The wetlands of Iran constitute an important destination of several migratory bird species from Europe, and Russia including Siberia, Mongolia, China, Central Asia and Africa. Several species fly unbelievably long distances between the continents and cross over the Caspian Sea to enter the borders of Iran and finally settling into different wetlands, forested areas and river valleys. The two major migration paths that include Iran as transit points are the Central Asian migratory route and the African-Eurasian migration pathway. The inland geographical location of Iran within the Asian continent along with multiple seasons, abundant wetlands (in the form of water bodies like inland lakes, pools, ponds, ditches, swamps, marshlands), plain forests, mountain forests, dry forests, woods, scrubs, river valleys, riverine forests, diverse ecosystems and abundant food sources making it an attractive destination for a large number of migratory bird species from Central Asia, Europe and Africa. Different species of ducks and geese, grebes, pochards, cormorants, bitterns, egrets, cranes, herons, storks, spoonbills, ibis, flamingo, lapwings, phalaropes, coots, plovers, sandpipers, curlews, snipes, terns, common greenshanks, dunlins etc visit Iran as migratory species. In addition different species of raptors such as vultures, falcons and eagles also migrate to Iran following their strong prey base that takes refuge within the boundaries of the nation. On an average, between 2-4 million migratory birds are estimated to pass through Iran every year.
Thus the wetlands and forests of Iran constitute a global hotspot rich with numerous magnificent avian species foraging, nesting and breeding and then leaving at the end of the winter for their home ranges. These areas have traditionally grown into important tourist hubs due to the exquisite natural beauty, relatively pollution free environment, spectacular biodiversity, wild nature and serenity. Several tourists from the major Iranian cities like Teheran flock to these tourist centers to enjoy a glimpse of the natural beauty. However, a section of the tourist and local community members also get together for the purpose of hunting both with and without proper hunting licenses. It is this unprecedented surge of hunting pressure and poaching that has been causing havoc with several migratory species of birds, seriously impacting their population bases while visiting the Iranian wetlands as their winter refuge. Several species such as the Siberian crane, sociable lapwing, white backed vulture etc are migratory species that have been placed under the critical endangered species category by IUCN; while white-headed duck, Egyptian vulture etc have become nearly threatened.
Several local legal and illegal (underground/black) markets have also developed in and round these regions selling meat of wild migratory birds to the tourists and visitors and to the local population as cheap source of animal protein and as an exotic meat. The meat of migratory birds are extremely popular with the tourists as well as locals and are openly served in local restaurants, pubs and hotels; and has also turned into a common food item for the domestic kitchens. Due to high local demand several local youths and tribesmen has changed into poachers and hunters who illegally capture, slaughter and sell the defenseless birds to the middlemen; who then sell it to the local businessmen operating meat trade in the local legal and illegal markets. The worst hit is particularly different migratory species of wild ducks and geese. According to the local agencies approximately 3 out of 4 million migratory birds are illegally hunted by poachers and local hunters; and that these people are rarely arrested or prosecuted. The hunting and poaching pressures on these wetlands and other available refuges of migratory bird species in Iran has gone up exponentially pushing several migratory bird species to the status of vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered from not threatened in the span of just last three decades. Furthermore, due to tremendous anthropogenic pressures on the migratory bird habitats by tourists, locals, hunters and poachers; several species are running the risk of extinctions if such activities continue for future decades without any intervention.
The lack of education and awareness among the local and tribal communities in remote corners of the country, poor management and regulations, poor economic development and lack of opportunities for sustainable economic growth on a long term basis, lack of political initiatives and will, local traditions and taboos, social customs, insurgence of unplanned, unrestricted and unmonitored tourism have been some of the socio-economic factors contributing towards the sharp rise in poaching and illegal capture of migratory birds in these regions. The government and non-government agencies in charge of the conservation and protection of the regions are ill equipped, poorly trained and funded to deal with the grim situation. The number of incidents of poaching is way too high for the existing staff members and volunteers working on these projects to handle efficiently and effectively.
