Discover the Birds of The Big Apple

April 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Known as the “city that never sleeps” and “The Big Apple”, New York City is a vibrant bustling metropolis that has more than a few surprises for visitors – and for native New Yorkers – who choose to explore its natural resources. The New York Water Taxi service offers visitors the opportunity to see the city from the harbor and its waterways. Working with the New York City Audubon Society, in the summer months the water taxi service offers a NYC Audubon Summer EcoCruise to highlight the amazing diversity and abundance of birdlife resident on the small islands in New York Harbor.

Lasting around 90 minutes, the cruise makes its way past world-renowned monuments, under iconic city bridges and along the shoreline of islands where visitors can view some of the more than 3,000 herons that have migrated from the south, along with hundreds of cormorants, egrets, ibis and other birds. Ever mindful of the impact humans have on the habitats of birds, the fleet of vessels used by the water taxi service are fitted with low-emission engines and mufflers, while the hulls are designed to cut through the water with as little disturbance as possible. While on the tour, visitors will learn about the ecology of the harbor and the important role its islands play in the conservation of various bird species.

With more than 10,000 members, New York City Audubon has been protecting wildlife habitats and its residents in all five boroughs for more than thirty years, with the goal of improving and conserving the environment for future generations. Wild birds from more than 350 species either live or pass through the city each year – that is almost a third of all species recorded in North America. They depend on the lush, vegetated areas in Jamaica Bay, the islands of New York Harbor and Central Park for their survival. The society collects data relating to birds across New York City, using the information to monitor bird and wildlife populations, and acts as an advocate for wildlife at government policy-making level.

Education programs formulated by the New York City Audubon inform the public, both young and old, about being responsible environmental stewards. The society welcomes new volunteers to work towards the goal of protecting wild birds and natural habitats in New York City, thereby improving the quality of life for all.

Spectacular Courtship Ritual of Peafowl

April 4, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Best known for the spectacular courtship display put on by the males of the species, peafowl originate in Asia and belong to the genus Pavo of the Phasianidae (pheasant) family. While the term “peacock” is often used to describe the entire species, irrespective of sex, “peacock” is the correct term for the male in the species, with the female being referred to as a “peahen” and their offspring are known as “pea chicks”. The name for a group of peafowl – pride or ostentation – is very descriptive and this colorful bird has long been associated with high social standing and royalty, particularly in Asian cultures. It also features in Hindu mythology as the mount of the god of war, Karthikeya.

The species of peafowl are the Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), the Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus) and Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis). The Indian Peafowl is found in South Asia and is the national bird of India. The male of the species has a brilliantly blue colored body and head, which is topped by a fan-like crest of feathers. Its most prominent feature is its long train of upper-tail covert feathers covered in colorful, iridescent spots resembling eyes. During courtship, this breathtakingly beautiful tail is spread out into a fan and quivered by the male in an attempt to attract a mate. The female of the species has a duller brown plumage with its neck being a greenish color. Although they can fly and often roost in tall trees, Indian Peafowl are usually found on the ground, where they forage for berries, grains and other plant material, with lizards, snakes and small rodents also being on the menu.

While Indian Peafowl are considered to be of “Least Concern” by the IUCN, the Green Peafowl is listed as “Endangered”. Found in the tropical and subtropical forests of Southeast Asia, the Green Peafowl is a target of predators such as Leopards, Tigers, Jungle Cats and humans. Hunting and a loss of habitat has resulted in numbers of these beautiful birds dwindling to the extent that they are now considered to be endangered. The males and females of Green Peacocks are relatively similar in appearance, with the male’s upper tail coverts being longer than the female during breeding season. After breeding season the male molts, resulting in the appearance of the two sexes being even more similar.

Found in the Congo Basin, the Congo Peacock looks like a cross between a peafowl and a guineafowl, with the male’s feathers being a deep blue, tinged with green and violet, while the female is brown with shiny green feathers over its back. Due to habitat loss and hunting, the Congo Peacock has the IUCN status of “Vulnerable”.

Bengal florican: a bustard species from the Indian subcontinent threatened with extinction in the wild

April 3, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

The Bengal florican or the Bengal bustard (Houbaropsis bengalensis Gmelin) is an extremely rare species of bustard from the Indian subcontinent. The current IUCN status of the species is critically endangered and estimates of wild populations within the subcontinent is grossly overestimated as <~1,000. The species is grossly data deficient in India and the actual numbers could be as low as <200-300 in the wild. The distribution or natural home range of the species is described as stretching between extreme eastern Uttar Pradesh in north India (the western most distribution point) across the Terai tracts of the sub-Himalayas to the eastern and north-eastern Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh respectively (eastern most distribution point). The species has been reported from adjacent countries of Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh too as they occupy the continuous range distribution within the Indian subcontinent. They are officially reported to be extinct in Bangladesh now and the status of the bird in Nepal is doubtful and severely data deficient. Bhutan comparatively has a better profile of this species among the other subcontinent member countries, most possibly because of its undisturbed natural environment where the anthropogenic pressures have been reported to be significantly less. It could possibly be extinct in the wild in Nepal too, or realistically have population bases of <100-150 individuals.

