Thinning of vulture populations in the Indian subcontinent

March 31, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Vultures constitute an important component of the ecosystem. Being carrion feeders, they perform an important task as finishers in the ecosystem in returning human and animal corpses into their elemental forms back into the system and thus play a significant role as cleaners or disposers in the nature. They are capable of stripping carcasses free of all flesh, soft and hard tissues such as tendons, cartilages, softer bones, skins, hairs and keratins with their sharp claws and beaks; and due to special enzymes in their stomach are capable of digesting them. Different species of vultures are reported from the Indian subcontinent and unfortunately the populations of most of these ecologically important species are showing serious signs of decline across most of their natural ranges. Some of the factors that have contributed towards the rapid decline of the populations of different species of vultures across the subcontinent include: loss of habitats and habitat fragmentations; removal of old and big trees in and around city fringes, city parks and city gardens causing loss of suitable nesting sites; rapid and unplanned urbanization drive to cater to the growing human populations in the cities and towns; unprecedented boom of real estate business and infrastructural developments causing the loss of green spaces within and around the major city areas, the added areas and their subsequent extensions and in the greater metropolitan areas including district towns and municipalities; rapid, unrestricted, unplanned and unmonitored growth of both legal as well as illegal industrial units within city limits and adjacent areas causing pollution of the local environment; severe anthropogenic pressures in the remaining open spaces at the city fringes due to human encroachments and establishments of slums and shanties; communicable diseases among vulture populations; and last but not the least, poisoning of the animal carcasses on which these birds feed as their primary food sources both intentionally as well as accidentally. Furthermore, pesticide poisoning of the birds have also been reported from several parts of the subcontinent.

Subsequent scientific studies established that diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly administered to the Indian livestock for the treatment of wounds and inflammations, as one of the potent chemicals that have been killing and decimating the vulture populations in India through the process of biomagnification. The leading cause of death through poisoning by the drug among vultures is through drastic renal failures. The species that have been worst impacted are the Indian vulture (Gyps indicus Scopoli), the white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis Gmelin) and the slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris Hodgson (in Gray)); that were reduced from stable populations of several millions to just a few thousands over the span of two-three decades.

In several parts of their former ranges a decline between >70-85% to < 97-99% in their wild populations have been reported raising an important concern for their threats to extinction in the next 20-25 years.  Unfortunately, the Indian vulture, the slender-billed vulture and the white-rumped vultures are all now placed under the category of critically endangered by the IUCN; while the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus Linnaeus) is currently considered to be endangered. The only species that is evaluated to be near threatened in the wild is the famous Himalayan vulture or better known as the Himalayan griffon vulture (Gyps himalayensis Hume) that is restricted to the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau and is not dependent too heavily upon livestock carcass as their principal dietary source; and the Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus Hablizil) which is under the least concern category. The facts clearly indicate that the vultures belonging to the genus Gyps are most readily impacted and also these species are distributed predominantly in the river valleys, great northern and western plain lands and the plateau region of the subcontinent with significant agronomic activities and substantial livestock populations. Hence the biomagnification poisoning through diclofenac has been identified as one of the most devastating factors decimating the vulture populations in the Indian subcontinent in addition to several other anthropogenic factors mentioned above.

Several vulture rehabilitation, breeding and reintroduction centers have been established in India being alarmed with the sharp decline of the vulture populations and a few more are coming or are being proposed. However, their numbers are too meager compared to the need from the context of species revival. Some success has been documented in the breeding, rearing and reintroduction of different vulture species in the wild in various parts of their former home ranges; however, much needed to be done. Steps have been taken in removing diclofenac as the preferred veterinary drug by the cattle handlers and livestock operators with other alternatives having much lower impacts on the vulture populations has been recommended and/or prescribed. But the drug is continued to be used in small to moderate numbers till date across the home range of the vultures. Lack of education and awareness; as also lack of care and empathy for the long term sustainability of the local ecosystem and environment by agricultural workers, cattle handlers and livestock operators have been another serious concern that needs to be addressed sincerely by the vulture conservation agencies. It will be necessary to completely ban this drug from the livestock industry and strong monitoring and surveillance will be necessary to evaluate the wild populations of vultures in the coming decades. Unless a comprehensive conservation, rehabilitation and reintroduction policy is adopted with strong legislative measures and effective wildlife management strategy is implemented and practiced in saving the Indian vultures, their future looks extremely grim and vulnerable with dangers of extinction in the wild.

Article contributed by: Saikat Kumar Basu

Attracting Wild Birds to Your Yard

March 30, 2015 by  
Filed under Birding Tips

Isn’t it fun to watch all the chirping little feathered friends at your neighbor’s birdfeeder? They’re so adorable! And there’s all different species there, too. But when you look at your own yard… well, let’s just say it’s a different scene. There are no singing little friends, only a lone squirrel. How can you attract birds to your yard? This article can help you out.

