Alarming decline in bird populations highlights conservation urgency

Ashraf Engineer

September 23, 2023


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

A recent report on India’s bird population makes for worrying reading. The ‘State of India’s Birds’ report records an alarming dip in numbers, with 178 species in need of urgent conservation measures. Among them were migratory wetland birds like the Ruddy shelduck, and resident species such as the Indian courser. The report was formulated from 30 million observations by 30,000 birdwatchers and highlights threats such as pollution to bird populations.


The ‘State of India’s Birds’ report, released on August 25, analysed data collated on 942 species, including several previously thought to be doing well. It also recommended an urgent reassessment of 14 species, including the Indian roller, which had been listed earlier by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as being of “least concern”.

India is said to have roughly 1,350 bird species. The researchers, who worked with 13 conservation organisations, analysed the 942 for which they had data to determine a conservation priority.

The analysis showed that 60% of 348 species studied over 25 years were in long-term decline, and 40% of the 359 species assessed since 2015 had also declined. Raptor and duck populations fell the most and the numbers of several common species were also shrinking.

Migratory birds declined faster than non-migratory ones. Carnivorous, insectivorous and grain-eating birds declined faster than fruit- and nectar-eating ones. Populations of birds in habitats like grasslands and shrublands, which India classifies as wastelands, shrank faster than those in open habitats.

Some birds are endemic – that is, they are restricted to specific areas such as biodiversity hotspots, and found nowhere else in the world. One example is the white-bellied blue flycatcher, a tiny songbird found only in the Western Ghats. Others are habitat specialists – that is, they are found only in some habitats. The great Indian bustard, for example, is a ground-dweller restricted to open areas such as grasslands. Generalists, meanwhile, can thrive in more habitat types – such as the peacock.

The exact causes of the population decline are not fully understood, but the report underscored factors such as change of land use, urbanisation, ecosystem degradation, monocultures, infrastructure development, pollution and climate change.

This was the second edition of the ‘State of India’s Birds’ report, the first published in 2020. The latest edition highlights priority species requiring conservation in each state and union territory.

If you make a comparison between the 2020 findings and the latest ones, you’ll see that there hasn’t been much improvement. Of the 101 species listed as top priority in 2020, 74 remain in the category. In fact, 104 more species have been listed as high priority in 2023.

For those needing moderate conservation priority, the report said more work was needed to identify early warnings. Those in the low conservation priority category were not to be ignored either.

The good news is that the population of 217 species is stable or rising. Feral rock pigeons, the Asian koel and the Indian peafowl are thriving. Even birds like the Baya weaver and pied bushchat are doing fine. Also, 217 species have not changed their habitat and their numbers have risen.

So, what are the major threats to India’s birds?

First of all, climate change. Rising temperatures affect not just humans but other creatures. Climate change affects bird reproduction and survival in various ways. For example, when the timing of annual events like breeding, nesting and migration get out of sync. Rising temperatures may force adaptive changes in sedentary birds. For example, Amazonian birds have lost weight over the decades to lose heat more effectively.

The heat also leads to behavioural changes. The birds might spend more time looking for shade instead of food, which in turn affects survival

The urbanised regions tend to be most hostile to birds. India’s urban areas have the least number of species, according to the report, and that’s because urbanisation results in habitat loss and exposes birds to air pollution and higher temperatures. The noise forces them to sing louder, or at different frequencies. The light pollution confuses and disorients them.

Monoculture, the growing of one only type of seed in a field at a time, is the second threat to birds. India has expanded commercial monoculture through crops like oil palm, rubber and coffee in a big way. However, commercial monocultures can hold fewer bird species than natural forests.

In Mizoram, oil palm plantations support only 14% of the species found in comparable rainforests. The teak plantations of Uttarakhand shelter just 50% of the woodpecker species seen in the state’s sal forests.

The third threat is energy infrastructure. Energy demand across the world, and especially in developing countries such as India, is on the rise. Many countries are investing rapidly in renewable energy and in keeping with that trend we’re seeing an increasing number of wind turbines. In India, they are being installed in coastal areas, mountains, arid land, grasslands… These turbines are eco-friendly, but a threat to birds. Many are killed after colliding with them and several are migrating to regions where there aren’t any.

Transmission lines have long been known to kill birds after they collide with them or get electrocuted.

There are, of course, other threats too such as deforestation and pollutants that include veterinary drugs that have affected vulture populations.

The report has emphasised the need to conserve specific bird groups. For instance, grassland specialists that have declined more than 50%. This underscores the need to protect grassland ecosystems. Systematic monitoring is critical to understanding small-scale changes in bird populations and research is needed to understand the reasons behind the declines or increases.

Lastly, we need to ensure that common species remain common. Conservation laws are largely focused on threatened species but we must nurture commonly found birds too so that they don’t one day become threatened.

This very worrisome report should jolt us out of our inertia on conservation. Urgent measures are needed to save habitats and tackle climate change. What the report doesn’t say out loud, but the subtext is clear, is that time is running out.

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