Category Archives: wildlife

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

The above was the original title of an essay I wrote some 15 years ago, a bit of a rant really, in response to constant needling by some people wondering why I was studying tiny nondescript little warblers for my Ph.D. research instead of something more important… you know… like tigers. After all I was doing field work in a Tiger Reserve anyway, and there aren’t any warbler reserves, so why was I wasting my time? Hence, eventually, my response, outlining the greater importance of warblers.

That essay somehow landed on the desk of Joanna Van Gruisen, who happened to be editing a coffee-table book on wildlife conservation in India for the Ranthambore Foudation. She liked my contrarian essay well enough to want to include it in the book “In Danger” where most of the other contributions were about much more charismatic megafauna, including tigers! She did tone down the title, turning it into a question – see below. In the years since, I keep hearing from various people in India that they have read that article, which was also reprinted in a magazine, and more recently in another edited book on ornithological writings from India. Sometimes I get the sense that more people have read this article than have ready any (or all) of my academic papers. It is this kind of unexpected (honestly) response which encouraged me to try more science writing for nonscientists, eventually leading to this blog and other writing I am doing currently.

This warblers vs. tigers polemic, though, keeps coming back. Recently, a newfound friend on the internets, Arati Rao, wrote to me about going back to re-read it, wishing she could own a copy, but that the original book is now out-of-print. At her behest, therefore, I am reproducing the article below, and hope it finds new readers. I think I will scan the original print version also and post it online soon. Meanwhile, here it is:


Are Warblers Less Important Than Tigers?


Are Warblers less important than Tigers?

Now what kind of a stupid question is that?! Everyone knows that tigers are more important, being large predators, as apex species, at the top of the food chain, flagship species for conservation… etc. … etc. … etc.!!

These are arguments I have to face often enough when I tell people I am studying warblers—in Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve! For some reason, studying these tiny, nondescript, common birds is thought to be an entirely trivial, indeed arcane, academic pursuit of little practical or conservation value.

“What can studying little birds tell me about the habitat of large mammals, which are my primary concern?”—asks the reserve manager. On the other hand, if we focus on the larger mammals—the apex species philosophy of Project Tiger—and do our best to improve their habitat, other species will also naturally benefit. Given limited funds and manpower for conservation (research and action), is it not better to focus on the mega-fauna and let the mini- and micro-fauna take care of itself? The only small creatures one should worry about then are those that may form part of the food chain leading up to the larger focal species.

Before you accuse me of a biased perspective (which is undoubtedly true, for I make my living watching little warblers!), let me state that, in defending these little creatures, I am also arguing in favor of a broader ecological perspective in conservation—one that goes beyond the charismatic mega-fauna, and starts looking at species more in terms of their ecological role in the system, rather than their appearance/charisma, or tourism potential!

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

So what is the ecological role of my favoured little leaf-warblers?

Leaf warblers (Genus Phylloscopus) must surely rank among the least glamorous vertebrates, so utterly lacking in charisma that even many die-hard bird watchers dismiss them lightly, scarcely bothering to try and even identify them to species level. Part of the problem is, of course, the fact that they are all small, dull-green coloured, and highly active in the forest canopy, making identification in the field difficult. It is only rarely—either when one is truly nuts about birds or when the fate of one’s Ph.D. thesis hangs on such identification—that one develops the eye for the subtle morphological, auditory and behavioural differences between species. These difficulties in identifying species, however, need not bother our busy manager too much, since they (the leaf-warblers) are all pretty similar ecologically as well—the role they play in the forest is largely independent of their taxonomic status, except insofar as structural aspects of their foraging microhabitat within the forest canopy are concerned.

