How are India’s birds faring?

About 1,500 of the world’s 11,000 bird species are on the verge of extinction, thanks to human activities like agriculture, logging and hunting, according to a report by BirdLife International.

I decided to dig deeper and look at the status of birds in the context of India. After sifting through factsheets after factsheets, here’s what I found: Close to 90 of the 1,200-odd bird species are on the verge of extinction in the country. Of these, 16 are critically endangered, 21 are endangered and 52 are vulnerable. These include not just birds found only in India (or ‘endemic species’) but also ones that migrate to the country.

An additional 74 are near-threatened – they might soon be assigned one of the three threatened species status. Vultures, bustards, eagles, hornbills, woodpeckers, storks are all in trouble. So are robins, thrushes, buntings, babblers.

The state of a stout, white and brown bird, the great Indian bustard, is especially worrying. “It really is in a bad way,” Tris Allinson of BirdLife told me. “It could well be the planet’s next extinction,” he added. A few hundred individuals of the species remain. Though it was declared critically endangered in 2011, not much has changed in terms of protecting its grassland home. Wildlife sanctuaries have been established but a commitment to protecting India’s wider landscape of grasslands is still awaited. Since bustards tend not to remain within protected area boundaries year-round, grasslands outside sanctuaries need to be urgently protected by law.

Things have also become worse for other birds in India – several have been moved to higher threat levels. The endemic Narcondam hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondamii) was vulnerable by 2008 and was uplisted to endangered in 2009; another endemic species, the Manipur bush-quail (Perdicula manipurensis) went from vulnerable in 2012 to endangered in 2013; and the migratory steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis) was of least concern until 2013 and was uprated to endangered in 2015.

But there’s one recent downlisting that stands out: the endemic forest owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti) was critically endangered until 2016 and was moved down to the endangered category in 2017.

For more, check out my article published here at The Wire.

Bird Ballet

I had a dry spell for the whole of April. But the start of May has brought some good news – a new byline. This is a piece that’s very close to my heart because it is my first true attempt at nature writing. (I am a science writer, so of course I backed it up with science.) And to top it all *pause for effect* it carries some of my photographs. This story was fun to write as it brought together all the things I like – writing, writing about science, photography and birding! Isn’t that great?

So without further ado, let me quickly tell you what’s it about and then you’re free to go read it. (Or to keep the surprise element intact, skip to the end). It’s about Rosy Starling – a lesser-known species of starling that also murmurates like its European counterpart but hasn’t got as much attention. Earlier this year I went birdwatching at a lake not very far from where I live. And I found this huge conglomeration of rose-coloured birds resting on trees there. When dusk fell and it started to pour, the flock of birds took off and started swirling through the sky. It twisted and turned, split into smaller flocks and merged back again, singing all this while. The flock then returned and rain downed on the trees, preparing for a long night.

I describe this in a lot more detail for JLR Explore. Go, check it out.

#WorldFrogDay

It’s World Frog Day! And I am celebrating by curating all the articles I have published on frogs so far. Maybe something from this round-up will pique your interest:

Inside the secret world of bamboo-breeding frogs

These frogs breed hidden in bamboos and they are – wait for it – cannibals

Salamander ate a frog for its final meal

A fossil salamander that lived at least 34 million years ago is in such good condition that the remains of a frog it ate are still in its digestive tract

Tadpoles piggyback on strangers to avoid getting eaten — by siblings

When frog fathers go missing, their young can get in grave danger. To escape the deadly jaws of their own siblings, the young turn to strangers.

Traffic noise impacts frog survival

Next time you honk, spare a thought for these frogs (and your fellow humans).

What’s behind the recent spate of discoveries?

From frogs to lizards, how do we keep finding new species?

The tadpoles that swim in sand

Indian dancing frogs are unusual enough with their habit of waving their feet in the air. Now, it turns out their tadpoles are peculiar as well.

What’s driving the endangered purple frog to extinction?

Hint: Us.

DJ frogs remix tunes on the hop

Male Gracixalus treefrogs woo females with original compositions.

Treasure trove of new frogs found in India

The country is home to dozens of species of bush frog, each with a distinctive pattern of colours.

Viral outbreak threatens the survival of amphibians

A viral outbreak is killing amphibians, including frogs, toads and salamanders, in Spain.

India defers 100-year-old annual science meet

The Indian Science Congress has run into trouble – again.

First, in 2015, presentation of controversial pseudoscientific claims made headlines, and now it is the last-minute change in venue for the conference. The venue was moved from the southern city of Hyderabad to the north-east city of Imphal, which are miles apart. The reason given was protesting students.

For the piece, I interviewed 2009 chemistry Nobel laureate, Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan, who has been vocal about the state of affairs in the Congress before. The other scientist I interviewed for the piece is Prof. P. Balaram, former director of the Indian Institute of Science.

Prof. Balaram had written an editorial in the journal Current Science in 2012, in which he had cited several reasons for the downfall of the Congress. One was the importance showered upon its opening session, which is traditionally presided over by the prime minister of India. Another was the quality of its sessions.

You can read what the sources said in my piece for Chemistry World here.

Inside the secret world of bamboo-breeding frogs

Meet the white-spotted bush frog, a species that is fascinating on several counts. For one, it breeds inside bamboos (yes, in the hollows of the fast growing woody grasses).

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To convince a female to have kids with him, a male frog first finds a nice spot – a bamboo stem with a tiny hole just big enough to get through – and then sings to impress.

If a female likes it, she enters the bamboo, lays her eggs and immediately calls it quits. Daddy babysits alone (and mamma moves on to make more babies).

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A month later, their round see-through eggs hatch directly into mini versions of their parents, instead of tadpoles.
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The florescent froglets stay put for a while before going it alone. Until they leave, their doting dad guards them round the clock, forgoing his hunt for food. He eats insects that stray into the bamboo cavity – things like ants and flies.
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While daddy does his duty, he aggressively croaks to warn other male frogs against stepping on his patch.

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And with good reason: rival males can make a quick meal of his eggs. They are hungry and, it turns out, cannibals. Eggs, as is obvious, are rich in nutrients and if left behind by their dad, have little chance of survival. Scientists recently uncovered these aspects of the bamboo-breeding frogs using an endoscope – a medical device typically used to peer inside our bodies.

What makes matters worse for the frogs, besides cannibalism, is that they are a critically endangered species existing nowhere but in India’s Western Ghats, a chain of mountains alongside the country’s west coast.

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And given the harvesting pressure facing their bamboo nursery, the frogs need all the help they can get. Finding out where the frogs live outside of reserves can identify bamboo stands worth protecting. Another useful thing would be to stop cutting down bamboo during monsoons, which is when the frogs breed. You can do your bit by spreading the word on a more detailed piece I wrote about these frogs for Mongabay-India.

Photo, sound and video credit: Seshadri K.S. (Many thanks to him for sharing the multimedia and giving permissions for use)

When life gives you ice, break through it

Animals struggle during winters. No surprise there. But it isn’t a shortage of food alone that bothers them. This January was pretty harsh with temperatures lingering below zero for days on end and that meant ice was everywhere. Even the city lakes were covered in ice. When it comes to birds, you may think “that’s no problem, they can fly.” But icy conditions made it really hard for some. From the antics that played out on the ice, it seemed highly sensible of these swans to break their way through the ice than to walk over it or take off on the slippery runway:

Swan photo and video are mine, all mine.