First, you need a squirrel-resistant birdfeeder. If you have a tree to hang a feeder from, get a birdfeeder with mesh around it that lets birds in and keeps squirrels out. If you do not have a tree in your yard, you can buy a birdfeeder on a pole and put some squirrel baffles on the pole. (Also, consider getting a tree or some shrubbery- it will help attract birds.) Put sunflower seed in the feeder- this is often the most popular food for small songbirds such as chickadees and titmice.

In fall and winter, get a suet cage and some high-energy suet. Suet is a popular wintertime food for birds; it is high in fat and will keep them going throughout the day. It also is attractive to birds such as woodpeckers, which you will not usually see at your birdfeeders, since they don’t eat seeds.

Some kinds of birds, like tanagers, orioles, and mockingbirds, prefer fruit to seeds and suet. Put out a dish of dried cherries; place a half-orange on a tree branch. Mockingbirds and catbirds are known to like grape jelly, so consider putting out a saucer of it if you would like these birds to come to your yard.

Bluebirds have beautiful plumage, accompanied by a wonderful song. They are very popular among bird enthusiasts. If you would like to attract them to your yard, put up a few special bluebird nesting boxes in your trees (assuming you have trees). Also, they like mealworms, whether alive, frozen or dried; you can obtain some at a bird specialty store. Put them in a dish near your other birdfeeders- don’t worry, the birds will find them. Some other species of birds, such as wrens and robins, also enjoy an occasional mealworm, so even though they can be a bit pricey they may be well worth it, since they will attract many avian buddies.

Bluejays are also rather beautiful birds. Their striking ice-blue and white plumage is sure to wow even someone who isn’t interested in birds. However, they can sometimes be bullies at birdfeeders, and they will chase away smaller birds. They also will mimic hawk cries in order to scare away ‘competitors’. If you would like to welcome bluejays to your yard, but you don’t want them hogging the birdseed, get another feeder and fill it with peanuts (unsalted). Although squirrels will also be attracted to this treat, it is one of the best ways to attract these beautiful blue corvids to your yard.

Consider investing in a birdbath, even a small one. Although it can be a pain to clean it out, it is sure to attract all different species, even birds that won’t eat anything you offer them. Birdbaths are an especially big hit with robins, although you can find almost any species frolicking about in the water.

Although it can be very expensive, consider adding some fruit trees and berry bushes to your yard. This is one of the very best ways to get birds to visit, and once you have purchased & planted the bushes/trees, they will supply you with free bird food! Berries and fruit are what birds tend to eat naturally, and species that are especially attracted to these foods are: Cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, orioles, bluejays, wrens, and cardinals, just to name a few.

There are many different ways to improve your yard & make it more interesting to your avian pals. Remember- whatever food you offer, make sure that it is not stale/has not gone bad, or birds will completely avoid it, or they will eat it and become ill.

Article submitted by: Eliza Kuklinski.

Pet Bird Species: Lovebirds

March 28, 2015 by  
Filed under Pet Birds

Active, curious and playful, lovebirds are very entertaining and often recommended as pets. Measuring only 15 cm in length on average, lovebirds are among the smallest of parrots, but are big in personality and have many of the traits of larger species. They thrive on social interaction and can put on quite a show for their human caretakers with very little encouragement.

As their name suggests, lovebirds crave affection, so if owners are not able to give their pet lovebird plenty of attention or are out most of the day, it’s generally a good idea to get a pair. A reputable lovebird breeder should be able to provide a well matched pair of birds, which is important as they can be aggressive if they don’t get along. It’s never a good idea to put a lovebird with another bird species. Pairs of lovebirds are a delight to watch as they play with and groom one another. Breeding pairs of lovebirds even feed one another, carefully transferring food from one beak to the other. It is an erroneous assumption that pairs of lovebirds will not bond with their human handlers. They may bond more with one member of the family more than others, but a lot depends on how they are handled from the start and they will more often than not respond to positive attention from anyone. They appear to enjoy grooming their favored humans with the same degree of affection shown to one another.

The minimum size of a cage for a lovebird should be 1m x 1m x 1m – but bigger is better. They need a variety of safe (preferably wooden) toys, swings and perches to play on and to chew. Providing a cuttlebone is important as this helps to trim their beaks, which grow continuously, and is also a source of calcium and minerals. They enjoy bathing and sunning themselves as part of their daily routine. It is good to remember that lovebirds that are not getting sufficient stimulation and companionship may exhibit behavioral problems such as aggression and feather plucking. Their immune systems may also become suppressed leading to ill health. But, in general, they are easy to care for.

Your pet lovebird’s diet should consist of a good seed, grain and nut mix, along with fresh fruit and vegetables. They also enjoy edible flowers and green weeds, such as dandelion and chickweed. Among the foods to completely avoid are avocado, rhubarb, mushrooms, onions and potatoes.

So, if you’re considering getting a pet bird (or two), lovebirds are a good choice. Just bear in mind that their lifespan is 15 years on average, and they bond for life, so be sure that you want to make a bird part of your household.