All 18 species leaf warblers occurring in the Indian subcontinent are migratory, breeding in the temperate summers from Himalaya north to the Arctic circle, and taking over the peninsular (including Himalayan foothills, and much of Northeast India) forests from September through May. While each individual may weigh only 7-11 grams (range includes all species; give or take a gram), one may still emphasize the term take-over, when describing their relationship to their forest habitats: they number in the billions and form probably the most abundant avian guild in the subcontinental forests during our tropical winter. My study at Mundanthurai (in the southern western ghats) records a density of 6-8 leaf warblers (of two species) per hectare of forest—usually any given patch of forest may have 2-3 species, depending on the type of forest; and I doubt there is any forest habitat in India that does not host at least one species some time of year. Picking a random hectare from my 20 ha study plot at Mundanthurai, I find 6 leaf warblers (of 2 species) making it their home for 7-8 months— for these are territorial individuals that remain on site for much of the winter. And what do they do during this period? Well, eat insects, mostly! Humdrum as their lives may sound, they spend over 75% of their waking hours foraging for insects (and other arthropods—but insects predominate) in the foliage. Since they are not concerned about finding mates or raising young during this season, and want merely to survive in good shape for the next summer, their other activities—preening and maintaining territories through vocal and visual dialogue with neighbors—does not take much time. Hmm… a bunch of small, dull birds spending most of their day peering at leaves in search of insects—do I seem to be only weakening the defense? Not really…

Consider the fact that each leaf-warbler, on average, eats 3 insects every waking minute (this is averaging over all their activities throughout the day). Since they forage by picking prey off a substrate—mostly leaf, sometimes also twigs and flowers—the prey largely consists of herbivorous insects. In the case of my one hectare on Mundanthurai, it is mostly caterpillars eating leaves. A single leaf-warbler thus eats an average of 180 insects every hour, or about 1980 per day (assuming an average 11 hour working-day from dawn to dusk). The six individuals on our plot thus rid the plants of almost 12,000 insect pests—every day!! Multiply that with the number of days (200-250) that they are in residence on that one ha plot and you may begin to appreciate the service they render to all the plants. Now I ask you to consider removing these warblers from the study plot, since they seem to take away so much research and conservation energy from your more favoured mammals, and picture the forest as it may appear in a few weeks’ time…! The scenario could become even more dramatic if you (in your large-mammal chauvinism) remove all the other insectivorous birds from the plot as well: I estimate each hectare of Mundanthurai’s forest has at least 40 insectivorous birds, including other warblers and flycatchers (both resident and migrant), minivets, shrikes, drongos, babblers etc. The average number of prey may come down to just over 2 per bird per minute—which gives a total of about 5000 insects per hour, or 55,000 per day in every hectare of forest! Remove those insectivores: …and don’t be surprised if in a few weeks your plants start to appear ragged with their foliage tattered… and your endangered langurs become unhappy because so many leaves are now packed with toxic anti-herbivore compounds produced in response to caterpillar nibblings… and the plants make fewer flowers and fruits as they are forced to spend too much energy in self defense… in turn making the nectarivores and frugivores unhappy… and regeneration of the forest slows down as fewer seeds get produced and dispersed… and the ground starts to dry faster because the canopy is thinner and more sunlight gets in… I leave you to work out the rest of the ecological cascade effects on your own!! For now, I’d be happy if you simply pause to appreciate the job done by the nondescript little green jobs—the leaf warblers—and their insectivore colleagues that travel thousands of kilometers every year to eat all those insects.

Before you start protesting that you will never contemplate removing all those birds, and that I am just another doomsayer, consider the fact that 80% of the warblers (esp. the Green leaf warbler, which is the most common one here) as well as the next most abundant migrant (Blyth’s reed warbler) spending each winter at Mundanthurai come from the forests of the hill regions around the Caspian Sea, from Turkey east through Kashmir, including bits of southern Russia and Afghanistan. Now imagine that these hills—breeding grounds for so many migrant insectivores—are deforested on a large scale, either directly by us or through effects of global climate change, cutting down the bird population by 90%. Such declines is not very unrealistic, as those studying migrant forest birds in the Americas will tell you—though they worry more about forests in the wintering areas being cut down rather than in the breeding grounds. In fact, over the past two decades, Americans and Europeans are increasingly facing the prospect of another Silent Spring.  Not, this time, due to the factors mentioned in Rachel Carson’s clarion call in the 1960s—over-use of chemicals in agriculture at the height of the green revolutions—but to a suite of other human activities that have hit the habitat of avian migrants in both their northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds. Many species of migrant songbirds, which enliven the northern spring after the dreary and silent winters, have been pushed to the brink of extinction—some like the Kirtland’s warbler down to a few scores of breeding pairs—over the past two decades, even as my ornithologist comrades in the west are racing against time to figure out the causes of these declines, so we may try and reverse the process! The culprits are, of course, us humans: deforesting the tropical wintering grounds; fragmenting the temperate forests into suburban woodlots more accessible to human subsidized nest-predators such as domestic cats and other small carnivores (wild or feral) thriving on our garbage; and directly subsidizing populations of non-migratory nest-parasites like the north-American cowbird through back-yard bird feeders, enabling them to survive the harsh winter, and fool over 200 gullible species of songbirds into raising their offspring! We seem to be particularly adept at causing damage to the ecological fabric of this planet, even when we mean good—feed them poor little birdies in the winter, or the cute raccoons at night!!