Their current existence in the wild is extremely doubtful in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh (northern and eastern fringes), Bihar (northern Terai tracts) and West Bengal (Terai region in the northern districts). Sporadic observations have been reported over the last few decades with increasingly lower numbers over time. Unconfirmed reports estimate the population in these states to be as low as <50-100 individuals The best population distribution that has been recently updated is found to be restricted only to north-east Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the extreme eastern most point of distribution of their former home range in the Indian subcontinent. They are most possibly now restricted predominantly to the foothills of Bhutan Himalayas and in isolated forest pockets of north-east India; and extinct in the wild elsewhere in the subcontinent. The most frequent and best documented observation of the species in the wild has been reported in recent times from the north eastern Indian state of Assam only.  A separate sub-population group is also reported from South East Asia (Vietnam and Cambodia); and it is quite unfortunate to state that both sub populations are threatened with the risks of extinction in the wild in Asia due to severe anthropogenic pressures.

The Bengal floricans are omnivorous, sexually dimorphic and terrestrial species. The species are characterized with strong and well built muscular legs, big toes with sharp claws, a strong beak and majestic broad wings. The flight patterns of the flocks are either in straight lines or V-shaped. The species is reported to have elaborate courtship displays and has been observed to feast on smaller mammals (rodents), frogs and toads, snakes, insects etc. Territorial aggression is also reported among adult males and in defending their harems of females from other contesting males and intruders into their territory. They are also known to be devoted parents taking good care of their chicks and constantly feeding them, helping them to grow faster. They are mostly fond of grassy plains with intermediate woods and forests and in semi or sub-aquatic habitats.  These are mainly ground nesting birds that forage, nest and raise their chicks on the ground. They are capable of sustained flights and take refuge in the trees for roosting and for security from ground predators. The biggest threat to wild populations has been humans.

Extensive anthropogenic pressures on the local ecosystems overlapping with the original home range of the species have marginalized the specie to the verge of extinction. Furthermore, illegal encroachments by humans in their wild habitats have drastically resulted in disturbing their wild habitats and fragmentation negatively impacting their premier foraging ground, courtship, breeding and nesting behavior. The situation has been so alarming that none of the Indian zoos have any florican species in display since the species is so rarely found in the wild. Some recent initiatives of breeding and reintroduction to the wild in the state of Assam have been successful; but, such initiatives need to be duplicated and multiplied across its range for the purpose of the resurgence of the species. Previously, indiscriminate hunting and illegal capture and poaching on the species have been so severe; that it has impacted the wild population base dangerously beyond the natural threshold limit of maintaining stable population for the future. The severe anthropogenic pressures on the species over the decades in the subcontinent have pushed it with imminent threats of extinction in the wild. The situations of the disjunct population from South East Asia are also similarly dark and grim putting question marks on the long term survival of the species in the wild in the continent of Asia.

Among other bustard species from the subcontinent are the comparatively bigger, critically endangered endemic Indian species (with <200 individuals in the wild) widely known as the Indian bustard or the Great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps Vigors) distributed mostly in western and central India; and the smaller species called the Little bustard (Tetrax tetrax Linnaeus) also restricted in western India and has the near threatened status. The Indian bustard is also reported from Pakistan where it is critically endangered too; but the status of the current population in Pakistan is extremely doubtful due to severe hunting pressures and may be almost close to extinction in the wild due to indiscriminate hunting. Another species reported from western India is the MacQueen’s bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii J. E. Gray) and has the vulnerable status. The floricans are the bustard species predominantly from the eastern parts of the Indian subcontinent. There are two species, namely the critically endangered Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis Gmelin) of eastern and north-east India (as discussed above); and the endangered, Lesser florican (Sypheotides indica Miller) distributed sporadically across the subcontinent but more common in the eastern and north eastern states. These latter two species were previously grouped together as Bengal floricans in the past, but has now been split into two distinct and separate species. Another bigger (possibly the largest) bustard species, Great bustard (Otis tarda Linnaeus) is reported in some literature sources from north western Pakistan and Afghanistan. But unfortunately, local field data on the species from these regions are difficult to obtain; and their exact current status in these regions are doubtful due to severe hunting pressure and extremely poor conservation record.

Article submitted by: Saikat Kumar Basu

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

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

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