Kathmandu: They have bare yellow necks and a head topped with a long pointed beak, and can easily be seen in the agricultural fields of Nepal when the rice plants turn green a few weeks after planting. Perched in tall trees, little adjutant storks scan the fields for prey such as fish, frogs, reptiles, large invertebrates, mice, small mammals, and sometimes carrion. Birds shoot arrows at their prey when they feel there is a chance to catch them.
- Sensitive little adjutant storks are breeding more successfully in Nepal than expected, a new study of the species in the country’s southern plains shows.
- Among the 206 nests studied, the researchers found 280 chicks fledged, exceeding the expected ratio of about one chick per nest for greater storks.
- Smaller adjutant colonies are at risk of habitat loss because they often nest in tall trees that are cut down in agricultural fields and areas of road construction or home construction.
- The species has not previously been studied in detail, but this new study raises hopes among conservationists who say local governments should help raise awareness of the birds’ importance.
Smaller adjutants are not considered symbols like sarus cranes, mainly due to their physical structure (Antigone Antigone) living in similar habitats. “Their Nepalese name bhudiphor garud (meaning a stork that uses its beak to open the belly of its prey) doesn’t help their popularity either,” said Kamal Raj Gosai, co-author of a 2016 study on the species.
Perhaps this may be the reason why their population and status have not been studied in detail not only in Nepal but also in the rest of South Asia and Southeast Asia where they are found. Several micro-level studies, mainly in forested areas, have suggested that sightings of the bird are becoming increasingly rare, and the IUCN, the international body for biodiversity, classified it as vulnerable in 1994.
According to the IUCN, the bird has become extinct in Singapore and possibly China due to hunting, loss of nesting sites, wetland degradation and agricultural intensification.
However, a recent first large-scale study of the species in Nepal’s southern plains shows that the bird is doing better than expected. KS Gopi Sundar, co-author of the recent study and co-chair of the IUCN Stork, Ibis and Spoonbill Specialist Group, said: “We found the breeding success of lesser adjutants to be spectacular – a global record for larger storks.”
As part of the study, lead author Hem Bahadur Katuwal and his team conducted extensive surveys across the Terai to locate and monitor lesser adjutant nests. “We monitored 65 colonies with 206 active nests from July 2019 to January 2020, which coincided with the breeding season of birds. “We visited almost every colony twice a month to check the cubs.”
The team found 280 fledglings from 206 active nests—about 1.35 per nest. “The number of greater storks [like the lesser adjutant] around one. Remember that our method includes nests that fail, and this is a complete record. Most studies only report the success of successful nests, which inflates the metric,” Sundar said. “But the number of 280 is impressive and speaks for itself.”
Previous estimates of the bird’s population suggested that fewer than 1,000 individuals remained in the wild in Nepal. However, since the survey counted 890 individuals without fully covering the known range in the country, the authors believe the population may be more than 1,000.
The numbers were also unexpected for Katuwal. “We didn’t expect to find so many nests because previous studies showed they were becoming rare,” Mongabay said. “But their populations are doing well, at least in Nepal,” he added.
He is not out of the woods yet
Despite the encouraging signs, conservationists warn that the species faces a number of threats that could lead to continued population declines. The biggest threat is the felling of the trees used by the bird to build its nest.
As a result of the study, it was found that most of the bird’s colonies are in trees such as red-silk cottonwoods (bombax ceiba)he called similar In Nepal and sometimes kadam (Haldina cordifolia) and peepal (Ficus religiosa) was also widely used. “Trees, especially similaris key to protecting the bird and its nests,” Katuval said. “We also found that the taller the tree, the better it is for nesting,” the authors noted. This is likely due to human concerns and the trees’ vulnerability to storms. As long as the trees were tall, it didn’t matter to the birds whether the tree was close to forest or human settlement or wetlands.
Gosai, who was not involved in the study, said the bird’s preferred trees have religious significance in some breeding areas. “Ficus religion, especially associated with Hinduism, and people avoid cutting down the tree,” he said. “Similarly, until recently it was illegal to fall similar tree, even on private land,” Gosai Mongabay said. “Our study found that although fertile plains used to grow rice lack trees, the remaining trees provide important habitats for birds as lesser helpers.”
However, these days people are resorting to cutting down tall trees as they believe it disturbs their agricultural activities, Katuwal said. “We saw that the traders visit the tree owners and pay them a certain amount for the tree. Then they call their cars, take out the firewood and sell it in the market.” Besides, construction of roads and construction of concrete houses in farmlands also poses a big risk to tall trees and less adjutant population, Sundar said.
Gosai said his research shows that marginalized communities who cannot afford meat hunt birds for meat and eggs. People shoot birds because they don’t like the look of them, and even children attack them, he added. According to him, excessive use of pesticides has also affected the hunting of birds.
Katuwal said that while conservationists are looking at encouraging signs, local governments now need to come up with a plan to raise awareness about the bird’s importance. “When people become aware of the importance of this bird, they will definitely help save it,” he said.
This article was written by Abhaya Raj Joshi and reprinted from Mongabay
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