They are short of manpower, funding, gears and equipments to deal with the proper survey, study, monitoring and evaluation. They are acutely short staffed in regulating and/or restricting the incidents of rampant poaching and operation of legal and illegal migratory bird meat markets and illegal pet trade centers operating in these localities. Often the poachers and illegal business operators on wild birds have better organized networks, sophisticated arms and instruments than the regulatory agencies. The poor salary structure, harsh job conditions, long working hours and lack of opportunities and incentives do not attract enough quality candidates to apply for these job positions. Due to lack of proper advertisement and initiatives, dedicated and sincere volunteers are also not easy to recruit. The consequence being a poorly trained and severely marginalized force has to operate with their poor infrastructure and facilities in the conservation and protection of huge areas, which become both logically as well as logistically impossible to manage efficiently. Under these circumstances the future of several migratory bird species in Iran is hopeless and dimensionless and if no appropriate measures are taken at the earliest, several species of migratory birds could be threatened with the dangers of extinction in the not so distant future.
Socio-economic development of the under privileged regions will be important for possible improvements in conservation efforts. It is necessary to establish alternate employment opportunities and economic engagement for people involved in the illegal trade on migratory bird species and poaching activities. Highly organized campaigns will be needed to promote education and awareness among the local populations, indigenous communities, tourists and visitors about the importance of the migratory bird species and their role in maintaining healthy balance of the extremely fragile and sensitive ecosystems. Proper training and funding for the different regulatory and environmental protection and conservation agencies will be necessary to well organize and equip the personnel involved in successfully conducting regular surveys on endangered bird populations; monitoring and surveillance of the sensitive local ecosystems; raids, arrests and conviction of those involved in poaching and illegal trade on wild meat of migratory bird species. Above all campaigns in educating general public making them aware of the impending dangers of the possibility of extinction of the critically threatened migratory bird species need to be emphasized.
Article submitted by: Saikat Kumar Basu and Peiman Zandi
Photo credit: Peiman Zandi
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With their forked tails and scythe-shaped wings, swifts herald the arrival of spring in Europe and are seen as the bringers of rain in parts of Africa where they spend their winters. These amazing birds spend almost their entire lives in flight, so much so that their legs are small and too weak to support them for long when perching, explaining why their family name, Apodidae, is taken from the Greek word meaning ‘without feet’. Spine-tailed swifts, also known as white-throated needletails, have been measured as flying up to speeds of 105 mph (169km/h), while common swifts are known to routinely reach speeds of 70 mph (112 km/h).
Although they resemble swallows, swifts are placed in the same order as hummingbirds, Apodiformes, while swallows are of the order Passeriformes. Their similarities are attributed to convergent evolution, a phenomena where differing species develop similar traits due to lifestyle adaptations, in this case their habit of catching insects in flight.
Distances are immaterial to swifts, as they can easily fly 500 miles in a day. Most swifts remain airborne from when they fledge to the first time they breed – a period of roughly four years. It’s been estimated that in a swift’s lifetime it will cover a distance of around 1.28 million miles. They even roost on the wing, circling gently for hours as the two sides of their brains take turns in sleeping. Swifts only nest to raise their young, and are fond of doing so inside roofs of houses. Parents can gather and carry as many as 1,000 insects to feed their young, making them very effective insect controllers. When the fledglings leave the nest, they all take to the skies and so the cycle continues.
When swifts are feeding in the late afternoon, they swoop through the air in a series of aerobatics that are fascinating to watch. As is the case with hummingbirds, swifts are able to rotate their wings in a manner that keeps them fully extended and rigid, delivering power on both the upstroke and downstroke, thereby increasing their speed and maneuverability. No other bird species are able to do this. So if you happen to have the good fortune to see swifts in action, take some time to appreciate their unique characteristics.
Well known for their nest-building abilities, weavers (Ploceidae) are small passerine birds with the majority of the family’s 117 species found in sub-Saharan Africa, and smaller numbers making their homes in tropical Asia. While there are some exceptions, weaver species are very sociable and generally breed in colonies. Sparrow Weavers in Africa are known to build large condominium-style nests with between one and three hundred breeding pairs sharing one structure in which each pair has its own chamber with narrow entrances facing downward. Other species, such as the Lesser Masked Weavers, may build their nests as individual structures, but will nevertheless be found in groups, sometimes with more than one nest dangling from a branch.
Closely related to finches, weavers are sometimes referred to as weaver finches and get their name from the manner in which they build their nests. Thought to be the most elaborate nest-building technique of any bird, weavers use locally available materials such as grass, twigs and fibrous leaves, to weave their nests. Some of the species strip fibrous leaves into fine strands to weave a nest together that will withstand all types of weather, but others are not quite so fussy and will build untidy looking nests which are deceptively strong. They tend to build their colonies near water and they are a common sight hanging from willow trees alongside streams and lakes in Africa. Social weavers, found in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, build some of the largest colonies of nests in trees and on power lines or other structures. These colonies will house several generations of birds at the same time, and in addition to the protection factor of a large group against predators, these large colonial nests offer protection from the extreme temperatures often experienced in Africa.
