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Where do the birds fly? – Migrant Watch, a ‘citizen science’ data collection organization tells you

India is a hot spot for migratory birds and there are many species that visit the country in various times of the year. Amateur bird-watchers have taken it upon themselves to track migratory birds and they act as informal census keepers. According to the Tehelka blog, vagaries in the pattern of bird migration were brought to attention by amateur bird-watchers.

Until a decade ago, birding groups in the areas of Mysore, Chamarajnagar and Coorg districts in Southern India have counted nearly 300,000 migratory birds but in the past few years, this number has dropped to 50, 000.

However, there is an unfortunate lack of data to back this observation up scientifically. According to Dr. Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), “ At present, we suspect even so-called common species such as Common Drongo, Indian Roller, Hoopoe, Magpie Robin and Common Nightjar have declined due to habitat destruction and extensive use of pesticides. But we don’t have good scientific data to back this impression.”

Spoonbills in flight.  Photo by Akhila Vijayaraghavan.
Spoonbills in flight. Photo by Akhila Vijayaraghavan.

I also spoke to researchers at the Salim Ali Bird Foundation (SACON) and their opinion seems to echo this fact. Increase in urbanization, noise, light pollution as well as decrease in water bodies, tree cover have all been contributing factors towards the drop in bird numbers.

There is still hope however due to a programme started by Suhel Quader, an ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore has built up a meticulous database of winter migrants. The programme called Migrant Watch is a citizen science programme that relies on the observation of hundreds of bird watchers.

Anybody who has the remotest interest in birds can upload detailed observations from their birding trips on the programme’s website. Quader and his team then use this data to track the movement of migrant species throughout the country.

The programme is now nine years old and from monitoring just nine species, it now monitors 246 species. There are 600 active birders who contribute to this database. These observations have now resulted in a pattern and it is clear that this is solid data which can be used to track future migrations and bird numbers.

Pied Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus) in Kolleru, Andhra Pradesh, India.  Photo by J.M.Garg.
Pied Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus) in Kolleru, Andhra Pradesh, India. Photo by J.M.Garg.

The website might also help predict the monsoon which is a topic of intense debate in India every year. A healthy monsoon is a blessing and an unhealthy monsoon has severe impacts on economy and agricultural output. It is said that the Pied Cuckoo, is the heralder of the monsoon according to folklore. “It turns out that legend is largely right,” says Quader. From the 584 records, it appears that the bird appears when the monsoon arrives early. It is an Africa migrant and it arrives before the monsoon. This could be because the bird uses the high-altitude jet streams that bring the monsoons from African to India.

Migrant Watch has made the hobby of bird-watching into a serious pastime whereby people can actually contribute towards scientific research. According to Quader, this “is an important cultural change”. There are still large swathes of the country where there is very little data and hopefully, this will change over time. It will be very interesting to track the progress of this programme and see how it converts regular birders into guardians of scientific data.

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