Conservation of birds through national heritage: A new and innovative approach

April 22, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Currency bills, coins and postage stamps all significantly contribute towards the national heritage of any nation. They bear the mark of important aspects of national history, archaeology, reflects images of different heads of states, significant contributors, historic characters, politicians, monarchs, emperors, lawmakers, mythological characters, statesmen, politicians, national architecture and monuments, national historic and heritage sites, different national symbols, people, social and cultural life of a nation, national sports, national and international sports events and sports personalities, celebrities, aboriginal communities, arts and crafts, wildlife, and natural resources to name only a few. In short, currency bills, coins and postage stamps carry the glimpses of a nation in their own right and often serve as an important window to peep through the steps of history to study, appreciate and understand the socio-cultural context of any nation or a country, both young and old. The practice of systematic study of currency is known as numismatics and the collection of coins is now considered to be a part of that although may not necessarily include both; while the collection of stamps is broadly called philately. The collectors of different currencies are therefore regarded as numismatists; while the stamp collectors are popularly known as philatelists.

Severe anthropogenic impacts across the globe have severely and negatively impacted the natural ecosystems, biomes, habitats and environments. As a consequence, global wildlife including avifauna have been significantly impacted due to environmental pollution, climate change, spread and dissemination of different diseases, uncontrolled and unattended forest fires, habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation, illegal infringements and grazing in protected areas, capture, hunting and poaching of several vulnerable species, introduction of exotic species, infrastructural developments in fragile ecosystems and expansion of agriculture  and industries among several other important factors. The currency bills, coins and postage stamps of different countries have been increasingly reflecting the local wildlife, including avifauna, as an important national heritage and resource. This silent approach has an important nationalistic as well as international appeal in prioritizing wildlife and avifauna conservation.

Several currency bills, coins and postage stamps have now been specifically designed and released to address the avifauna hallmark of different modern nations. Such iconic and socio-cultural bonding to national avifauna resources could be well connected and utilized for conservation of several threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered avifauna members around the globe. These not only help in communicating the message of conservation of birds of national, regional and local importance among local community members; but also carry the universal message of bird conservation through dedicated numismatists and philatelists to the international community. Global avian members are being challenged with several natural as well as anthropogenic factors that are threatening several vulnerable species with the risks of extinction. Hence it is important to utilize every possible opportunity for portraying the need for avian conservation. The iconographic presentation of different species of birds through currency bills, coins and postage stamps is an important, innovative and interesting avenue in popularizing conservation of different avifauna members.  This could be considered as a new and important approach in capturing avian conservation through national heritage and iconography. Several responsible nations across the continents of Asia, Africa, Australia, the Americas and Europe have already come forward in using bird icons in their currency bills, coins and postage stamps. However, more countries need to be involved, particularly the developing and under developed nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America that represent the bulk of the grandeurs of global avian biodiversity. By working together, we could utilize this innovative avenue to be an important ambassador for popularizing conservation of birds among global communities.

Article contributed 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

Southeastern Kestrel Management on Fort Polk

March 7, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

In 1992, Fort Polk banded its first juvenile kestrels, which were from a nest located in an enlarged RCW cavity. The kestrel nest tree was within 100 feet of an RCW nest tree, which indicates that RCWs and SAKs prefer the same type of nesting habitat. Both the RCW and kestrel had successful nests and fledged chicks.

The SAK often hunts over large openings in the forest. Fort Polk has a large number of openings in the forest, called firing ranges that are utilized by the SAK for hunting. Our most successful nest boxes are located on the edge or near firing ranges. Another favorite habitat on Fort Polk is Longleaf pine seedtree stands that have approximately 20 mature pine trees per acre. On Fort Polk, we thin our pine stands down to a basal area of 60, sometimes lower, and we have a three-year rotational prescribed fire program. Not only does this habitat management benefit the SAK and RCW, it also benefits other species of concern including Bachman’s and Henslow’s Sparrows, and the rare Louisiana Pine Snake.

