Forgotten species: the cryptic Jerdon's courser

Jeremy Hance
July 06, 2010

Everyone knows the tiger, the panda, the blue whale, but what about the other five to thirty million species estimated to inhabit our Earth? Many of these marvelous, stunning, and rare species have received little attention from the media, conservation groups, and the public. This series is an attempt to give these 'forgotten species' some well-deserved attention.

According to my Oxford English Dictionary, 'cryptic' means: 'secret, mystical; mysterious; obscure in meaning; enigmatic'. This is the perfect adjective for the rare Indian bird, Jerdon's courser (Rhinoptilus bitorquatus).

"It is not so easy to spot as it is a small bird and when you show the torch it crouches and merges with the surroundings. So we need very good trained eyes to look for them," Dr. P. Jeganathan recently told mongabay.com.

Nocturnal, incredibly rare, and adept at avoiding human eyes: it may not be surprising that the Jerdon's courser was thought extinct for some 80 years. An attractive bird with long spindly legs and an almost hawk-like face, it blends in perfectly with its surroundings. Another meaning for cryptic: 'Of markings, coloration, etc.: serving to camouflage an animal etc. in its natural environment'. Although Jerdon's courser can fly, it prefers moving along the ground, perhaps because it can hide so well there in plain sight. Of three courser species in India, Jerdon's is the only nocturnal one. Its closest relatives are not India's other coursers, but Africa's.

The world's best photo of the Jerdon's courser. Photo by: Simon Cook/Birdlife International.
To prove just how cryptic this species is: Jeganathan spent eight years studying the Jerdon's courser, but only saw the bird well three times.

"There are a few occasions when I got a glimpse of the bird, and there are very few occasions when I had very good look. I can tell only of three occasions. One: when I saw the bird for the first time in September 2000. Two: when I saw the bird when it was calling when there was ample sunlight in the evening and three: when I saw this bird at night time and it started walking toward me attracted to my torch beam."

Given this, even well-planned, expert surveys for the bird are "not reliable," says Jeganathan, explaining that not spying Jerdon's courser during the survey "doesn't mean that the bird is not there." So, Jeganathan and his team had to develop a new approach of finding the bird.

"It is called tracking strip method. It is generally used to study mammals (tigers, civets) but for the first time we have used this for a bird. We collect soil from the road side and sieve it so that it is very fine. Then we go to the potentially suitable habitat of this bird and deploy tracking strips (5 meters long and 30 centimeters wide) on the forest floor. As Jerdon's Courser walks a lot, if the bird is there […] then it would leave its footprint on this tracking strip. To confirm the identity of the footprint we keep the camera trap at the end of the tracking strip and when the bird crosses this strip it will take its own picture."

The bird has now been identified in three different locations in Sri Lankamaleswara Wildlife Sanctuary.

Jeganathan was also able to identify and record the bird's call, giving researchers another tool to find the species.

"Jerdon's Courser is one of the rarest birds of the world. It is much more rare than tigers!" says Jeganathan. "It is listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN. Because it known only from one single site and the habitat in which it lives is also shrinking and degrading. Although the potentially suitable habitat is present in quite a few places it's not been surveyed and hence we do not know much of their geographical distribution."

Jeganathan says that habitat destruction and degradation is the number one threat to this enigmatic species. Found in scrub jungle with open spaces, much of which is actually outside the wildlife sanctuary, the bird competes with humans for land.

Camera trap photo of Jerdon's courser. Photo by: P. Jeganathan.
"This habitat is heavily used by locals mainly for cattle grazing [and] woodcutting. But actually moderate levels of wood cutting and cattle grazing are good for the Jerdon's courser habitat as these kinds of activities maintain the architecture of the habitat […] but not over grazing and extensive wood cutting," says Jeganathan.

If the bird is to survive, its habitat must be retained. In addition, more surveys are needed in scrub jungles that could house the bird.

"In the places where it is known to occur the habitat should be protected from heavy human disturbance and long term monitoring of habitat here is essential and long term research is vital. Radio telemetry studies should be carried out to know more about their ecology," Jeganathan says.

As with most forgotten species, simply spreading the word may be enough to save the species from extinction.

"Jerdon's courser is not as charismatic as Tiger," Jeganathan admits. "So it needs lot of publicity […] If we save the scrub jungle we can save the Jerdon's courser. That's the only solution. When the tiger disappeared from some of the tiger reserves in India […] it was quite obvious that they had disappeared because there were no sightings. But it won't be in the case of the Jerdon's courser. We will not know even if it disappears unless we protect their habitat and unless we do long term monitoring in the sites where it is know to occur. As a precautionary measure we should protect the potentially suitable habitat even if it found outside the sanctuary."

It's likely the Jerdon's courser evolved to be as cryptic as possible to avoid predators and possibly even humans. Yet, cryptic species are some of the most difficult to protect from extinction, since they require conservation acts-of-faith, saving places we hope the species still inhabits.

To find more information on the Jerdon's courser: visit Birdlife International's profile page. To support research and conservation for the Jerdon's courser, visit Just Giving for Birdlife International.

In addition, Birdlife International is still seeking a species champion for the bird to commit to long-term funding to keep Jerdon's courser from extinction.

Typical Jerdon's courser habitat: open scrub jungle. Photo courtesy of P. Jeganathan.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (July 06, 2010).

Forgotten species: the cryptic Jerdon's courser .