Primarily seed eaters, some weaver species are considered by farmers to be pests as they damage crops. The Red-billed Quelea falls into this category. With an adult breeding population estimated at 1.5 billion pairs (with some studies suggesting the overall population is 10 billion birds) found only in sub-Saharan Africa, the Red-billed Quelea is the world’s most abundant wild bird species. In colonies of thousands to millions of breeding pairs, these weavers can decimate a farmer’s field in a matter of hours.
The Black-throated Robin (Luscinia obscura ), also referred to as the Black-throated Blue Robin, or simply the Blackthroat, is a species in the Muscicapidae family of small passerine birds found mainly in the Old World – Europe, Asia and Africa. Primarily due to decimation of its preferred habitat of bamboo thickets and high altitude coniferous forest, this elusive little bird has become quite a rare sight in recent decades. So when a team of Swedish and Chinese researchers discovered a community of breeding Blackthroats in the Qinling Mountains of north-central China’s Shaanxi province, it was a newsworthy event.
With their distinctive song consisting of short, sharp, varied strophes including harsh notes and whistles, seven singing males were counted in Foping Nature Reserve, with another seven observed in the Changqing National Nature Reserve. Being the more vocal of the sexes, males are easier to find, and it is considered to be almost certain that each male has a mate. The majority of the birds were seen in bamboo thickets and coniferous-broadleaf forests at an altitude of around 2400 to 2500 meters above sea level. Recordings have been made of the Blackthroat’s song, which will made identification easier in the future.
Resembling a European Robin Erithacus rubecula in size and general shape, the Blackthroat male has a jet-black throat and breast, and while it is believed that the female has a light-brown throat and breast, this has not been confirmed. They were first recorded in the late 19th century, and between the time of first being observed and into the early 20th century, ten of these birds were collected during their breeding season of May to August, in two different localities in China’s Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Subsequent Blackthoat sightings include unconfirmed records from China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, as well as a few birds spotted in captivity at markets. The most recent reported sighting of a Blackthroat was at the Sichuan University campus in May 2011, with reports of a Blackthroat being captured in Thailand during the winter months, which is a possible migration destination or stop-over point.
The African Penguin, also referred to as the Jackass Penguin, might be a little awkward on land, but can definitely hold its own in the water as a very efficient hunter. Tourists who visit Cape Town, South Africa, and see the beauty of these birds do not realize that they are actually witnessing a very rare moment, as the population of these birds has decreased from approximately four million in the 1900s. The last census done by the Southern African Foundation of the Conservation of Coastal Birds in 2010 counted only sixty thousand. This alarming decrease has led to the creation of a new project to protect these valuable birds.
Humans, as the story usually goes, had a great influence in the reduction of numbers of African Penguins, as up until the 1960s the penguin eggs were being harvested for human consumption. Another factor was the harvesting of guano that was used as fertilizer, but is crucial for adult penguins, as they use the hardened guano to make nest burrows. To add to the penguins’ problems, oil spills and over harvesting of anchovies and other fish species that are a part of their diet has made their fight for survival even harder.
Scientists want to try and create artificial hatcheries to assist in the breeding of African Penguins for release, but to recreate the hatcheries efficiently, it is vital for them to have the correct information to understand the penguins better. In order to do this they have attached a transmitter, which is approximately the size of a matchbox, to baby penguins that are about ten weeks of age. The penguins are first placed in a pool so they can get used to swimming with the transmitter and then released into the ocean. One penguin has already been released, and a penguin named Richie is due for release. Scientists will be releasing approximately five penguins with transmitters.
Dr Richard Sherley, a key member of the scientific team from the University of Cape Town, commented that he hoped that the data collected would allow them to understand what influences breeding colonies in the choices they make and the early life of a penguin, as these questions have not been answered as yet. Lucy, which was the first penguin to be released, has already transmitted back data, which showed scientists that young penguins are able to swim approximately twenty-eight miles in one day. Sherley commented that because no-one really knows much about the early days and life of young penguins, it is crucial for them to collect this data to assist in their conservation projects. The transmitters will eventually fall off of the penguins, but it is hoped that by then enough information has been gathered to assist scientists in finding the ideal breeding site for a colony that can be protected and will be the site of the hatchery.