Since 1993, we have placed 20-25 SAK nest boxes on Fort Polk. The boxes are placed 20 feet above the ground on pine trees. It is very important that a snag or telephone lines are located near the nest boxes; the SAK uses them for perching and hunting. Our nest boxes usually have 5-6 successful nests a year, producing 3-4 young each. In addition to our nest boxes, we usually find 3-6 nests located in natural cavities each year. Nearly all the nests are found in enlarged RCW cavities located in living or dead cavity trees. All chicks are banded with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife aluminum band and a combination of color bands. There is a lot of competition for the nest boxes from other bird species and squirrels. We usually have more Eastern Screech Owl nests than SAK nests. We have also found Great-crested Flycatchers, Tufted Titmice, and Eastern Bluebirds nesting in our boxes. If we find other bird species using the boxes, we leave them alone, but Fox Squirrels and Southern Flying Squirrels are removed. Flying squirrels are a big problem. It is not uncommon to find 4-8 flying squirrels occupying a nest box. The number one nest predator on nesting SAKs is the Texas Rat Snake, a great tree climber. We have found adults, young, and eggs consumed by the rat snake. To limit predation, we place aluminum sheeting (4 ft. wide) at the base of each nest box tree. The slick aluminum prevents the snake from climbing the trees and reaching the nest boxes.

With proper management, SAK populations should remain stable and possibly increase in the future on federal lands, including Fort Polk and National Forest Service lands. It is critical that regular prescribed fires and timber thinning continue into the future. Not only is this necessary for maintaining healthy populations of SAK, but for other rare species that share its habitat.

Contributed by: Kenneth Moore

Also by Kenneth Moore: Southeastern American Kestrel in Louisiana

Bird Conservation: Education and Awareness

February 26, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Birds constitute an important aspect of our natural world. They are an important part of the global ecosystem and biodiversity, food source and inspiration for several aspects of human art, sculpture, culture, ethnicity, literature and society. Different bird species inhabit all the continents of the globe representing both the ‘Old World’ as well as the ‘New World’ including the northern polar region, Siberia and Greenland to the Antarctica. They are present in all the cities and towns and rural areas dotted across the planets from the remote islands to the barren deserts; and from the high mountains to the fertile plain lands and dry, arid plateau regions. They have successfully invaded every ecosystem on earth and adapted to them accordingly for their survival and multiplication from the geologic past.

They have invaded the boreal forests and the cactus infested deserts; they have migrated huge distances unimaginable to reach remote islands and distant continents to make their new homes and have established strong feral populations in the urban areas in different corners of the planet. From the lush green tropical forests to the bare vegetation deserts and from the lofty mountains to the open sea; they have occupied every possible and available space with success and great efficiency. Many species have settled close to human habitations and prospered by sharing resources and trash of their human neighbors to carve out a successful niche for them. In exchange, birds have provided humans with sources of food and nutrition from the very early days of hominid evolution to the modern high tech industrial, poultry production systems.

However, this nice balance of sharing and co-inhabiting the same space has been greatly shifted to a negative ends from the dynamics of the human perspective. Several species of birds have been placed increasingly under Near Threatened, Threatened, Endangered and Critically Endangered status by the IUCN from every continent due to significant changes to their population structure. Severe anthropogenic pressures across the world due to indiscriminate poaching (illegal hunting, capture, trade and transportation of endemic, exotic and vulnerable species), loss of habitats (loss of key foraging, hunting, breeding and nesting sites; habitat degradation and habitat fragmentation; destruction of virgin forests) forest fires, environmental pollution (global warming and climate change, nuclear radiation, discharge of untreated industrial effluents into the natural environment, emission of toxic gases from automobiles and industries, indiscriminate and over application of agro-chemicals polluting underground and surface water resources), spread of several deadly pathogenic diseases, over exploitation of natural resources both aquatic (marine and fresh water sources) and terrestrial (rapid infrastructural, industrial and agricultural expansions and developments, aggressive mining activities and rapid and unplanned urbanization drives) without any long term planning and non-judicious management of natural resources for short term financial gains; and deep and unrestricted encroachments inside fragile and susceptible ecosystems and environments for purely commercial ventures are some of the factors that are negatively impacting global avian population.


