Watch, write and publish: Coimbatore’s ‘citizen scientists’ document data on birds

A group of birdwatchers from Coimbatore has shown that citizen scientists have an important role to play in documenting data about birds and the environment

Updated - October 30, 2018 08:50 pm IST

Published - October 30, 2018 03:04 pm IST

Let’s go spotting Members of the Perur Lake Forum (from left) Dileep Joshi, R Sivashankar, R Vridhi, G Parameswaran, Chetankumar Joshi and Gajamohanraj

Let’s go spotting Members of the Perur Lake Forum (from left) Dileep Joshi, R Sivashankar, R Vridhi, G Parameswaran, Chetankumar Joshi and Gajamohanraj

The latest issue of the Journal of Threatened Taxa (JoTT) has a special significance for Coimbatore. In the list of articles from across the world is one titled “The composition and status of water birds of Perur Lake in Tamil Nadu, India” by G Parameswaran and R Sivashankar.

Why is this important? Hear it from Dr Sanjay Molur, Executive Director Trustee, Zoo Outreach Organisation (ZOO): “First, it fulfils the need for a scientific publication. Now this can be presented at various forums for action. Second, it shows how people can do a scientific study by themselves and not necessarily depend on scientists.”

Painted storks at the Perur Lake

Painted storks at the Perur Lake

We are sitting in Sanjay’s office at Saravanampatti along with the members of the Perur Lake Forum (PLF) to which Parameswaran and Sivashankar belong. The former traces his birdwatching days to his days in “the Seattle Audubon Society. I was part of their Master Birdwatchers’ Programme and learnt how to do surveys scientifically.” When he returned to India, he found that, while the city had plenty of birdwatchers, “there was a lack of methodology and a certain discipline.”

Once he met the other members of the group (R Vridhi, Sai Vivek, Dilip Joshi, Gajamohanraj, Chetankumar Joshi and Sharang Satish) and they formed the PLF in March 2014, data collection became more streamlined. All the other members credit Parameswaran with being the moving force. “I have been watching birds for six years, but it’s only after I met him that I learnt how to do it properly,” says Gajamohanraj. “He was the one who suggested that we focus on one place and do it regularly,” smiles Dileep Joshi.

How did they decide on Perur? "Well, it was the right size. We can finish in two to three hours. It was the right distance, a bit away from the urban pell-mell. Pollution is much less,” Parameswaran reels off the factors and then takes me through their method: “We leave at 6.30 am exactly and are at Perur Lake by 7.00 am. Each member has a checklist designed by Vridhi. We have divided the lake into six watchable zones and go from one to another scanning the area. We try to reduce error and double counts as much as possible. The birds are identified up to the species level if we can; if not at least the genus level. By 9.30 am we're finished.” Parameswaran, Sivashankar and Vridhi then tabulate and plot the information gathered and submit it to e-bird. “We need at least two to three years of data to establish a trend. Once that is done, we write about it.”

Making sure of what they have seen

Making sure of what they have seen

What worries them is the effect of human intervention on the lake ecosytem. “In 2013, they started constructing a road on the western side of the bund,” says Sivashankar, “and then built a walkway around it. The bigger problem is dumping of waste on the lake bed whenever there is no water.” A bigger issue is “dredging in the name of desilting. It’s done in a completely unscientific manner and has a big impact on the lake ecosystem. We’re thinking of publishing that as part of a five-year survey.”

Parameswaran agrees, “Last year, there was a huge movement to desilt lakes and the Perur lake became a huge bathtub and, from an environmental point of view, sterile. It’s going to take a long time to recover. We’re still collecting and analysing the data and hope to document that.” Won’t interacting with the local body help, I ask. Sivashankar doesn’t think so. “The plan needs to come as a policy decision from the top,” he says. “Then they will implement it.”

While continuing to document Perur Lake, the group has also started another study at Anuvavi, a forested area, in the Thadagam area. Ideally they would like to see more such counts in the city. “This is doable,” says Parameswaran. “It doesn't need much funding. Just cost of a taxi ride and breakfast, which we share. What it needs is commitment.”

The Indian Spot-Billed Duck at Perur Lake

The Indian Spot-Billed Duck at Perur Lake

Five years down the line, he would like to see “a lot more citizen involvement in monitoring our wetlands, forests and ecologically sensitive regions. And not just from an avian standpoint alone. Usually if there’s a good diversity of avian species, there will also be a number of insects and butterflies. Make a concerted effort to preserve these spaces. Have a Coimbatore trail where you connect all these places where you can hike and walk. Not necessarily motorised; just connected by public transport. We’d be much happier people if we live with a more intimate connection with nature, even in an urban area. More groups advocating for better urban habitats would be a good starting point.”

The article on Perur Lake can be found at

Need for citizen scientists

“We have only a few scientists, environmentalists and biologists,” says Sanjay. “There is lots of scope for people other than scientists to take part.” In 2013, ZOO started a citizen science programme called Lively Waters to encourage people to monitor lakes in a methodological manner. An earlier programme focused on data on bat roosts. “All this helps people get interested in biology, ecology and conservation and also helps us figure out what needs to be done.” Sanjay offers the Nipa virus outbreak as an example. “If we'd incorporated certain observations with our methodology earlier, we could have countered it. Now we know what we need to do.”

Journal of Threatened Taxa (JoTT)

An open-access, peer-reviewed, monthly international journal on conservation and taxonomy published from Coimbatore

Encourages professional and amateur/upcoming scientists from around the world to publish.

The journal provides assistance and mentors first-time writers and writers whose first language is not English in presenting science to the world.

For more, visit

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