study of how farming in Uttar Pradesh is affecting wild birds. His project has recently received support from National Geographic’s Conservation Trust.

In Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere along the Gangetic plain, rice is grown during the monsoon, wheat is cultivated in many of the same fields in winter and a variety of crops are planted at other times of the year. Mr. Sundar spent several months last winter surveying birds in 40 grids, each 10 km by 10 km, randomly chosen to represent different intensities of cultivation in Uttar Pradesh.

“I was surprised to find an incredible array of birds,” said Mr. Sundar. His survey located 198 species. This included populations of globally-threatened birds like the Sarus Crane, near-threatened species like the Black-headed Ibis, the Eurasian Spoonbill and the Painted Stork as well as the Black-Necked Stork whose numbers have dipped alarmingly.

It was also a surprise for him to see birds that ornithologists have termed as tree or forest species and those associated with scrub land and areas with more natural vegetation in places in Uttar Pradesh that were dominated by cultivation.

More strikingly, the winter survey found that the diversity of bird species and bird numbers was strongly correlated with the amount of land that was not given over to farming, said Mr. Sundar. This could be common lands preserved by panchayats to provide grass and water, places maintained by the government’s Soil Conservation Department, buffer areas along the irrigation canals, land held by the Railways on either side of rail tracks and agricultural areas rendered unsuitable for crops by salinity build-up.

“There seem to be in general a larger number of birds and bird species simply by having more non-crop habitat,” he observed.

In India, landscape-based management and conservation has not got the importance it deserves, remarked S. Subramanya, an ornithologist with the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore.

Even with crop cultivation, it is possible to support a considerable diversity of birds, said Dr. Subramanya. What must be avoided is monocropping where just one crop is grown across thousands of hectares. Instead, there must be a mosaic of habitats that a variety of birds can use.

That could be done by preserving some natural habitats as well as growing different crops and having trees, bushes and hedges alongside the fields.

The traditional form of agriculture in this country was based not on monoculture but on maintaining diverse land use, he pointed out.