It is important to think about why is this happening across the world and what we could do to help the conservation of our precious avian members? One of the most important factors that can play an important role in the successful conservation of the avian species across the planet is the education and awareness of the people, particularly the young children who are our future citizens. It is absolute necessary to bring the causes of decline in the global avian populations to our dinner table and make it a household discussion so that people can realize, understand and appreciate the values of avian conservation. The first step in achieving that end as mentioned above is raising the education and awareness level of the global human community by catching them young.

The school systems constitute one of the basic frameworks of early education and that should be the primary focus of the bird conservation education and awareness programs. It should be important to reach the young kids through interactive programs organized and integrated within their school curriculum to expose them slowly to the importance of the diversity of bird life, their life cycles, and how they survive in different ecosystems and in stressing why they should be conserved for the future generations. Movies and videos, small hand on workshops, art works and interactive lecture session geared towards young children needs to be designed. It will be also important to keep in mind the socio-cultural perspective of the target kids when the programs are being designed. What works for the urban students may not be suitable for the students coming from the rural communities and what appears more appropriate from the perspective of a developed nation, may not be practical for students from developing and under developed nations. Hence such programs need to be custom designed based on the specific student populations to reach them more efficiently.

The secondary and tertiary levels of education could include even more engaging and involving projects such as participation in field projects like bird survey, nature photography, and preparation of reports (such as field data report, eco report or environment report), high school or university level research projects on bird life, bird ecosystem and conservation, data generation on several endangered, critically endangered or threatened local species, study on different exotic and endemic species, study on different anthropogenic pressure and activities and how they are shaping and changing local bird life and behaviors, studying and photographing interesting bird behavior and making presentations back to the class. Involving the peers for spreading education and awareness on bird conservation could be an effective strategy in reaching more young people efficiently. Older students could be trained to communicate about their experiences in bird conservation to the younger students for better appreciation of their peer achievements and to learn significantly from their experiences rather than external source of education and awareness.

Class based sharing of stories and presentations made using the black board or smart board options or use of colorful posters or hand made story boards prepared by students could not only engage students but also other members of the society. The interactive student sessions could be extended to the parents, teachers, instructors and lecturers and also to the senior citizen groups for highlighting the causal factors behind the declining aspect of global avian population and their possible recovery through consistent, long term, sustainable and coordinated efforts of the government and non-government organizations; different local, regional and international conservation organizations and local community members. Slowly such education and awareness drives could not only reach the younger generation but broadly to all members of the society. The supportive role of the media could not be ignored at all and they should be made important stakeholders in the process of education and awareness of the public through their investigative reports, periodicals and serials on bird conservation efforts around the globe, talk shows, documentaries and mocumentaries on bird related topics, newspaper reports, columns, editorials, features, letter to editors, magazine articles and different interactive question-answer session could greatly help in engaging public towards avian conservation.

It is important to realize that we have to understand and cater to the anthropogenic issues first to solve the problem of crisis in the avian life. Several biodiversity hotspots are located in the poor developing and under developed nations of the world. The poor economy, unstable political situations and ethnic tensions have pushed several local communities towards the forest and making them dependent on these ecologically fragile resource bases heavily. Unless the social and economic situations of such remote rural settlers, village communities and forest fringe residents are improved, and they are relocated where possible, the ground situation in both avian and other wildlife conservation has little chances for success. The bird conservation education and awareness programs must highlight the plight of such people to all to understand the dynamics of human-animal conflicts better to resolve the problem. Unless the anthropogenic issue is critically addressed the fruits of the conservation efforts will not be able to take its roots successfully.


Article submitted by Saikat Kumar Basu

Photo credits: Saikat Kumar Basu, Ratnabali Sengupta, Srimoyi Mazumder, Jayati Naskar, Manorma Sharma, Monikankana Dasgupta, Olga Osdachuk, Peiman Zandi, Xiuhua Wu & Cenny Yau.

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