A peacock at Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan (Photo: Getty Images)
THE ‘STATE OF INDIA’S Birds’ is a unique study, a Citizen Science initiative in which field observations, as many as 30 million, of 30,000 birdwatchers across the country were parsed to arrive at a trend of how birds in India were faring. The last time this was done was three years ago. This year its report came out last month and, all in all, showed that India was not turning out to be good for birds. There were 942 species assessed based on data that had been uploaded on the online platform eBird. They looked at the change in abundance, the long-term trend over 30 years and the annual change over the last eight years. A press release on the study noted: “But the larger picture is grim: 60% of species show long-term declines [out of 348 species that could be assessed for Long-term Trend], and 40% of species are declining currently [out of 359 species assessed for Current Annual Trend].”
Within this bleak picture, there were however some exceptions, of birds that were actually thriving. And in this category, a striking one happened to be the Indian national bird, the peafowl. Not only has its numbers increased but it is now spreading into new geographical areas. Ashwin Viswanathan, a researcher who was part of the team helming the study, says that it is due to a combination of circumstances. The peafowl, for instance, has a greater force of the law behind it. It comes under Schedule-1 of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, the highest level of protection. “But, perhaps, more important as to why there’s no directed killing of peafowl is because they have cultural significance and, traditionally, are not supposed to be killed. There is also some evidence in Kerala, the Western Ghats and the Himalayas that its proliferation might have something to do with the degradation of habitats.” Climate change, regions becoming a little drier than they used to be, more trees being cut, and forests becoming degraded, could all be responsible. “Such environments are favourable for peafowls, so they immediately move into them. You must have seen in the report how there were almost no peafowls in Kerala 20 years back. But now they’re everywhere,” he says.
The report has illustrations of Kerala’s maps with delineated districts at different time intervals. In 1998, light green dots in just two districts indicated the sparse presence of peafowls. By 2018, all the districts have these dots and many of them are dark green, showing that the numbers are also very high in them. To people in the state, this is evident in how familiar the sight of peafowls has become in villages. Suresh K Govind, a zoologist and assistant professor with Christ College, Irinjalakuda, lives about 25 to 30 kilometres from the nearest forest. He says that 15 years ago there were no peafowls, and now they wander in the compound of his house. But while these birds present a beautiful addition to the landscape, they are not always a welcome presence. Farmers have a significant issue because they feed on crops. There have been a number of studies which showed the link between peafowls and damage to crops but in 2018, Govind co-authored a paper published in the journal Indian BIRDS that estimated precisely the damage that could ensue. They did an experiment. The Chulannur Peafowl Sanctuary, a 3.42 square kilometre forest that straddles the districts of Palakkad and Thrissur, is replete with a large number of these birds. They took four 10 square metre plots of land near the forest boundary where agriculture happened. Two plots were enclosed with a metal fence so that peafowls couldn’t enter, and the other two plots were open where they could. The former therefore served as a control group. Then the plots were observed for a little under 400 hours. The peafowls, between four to five on average, came at dawn and dusk and fed off the grains with their beaks in the open plots and it led to almost half of the yield being lost. “We came to the conclusion that about 46 per cent of paddy was being consumed by the peafowls, and approximately `17,000 per hectare lost in that area,” says Govind. He attributes the growing number of the birds to people becoming more aware about wildlife protection laws, and not wanting to breach them. “They don’t do anything against the peafowls and if there are no barriers or constraints in a particular area, wild animals or birds will come towards people,” he says. To farmers, this means an actual loss in income and they don’t have too much in their arsenal to prevent it. Govind says that they use dogs but that has not proved very effective. The only thing that works is to physically drive them away, which is very time- and energy-consuming.
Peafowls prey on snakes and reptiles and the more their numbers increase, there will be a decrease of the latter. And the rise in population of the birds doesn’t seem to be letting up. The ‘State of India’s Birds’ highlighted Kerala because it has good documentation. But Ashwin Viswnathan thinks that the phenomenon would be the same in other states
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The helplessness and anger of farmers can sometimes go out of control. In March this year, 39 peafowls were found dead on a farm in a village in Madurai. They had no injuries and the forest department suspected that they had been poisoned. Last November in Thiruchirapalli, 15 peafowls had also been found dead on a farm after grains laced with rat poison were scattered on the field. The farmer claimed that he did it to kill rats and not the birds, but in any case, it was an indication of the complex direction that interaction between peafowls and farmers could take. News Minute, the online magazine that covers south India, did an article in 2020 that said how some farmers in Kerala were actually not doing paddy agriculture anymore because of peafowls.
There are other consequences to this population explosion, which humans might not complain about, but upsets the balance of nature. Peafowls prey on snakes and reptiles and the more their numbers increase, there will be a decrease of the latter. And the rise in population of the birds doesn’t seem to be letting up. The ‘State of India’s Birds’ highlighted Kerala because it has good documentation. But Viswanathan thinks that the phenomenon would be the same in other states. “The increase is happening almost everywhere. The reason we picked up Kerala for the visual representation is because it is one of the states with the best long-term data. Birdwatchers all the way back from the ’80s and ’90s have been uploading their observations, so the [time] comparison can be made with confidence. Whereas in other places where there’s been less birdwatching in the past, you can’t say whether peafowls were not there earlier because nobody was out there watching birds,” he says.
The increase in numbers would eventually have to plateau and then reverse because there just wouldn’t be enough food for all of them. “There is a lot of food still available but because they are so large, they need a good amount. I would expect that in the coming years, there would be some decline because something like this just cannot keep growing. But where I think the growth will continue are the areas still without peafowls like the high Himalayas, the densest parts of the Western Ghats. I’d imagine that until all of those habitats are occupied, we’re still going to continue to see an increasing trend,” he says