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Birds Of India’s Arid Lands

India’s arid lands and dry grasslands are possibly the most undervalued of all wildlife habitats. Agriculture, irrigation schemes, pesticides, overgrazing, exotic species and mining operations are among a long list of threats facing these areas. While some areas that fall in the purview of the Protected Area network have achieved some degree of protection, there are several areas crucial to birds, that are highly threatened.

Dr. Pramod Patil, a talented artist who is passionate about conservation, shares with us some of his illustrations to emphasise the threat to some of the birds living in these oft-neglected landscapes.

1. Lesser Florican Sypheotides indicus<

Endemic to the Indian subcontinent, it is found in India, Nepal and Pakistan. It is highly endangered primarily due to the loss of its habitat. This attractive bird has an elaborate courtship display. The adult male has distinct black plumes on the head while the female is larger and more buff coloured. It feeds on insects, lizards, frogs, shoots, leaves, herbs and berries.

2. Great Indian Bustard Ardeotis nigriceps

The Great Indian Bustard is found in India and Pakistan. A critically-endangered species, it has disappeared from 90 per cent of its former range. It prefers arid and semi-arid grasslands with scattered low scrub, bushes and cultivation in flat or gently undulating terrain. Brown-and-white with a black crown and wing markings, it feeds on grass seeds, berries, insects, rodents and reptiles as well as crops such as groundnut, millets and pods of legumes.

3. Crested Bunting Melophus lathami

The Crested Bunting is found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam. It makes its home in subtropical or tropical dry lowland grasslands. As its name suggests, it has a crest on its head. Its wings and tail are chestnut-brown, the male has a blue-black head while the female’s upper parts and breast are streaked.

4. White-browed Bushchat Saxicola macrorhynchus

Found in India and Pakistan, it is a semi-arid desert specialist that is highly vulnerable to changes in its habitat due to agricultural intensification and encroachment. It usually inhabits desert plains where ground cover is 25 to 50 per cent. It has rufous-buff or white uppertail coverts, a long bill and a broad pale eye-ring. It is known for its ‘puff and roll’ behaviour where it puffs up its chest and rolls it from side to side to establish its territory.

5. Indian Courser Cursorius coromandelicus

Found in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, this ground bird prefers dry open stony, scrubby or rocky areas and grasslands. It has a broad black eye-stripe that begins at the base of the beak, a chestnut crown, rufous breast, white rump and whitish legs with three forward pointing toes. It feeds on insects such as beetles, crickets and grasshoppers.

6. Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark Eremopterix griseus

This species is restricted to below 1,000 m. elevation and is found south of the Himalaya to Sri Lanka extending to the Indus river system in the west and to Assam in the east. It inhabits open, dry lands and forages for seeds and insects. It is sparrow-sized, has a finch-like bill and short legs. The male is sandy brown in colour with a black belly, chin and eye stripes. The female is pale brown and looks remarkably like a house sparrow.

7. Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus

Its range extends throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia where it is found in areas rich in vegetation, tundra, savanna and sand dunes from sea level to elevations as high as 4,000 m. It has boldly streaked plumage, a large round head with a white-bordered facial disc, and striking yellow eyes framed with black. It is active in the morning, late afternoon and night and flies low in search of small mammals such as hare or small birds.

8. Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata

With three sub-species, this bird is found across North Africa, the Middle East and western Asia where it feeds on invertebrates, small vertebrates and green shoots. A small to mid-sized bustard, it has a brown upper body and a white underbelly and a black stripe down the sides of its neck.

Protecting a new grassland in Maharashtra
by Pramod Patil

During the breeding season, the Great Indian Bustard has been observed in and around the Gangewadi grassland near Kasegaon village on the boundary of Solapur and Osmanabad districts, about 15 km. (aerial distance) from Nannaj, in the core area of the GIB Sanctuary in Maharashtra. On November 27, 2011, Praveen Pardeshi, Principal Secretary, Revenue and Forest Department (Forests), Maharashtra accompanied by M.K. Rao, CCF, Pune Wildlife Divison, R. K. Adkar, ACF, GIB Sanctuary, D.A. Hazare, RFO, GIB Sanctuary, and forest guards visited the Gangewadi area.  Subsequently, the Gangewadi grassland was re-notifed under the Wildlife Protection Act and  included in the New (rationalised) GIB Sanctuary (Notification No. WLP.10.11/C.R. 237/F-1. Dated 28.02.2012). Due to the addition of this 1.9817 sq. km., the size of the rationalised new GIB Sanctuary has now increased from 1,222.61 sq. km. to 1,224.59 sq. km.

The Great Indian Bustard had been recorded in Gangewadi as early as 1986-88 by Dr. Asad Rahmani, Director, Bombay Natural History Society. According to Bhagwat Maske (bustard watchman in Nannaj), congregations of up to five to six individuals and four eggs have been reported during the breeding season. Regular sightings were recorded from 2000 to 2011. Though no breeding was reported, four to five individuals (two males and two-three females) still visit the area during the breeding season. There is immense need to initiate habitat restoration practices in order to create a breeding habitat suitable to the Great Indian Bustard.

by Pramod Patil, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 3, June 2012


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