Taxidermy as an important tool in bird education, awareness and conservation

The word taxidermy is derived from the ancient Greek roots τάξις (táksis, arrangement) and δέρμα (dérma, “skin”), referring to the “art of stuffing, and mounting the skins of dead animals for exhibition in a lifelike state” (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/taxidermy). According to dictionary.com, it is “the art of preparing and preserving the skins of animals and of stuffing and mounting them in lifelike form”. The word is a noun and the plural form is referred to as taxidermies. This is an advanced form of art in preserving and restoring dead specimens back to life for long term storage and display. Taxidermy is usually conducted on almost all the vertebrate members like fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The last two groups being the most commonly exploited. An individual performing the task of taxidermy or specializing in the art of taxidermy is called taxidermist (plural; taxidermists). A taxidermist could be a professional working for museums or in a personal business designing trophies for personal collectors, hunters, fishermen, anglers, foresters and for education and research purposes.

A taxidermist needs to be both an artist as well as have good knowledge on the morphology and anatomy of species they specialize on. The profession demands great dedication, sincerity, hard work, experience and knowledge to be successful. Quality taxidermy products are as close as possible to the original live specimen and the attention to detail. A taxidermist can replicate, preserve and capture the natural grace and beauty of the specimen on the dynamic mount to reflect a realistic exposure to life and natural wilderness at its best. To replicate the original specimen it is necessary that the mount specimen must be correct to the original in every possible way and meeting the specifications to capture the majestic beauty of nature. The ability to accurately replicate anatomical and morphological details defines the success of a highly trained, experienced and professional taxidermist from amateur ventures. It is important that each specimen should be custom designed to reflect its natural beauty and elegance. If utilized properly avian taxidermy mounts could be effectively used for popularizing and educating general public on birds, bird life and bird conservation.

Quality avian taxidermy specimens with the highest craftsmanship and accuracy attract people to the specimens and inspires them to learn more about them at leisure. Specimens viewed in the fields and surveys by bird amateurs and enthusiasts could be better inspected and appreciated by reviewing nicely preserved avian taxidermy specimens in the museums and laboratories. It could be an integral part in helping and training new bird enthusiast, ecologists, field guides, field inspectors, foresters, biologists, ornithologists, students, researchers and general public alike in knowing about bird morphology and anatomy, bird shapes and forms, color and plumage, distinguishable identification marks and characteristics for closely related species. He well preserved specimens could add value to exhaustive bird research and field identifications for rare, vulnerable, endangered species or species with disputed identification parameters.

The bird models could greatly help in identification of closely related genera and species, sub species, tribes and sub tribes comprehensively with opportunity for detailed inspection for clues and characters, appreciate bird biodiversity, habits (breeding, nesting and foraging behaviors, life cycles, migration and residential preferences) and habitats, distribution, ecology, evolution, adaptive radiation, general ornithology and train people for better identification of challenging species under natural field conditions. Watching a nice collection of preserved natural bird eggs across different genera and species could be a rewarding educative process in itself and should be included in all bird education and awareness programs.

Bird taxidermy models and bird videos could add up comprehensively to bird awareness campaigns more than bird posters and pamphlets, as they give a vivid life like image to the specimens in the field and are particularly successful in grabbing the attention of the young kids and children, our future citizens. Live display of birds in aviaries and avian parks and zoos are a regular feature for popularizing bird conservation and bird awareness. It is not always possible to get the bird enthusiasts and students to always attend live bird displays and bird centers, particularly if they are located out of towns or cities. The natural bird models produced through taxidermy can fill up this vacuum in better reaching and educating people. The models could be looked upon as an attractive package for both kids and general public alike for presentations on specific avian species, making such scientific communications more engaging, rewarding and revealing for the target audience, viewers and visitors. Such taxidermy models will enable public to know the migratory species in closer details as they are seen only during a particular season and in difficult terrain and habitats for all to reach them or appreciate watching them closely under field conditions. It can certainly help in building deeper insight, association, connectedness and interests about birds, bird life and avian conservation with the public in a comprehensive manner.

Life size bird specimens help people to better appreciate the diverse and dynamic world of birds. Several birds meeting natural deaths and their undecomposed bodies discovered in the field or forests or retrieved from licensed and registered zoological gardens, aviaries, nursery and hatcheries, bird breeding and reintroduction centers could be procured following stringent protocols and exploited for their long term preservation for education and awareness purposes through professional and registered taxidermists. Care must be taken that such dead birds do not reach taxidermy black markets for commercial exploitation; and utilized extensively for the purpose of educating and in generating awareness among professionals, young students and public at large regarding birds and for the conservation of endangered species. It could certainly help in developing a positive partnership and co-operation in global avian conservation.

Article submitted by Saikat Kumar Basu and Peiman Zandi

Verde Valley Birding & Nature Festival 2015

March 23, 2015 by  
Filed under Events

This annual event includes field trips with well-informed and experienced guides in the diverse habitats of Central Arizona, workshops and special events, as well as vendors and exhibitors. For more information visit birdyverde.org

Dates: 23-26 April 2015
Venue: Cottonwood
State: Arizona
Country: United States

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