KATHMANDU — Growing up in the southwestern plains of Nepal, Prashant Ghimire was always fascinated to observe birds roam the fertile farmlands.
“I especially liked to watch storks and cranes fly. I would throw pebbles at them to make them fly,” remembers Ghimire, whose interest in birds led him to study forestry and then ornithology.
After completing his training in ornithology, Ghimire decided to return to his homeland to observe the storks and cranes again, especially the woolly necked stork (Ciconia episcopus), but this time through a scientific lens.
“There was this ongoing conversation in the conservation community that intensification of agricultural practices and changing farmer behavior could be affecting the storks,” Ghimire, the lead author of a 2021 study on the issue, told Mongabay. He decided to find out for himself.
Ghimire and his colleagues studied and recorded the behavior of the birds from 2018-2019, covering the region’s monsoon and winter seasons, in the districts of Kapilvastu and Rupandehi. (The latter is believed to have been where Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born.) Their aim was to examine how storks cope with changing conditions on farmlands, and they recorded nearly 10 hours of video of the bird in their study sites.
Once a species whose conservation status was considered of “least concern” on the IUCN Red List, woolly necked storks experienced a sharp population decline, particularly in Southeast Asia. This prompted an update on the list to “vulnerable” in 2014. The change was also driven in part by new research published that year showing that what was until then believed to be an African subspecies of the Asian woolly necked stork was in fact a distinct species altogether, Ciconia microscelis. This effectively shrank both the known range bird and estimated population of C. episcopus.
Subsequent research by Indian biologist K.S. Gopi Sundar, co-chair of the specialist group on storks at the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, showed that the Asian woolly necked stork’s population wasn’t as dire as it was believed to be earlier. In 2020, its classification was eased back to “near threatened” (not as bad as vulnerable, but still worse than the previous status of least concern).
For their study, Ghimire and his colleagues, including Sundar, sifted through the hours of video for two important activities: foraging and vigilance. “It is believed that a bird feels at ease in its habitat when it spends more time eating and less time on keeping an eye on perceived sources of threats,” Ghimire said.
They found that the storks spent 32-33% of their time foraging and 10-19% in a state of vigilance. The proportion of time spent on foraging increased when closer to humans, suggesting that the birds foraged with lower efficiency when humans were around doing agriculture-related work. But this wasn’t associated with a spike in vigilance. “This shows that the storks are relatively at ease roaming the farmlands and their perceived level of risk is low,” Ghimire said.
Sundar said the study shows that woolly necked storks are for the most part unafraid of farmers, and that traditional farming contributes to maintaining their important habitats. He also co-authored a study published last October that draws the same conclusion from woolly necked storks in northern India’s farming landscape.
“This is conclusive evidence of a long-standing culture of farmers that do not hunt birds,” he told Mongabay. “Also, the status of species such as the woolly necked storks in the [Indian] subcontinent, are great indicators of the multifaceted utility of the farming habits — conservation of a large, single-nesting waterbird while producing food for humans.”
While large-scale indiscriminate hunting of smaller birds such as yellow-breasted buntings has been recorded in Nepal, storks are not generally hunted, due to religious reasons: they’re considered the incarnation of Garuda, the king of birds in Hindu mythology.
Nepali ornithologist Hem Bahadur Katwal, who was not involved in the 2021 study but has researched farmland birds in the southern plains of the country, agreed with the findings.
“Storks in general are not much affected by human presence,” he said. “Farmlands in Nepal have always been important habitats for birds as they provide a mosaic of habitats, from wetlands to trees and grasslands.”
However, various emerging threats could affect the nesting and breeding of the species, Katwal said. Woolly necked storks lay their eggs in tall trees, which are threatened by the rapid pace of urbanization across the country.
“During my recent field visit, I came across a tall tree that was being cut because [rice] won’t grow under its shade,” he told Mongabay. “Similarly, houses and industrial units are being built at a rapid rate, further shrinking the farmlands.”
Power transmission lines, considered a threat to bigger birds such as sarus cranes (Antigone antigone), don’t pose much risk to woolly necked storks, both Katwal and Sundar said.
“We haven’t seen woolly necked storks get electrocuted in power transmission lines,” Katwal said. “Instead, we have seen them nest in high-rise transmission towers, which they find ideal to lay eggs [in] because of their height.”
The threats to the species can be addressed through concerted efforts from governments in both India and Nepal, Sundar said.
“In many developed countries, farmers need to be paid to do activities that benefit species like birds. That culture is too highly monetized,” he said. “Woolly necked storks will live on as long as South Asian farmers continue doing what they are doing.”
Banner image: A woolly necked stork (Ciconia episcopus) in flight. Image by Hari K Patibanda via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Ghimire, P., Pandey, N., Timilsina, Y. P., Bist, B. S., & Sundar, K. S. G. (2021). Woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus) activity budget in lowland Nepal’s farmlands: The influence of wetlands, seasonal crops, and human proximity. Waterbirds, 44(4). doi:10.1675/063.044.0403
del Hoyo, J., & Collar, N. J. (2014). HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World Volume 1: Non-passerines. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.
Sundar, K. S. G. (2020). Woolly-necked stork — A species ignored. SIS Conservation, 2, 33-41. Retrieved from https://storkibisspoonbill.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2020SpecialSectionEdit_Sundar_Final.pdf
Kittur, S., & Sundar, K. S. G. (2021). Of irrigation canals and multifunctional agroforestry: Traditional agriculture facilitates woolly-necked stork breeding in a north Indian agricultural landscape. Global Ecology and Conservation, 30, e01793. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2021.e01793
This article by Abhaya Raj Joshi was first published by Mongabay.com on 24 August 2022. Lead Image: A woolly necked stork (Ciconia episcopus) in flight. Image by Hari K Patibanda via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
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