Getting back to our continent, where we have no information on population trends of forest birds at all—whether resident or migratory, in tropical south and south-east Asia or temperate Russia, Mongolia and Siberia—declines paralleling those on the other continents are very much on the cards, if, indeed, they haven’t occurred already! Given the contempt that these migrants have for human geopolitical boundaries, their populations are subject to forces beyond the control of any one national conservation agency, let alone the manager of a single Tiger Reserve. And if their populations are found to be declining as drastically as many New World migrants’ have over the past several decades, mammal chauvinists may be reduced to haplessly watching the habitats of their favourite creatures getting degraded.

Do you think even the tigers might get worried about such a scenario??

Is it worth studying these warblers, trying to figure out what makes their populations tick, and how to save them—and ensure they continue to keep all those insects down?

Are warblers less important than tigers?? Isn’t the question itself meaningless?

16,000 Diamondbacks Fans Killed On Complimentary Rattlesnake Night

What would we do without The Onion to provide us with such perspective?

How curiously our biophilia manifests, in the way we name our sports teams after creatures (be they non-human or human) we destroy! If only these totems of the sporting fans could really bite back!

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Pinnacles National Park… now that has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

You’ll likely agree, if you’ve ever been to Pinnacles National Monument, that it is a special place deserving protection. Especially now that it has become a new breeding ground for the endangered California Condors reintroduced to Pinnacles recently. You may remember my recent blog post with images and thoughts from a class trip to Pinnacles last spring, and about the ongoing travails of the newborn Condor chick and its parents. I haven’t heard anything since about the status of the poor chick, but this bit of news just might be cause for some cheer.

Pinnacle landscape
Pinnacles National Monument, a 26,000-acre swath of spectacular volcanic rock formations outside Soledad, Calif., would be elevated to a National Park under legislation introduced Thursday by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
Pinnaclemap Pinnacles is a nesting place for the endangered California condor, North America’s largest soaring bird, with wingspans up to 10 feet. And it is a global destination for naturalists and outdoor adventurers attracted by the park’s scenic views and unique rock-climbing landscapes. Making Pinnacles a National Park, Boxer said, would “draw even more visitors to this spectacular piece of California’s natural and cultural heritage.”
Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who introduced companion legislation in the House, called the area “packed with historical significance,” adding that “its geological distinctiveness is second to none.” A park designation, he said “would be a major boon to an economically starved area, a huge benefit for the state’s Central Coast. Pinnacles is a hidden gem.”
Pinnacles is a culturally significant area for several Native American tribes, and it served as a backdrop for John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “East of Eden.” The monument was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and has expanded since.

So will a National Park prove a safer place to raise one’s young than a mere National Monument? Will the upgraded designation offer any real added protection to a far-ranging raptor against more widely dispersed threats such as the lead in ammo used for “sport” hunting locally (not to mention poisons used more deliberately by the govt for “predator control”)? Or is it (as the above article suggests, mostly about increasing tourism and economic opportunities for local communities? Lets hope this at least provides more momentum to ongoing efforts to ban the use of lead ammo more comprehensively. Otherwise, where’s a young Condor family to go, if even a National Park isn’t safe enough?

