Updated: January 18, 2021 2:55:07 pm
Early on Thursday morning, Rajib and Nishigandha Kashyap found themselves scrambling to the marsh behind their home in Assam’s Tihu town, cameras around their necks, and notebooks in hand. Over the next one-and-a-half hours, the siblings spotted no less than 21 species of birds — from water hens to jungle babblers, spotted ducks to pond herons — which they photographed and dutifully noted down. For Nishigandha, a Class X student, and Rajib, a birding enthusiast, there “was no better way” to spend the morning of Magh Bihu, Assam’s popular winter harvest festival.
The Kashyaps weren’t the only ones. Across Assam, Bihu morning found a number of people patiently waiting for birds to appear — in their backyards, verandahs, or a shady spot in their town. The aim was to observe and document them, and thereby become part of a citizen science project to monitor bird species in their immediate surroundings.
“It’s called the Bihu Bird Count and the rules are simple. Observe birds for a minimum of 15 minutes wherever you are in Assam, note the number and name, and feed it into the online eBird-India platform,” said organiser Nayaran Sharma, who is a professor at Cotton University, Guwahati. “Bihu is a time when people relax, go back home, and it is a great time to spot a number of winter migratory birds.”
A 100-year-old Christmas tradition
On Christmas Day of 1901, American ornithologist Frank M Chapman created history by suggesting a bird census to replace a boisterous bird hunt hunters would engage in on the festival. “And thus started a new holiday tradition — a ‘Christmas Bird Census’ that would count birds rather than hunt them,” said Sharma. Since then, every December, thousands of volunteers in different parts of the world, in various kinds of weather — snow, rain and shine — go bird counting to participate in a public wildlife census aimed at documentation and conservation of such avian species.
“This was a hundred years ago — and we might be a century late, but this is what has inspired the idea of a Bihu Bird Count too,” said Sharma.
In Tamil Nadu, too, the Pongal bird count has become an annual feature. Both these events are organised by NGO Bird Count India in collaboration with local organisations in the respective states.
While the inaugural edition of the Bihu Bird Count was held last year with 46 registered participants who spotted 382 out of 691 known species of birds in Assam, the 2021 edition is being held on a much larger scale. “This time, we have covered all districts in the state, and appointed a district-incharge in each,” said Sharma, who teaches in the Department of Environmental Biology and Wildlife Sciences.
The organisers hope for a larger data set this time, considering the increase in participation. Wildlife biologist Jaydeep Mandal, another organiser, said that the aim this time was to get “common” people involved. “We usually have birders who go to expected birding hotspots — for example Kaziranga, Manas or other protected areas. But we thought it is better to open it out to anyone from anywhere — as long as they are interested,” he said.
For example, 16-year-old Nishigandha, who said that she was participating because she simply wanted to “increase her knowledge of birds.” “I don’t know much about birds but when my brother told me that something like this is being organised, I was excited. At the end of the day, whatever our contributions are — it will ultimately help in research and science,” she said.
While the inputs help form baseline data on bird distribution in a particular area, Rofikul Islam, a tour guide and an avid birder for 13 years, feels that a bird count has other advantages too. “A lot of wild duck hunting happens during Bihu — especially in the run-up to the festival. Now in this period, if young boys and girls are out with their cameras counting birds — it may very well serve as a deterrent to these hunters,” he said, “A way of quiet conservation.”
A Citizen Science Program
Bird counting as a citizen science program — or the participation of the public in scientific research — is not new. In fact, the Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, which hosts the global, internet-based eBird platform that records bird data, has been conducting bird counts for a decade now. “eBird has a huge data set of birds from the world over —log in and one can learn about birds from Pennsylvania in the USA to Victoria in Australia,” said Sharma.
As per the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, sightings can “contribute to hundreds of conservation decisions and peer-reviewed papers, thousands of student projects, and help inform bird research worldwide.”
While it is technically a crowdsourced list, there are various levels of screening. “For example, this time we have regional editors in each district, who function as filters. if someone spots a species not known to be found in a particular area— he/she will have to submit evidence and this will be screened by the regional editor,” he said, adding that a bird count helps not only in capturing seasonal migration, but also predict pattern and trends of movement. “For example, if a particular bird does not show up, conservation scientists can look into why — could the bird’s habitat be endangered?”
For the past four years, the professor has been conducting a bird count at Cotton University, which is located bang in the middle of the bustling Guwahati city. “We have recorded 50 species inside the campus since 2016,” he said, “This goes to show the diversity of birds in Assam, especially in places you least expect them to be in.”
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