Collateral damage in our ongoing war against wildlife

It just astounds me how much, and how cavalierly, we continue to poison our wildlife and ecosystems, in ways that often also harm us, just to maximize perceived profit from ranching, farming, or other industry. Why do we do this to ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our homes on this planet?

Here’s an example: casualties of so-called “predator control” poisoning programs run by a US govt. agency, apparently at the behest of ranchers (more likely some ranching/farming lobbies), to control “predators” that may cause some harm to whatever product is being ranched/farmed. Is there any science behind these management decisions?! Or is it ok to just drop these poison-baited mines all over the landscape based on a perception of threat?

The video offers a link at the end to the website of Predator Defense where you can get more information, and even join the effort to have at least these two poisons banned, even if it takes longer to minimize these predator control programs.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2N3K8aWMzM&hl=en&fs=1]

Leopards test the Wildlife Institute of India’s commitment to conservation amid humans!

This rather overwrought article (click on the image/link for a readable e-paper version) points to an interesting problem facing my alma mater in the Himalayan foothills: what to do about a leopard (or several) that have made the WII campus part of their home range over some years, but may be becoming a bit too frequent for some people’s comfort? Its an interesting conundrum for an institution whose raison d’etre revolves around figuring out ways for wildlife (especially of the charismatic megafaunal variety) to coexist amid India’s thriving human population. While it is interesting to read about the internal debate within WII, I’m disappointed that the report doesn’t really address the potential impacts of whatever decision WII makes on ordinary people living around campus – despite the pictures of one such person! For in India the conflict is often sharper between advocates of wildlife conservation and people living in and around wildlife habitats than between wildlife and people! So I’m curious about that aspect of this scenario, and whether the administration of WII is responding to concerns about the leopards potentially threatening children not only on campus but off it too.

And I also wonder if there might not be a technological solution to this – or at least an opportunity to experiment with one. How about putting radio-collars (perhaps GPS enabled) on the cats and setting up an array of receivers across campus so their whereabouts can be monitored whenever on campus? One could take this a step further and link the automated monitoring to a real-time alert system that can tell people (perhaps via SMS on their mobile phones) when and where a leopard is on campus. Would make life easier for the parents if they can pull their kids inside whenever the cats appear, no? All while gathering interesting data on the behavior of the animals in such inhabited areas! Surely the WII has the expertise to do this, and someone is already be on this experimental path?

San Francisco’s sea lions apparently went north chasing food

Missing San Francisco sea lions ‘off Oregon’

‘Missing’ San Francisco sea lions ‘off Oregon’

Scientists in the US believe they may have solved the riddle of San Francisco’s vanishing sea lions.

The Californian city’s famous colony of sea lions all but disappeared over the past month, baffling experts.

But now large numbers of the animals have been spotted further north, off the coast of Oregon.

Scientists say the animals have probably migrated in search of food during the winter, although in unusually high numbers.

The sea lions of San Francisco are almost as famous as the city’s cable cars or even the Golden Gate bridge, says the BBC’s Peter Bowes in Los Angeles.

Twenty years ago, for no apparent reason, the smelly, noisy animals took up residence in the docks at Pier 39.

Their numbers grew rapidly to about 1,700 animals, and they became a popular tourist attraction.

But then most of them disappeared.

Initially, marine experts were baffled.

One outlandish suggestion was that they were fleeing the bay because of an imminent earthquake, our correspondent says.

But now the sighting of large numbers of sea lions off the coast of Oregon may have solved the mystery.

Scientists says it is normal for the animals to move north in search of food during the winter but it is extremely unusual for them to migrate in such huge numbers.

Hat-tip to Vishy for pointing me to this report.

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Another veteran of wildlife conservation lost to India

Billy Arjan Singh, in his younger days, with his leopards

The new year began on another sad note for Indian wildlife conservationists with the passing of ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh, the Indian Jim Corbett. I never had the chance to meet this veteran old-school hunter-turned-tiger-conservationist (of a mold akin more to legendary figures from African wildlife conservation than from India, to my mind anyway) who lived with big cats at his home “Tiger Haven”, and helped create what is now Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. A brief overview of his life and accomplishments are here and in his wikipedia entry, and here’s a list of books and films by and about him.

Sanctuary magazine, which interviewed him at the turn of this century, solicits remembrances to be published alongside that interview. There is also a Facebook group remembering him.

Meanwhile, Pheroza Godrej (in the article accompanying the above picture) remembers how “his leopard was at my bedroom mirror”.

Billy Arjan Singh surely belonged to another era, in more ways than one…

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Now that’s one tough hombre of a coyote!

Now I know why they call him the trickster!! And no wonder the coyote is such a survivor in the modern American wilderness and suburbia:

When a brother and sister struck a coyote at 75mph they assumed they had killed the animal and drove on.

They didn’t realise this was the toughest creature ever to survive a hit-and-run.

Eight hours, two fuel stops, and 600 miles later they found the wild animal embedded in their front fender – and very much alive.

[From Pictured: The coyote who was hit by a car at 75mph, embedded in the fender, and dragged for 600 miles – and SURVIVED | Mail Online]

Read the whole story at the Daily Mail link above, or check out the pictures below the fold. And the next time you hit some small critter on the highway, it might behoove you to stop and look into and under your fender, just in case said critter is hanging on:

You just might find such a surprise inside:

This survivor appears to have had a fairly happy ending, having survived the 75 mph encounter with the Honda Fit without even a broken bone:

The coyote even escaped from the rescue center three days later and is presumably out regaling its mates with quite the tale of adventure on the high roads!

Crepuscular companion from my youth…

Long tongue on the gecko

…how I miss having you around the house now!

Back – waaay back – in the days when I was a suburban kid without much access to “nature” and no television (yes – imagine that kids, no TV!), I spent countless hours staring up at the ceiling and walls watching the drama of our household population of geckos! Emerging from their daytime roosts under the fluorescent light fixtures, the geckos, small and large, would wait for a smorgasbord of insects to arrive as night fell, especially during the monsoon months. Big ones would chase little ones who might escape by dropping their tails to distract their pursuers and scuttle across the wall or ceiling. Occasionally one would drop, with a soft plop, sometimes down one’s shirt collar or trouser leg (happened to an uncle once! hilarious!!), sometimes onto the dinner table, but for the most part, amazingly, they managed to cling to the surface even at top speeds. And sometimes one would get overambitious and try to bite off more than it could chew – a large beetle, or mantis perhaps (although I never got lucky enough to see a battle royale like Gerald Durrell did) – and provide a different kind of amusement. Endless unscripted entertainment for a curious kid on those warm humid evenings. I miss having these critters around the house here in north America… I wonder what they’d make of the black widow spiders ruling the roost on our back porch now.

The young gecko in the above picture, which is my submission to this week’s Weekly Wildlife, Nature and Conservation Photography Challenge, I encountered on a wall of my in-laws’ house on the outskirts of Kolkata a few years ago. A few more images of this little fella are in this flickr gallery.

Meanwhile, it seems someone got lucky enough to spot (but not run into) a mountain lion just on the outskirts of Fresno earlier today! I hope they let the poor beast be and not hunt it down as a public menace…

The remarkable story of the Himalayan Snow Partridge in Nevada

Himalayan Snowcock 25april09

A Himalayan Snowcock (Tetraogallus himalayensis) in the Ruby Mountains in Nevada. Picture from www.BackpackingintheRubyMountains.com

Via the American Birding Association comes a remarkable, ancient, video about the introduction of the Himalayan Snow Partridge (as the film refers to it, although the actual species is the Himalayan Snowcock) into the mountains of Nevada by the Nevada Fish and Game Commission’s Exotic Game Bird Introduction program, a sustained effort to populate what they thought were “game-deficient” areas of the state. Astonishing to a modern conservation biologist to see how cavalier, nay gung-ho, government agencies were about moving species around in those days (the snowcock was brought over in the 1960s), well before introduced/invasive species became bêtes noire for conservationists. But that program was successful and there is now a small but established population of these snowcocks in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada! Check out the video on the ABA website.