Wildlife & Biodiversity

A bird, its photographs and a serendipitous discovery

Using photographs provided online, we found that information given in field guides regarding the Variable Wheatear was in need of an update

By K S Gopi Sundar
Last Updated: Thursday 07 May 2020
A male Variable wheatear (Oenanthe picata capistrata). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The number of bird species in India is growing thanks to improved genetic capabilities that have helped discern differences between birds that looked and sounded somewhat similar. The growth in understanding species, however, remains slow.

Autecology, or the science of how a species interacts with its surroundings, is the branch of ecology that assists scientists in determining where species are found and what they do. For the vast majority of Indian bird species, this basic information is either absent or poorly known.

Looking for a species for many years in multiple locations is the ideal way to improve knowledge about it. But this takes time and more importantly — resources — that countries like India do not appear to be allocating to basic studies.

Given this background, I wanted to see with some colleagues if there were faster ways of improving knowledge of bird species using available resources that might not be used as best as they could.

Another form of the Variable Wheatear (Oenanthe picata picata). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The idea began when a small group of us saw a black-bellied form of the Variable Wheatear in Udaipur in 2018. The Variable Wheatear is a neat little black-and-white bird that migrates to India for the winter, and eats millions of insects while here.

It is quite common in the northern parts of India and is even seen inside cities and in farmlands. Also, the bird is interesting in having three distinct colour forms that vary in the quantity of white and black on the bird. Not surprisingly, exceedingly little is known about the ecology and requirements of this species in India.

The black-bellied form was new for us, therefore mildly exciting. The only available information on this form was in field guides that compile all and any information they can get on birds to make maps that help people interested in birds. Field guides suggested that the black-bellied form was found only in a small patch in Pakistan along the Indus river during the winter. By then we had seen the form in three different locations in Udaipur.

We waited for another winter, and lo and behold, the black-bellied form appeared again in all the three locations of Udaipur. Clearly, existing information on this form needed updating.

Bird photography as a hobby and profession has taken off to a major extent in India. It has led to important discoveries of species not previously known from the country, and over-zealous photographers have also destroyed bird habitats and disturbed nesting birds.

But since the emergence of the internet, several institutions have set up forums for photographers to donate their images of birds, primarily to assist other people with identification.

Much to our delight, many of these portals also asked photographers to provide the year and location of photographs. Here was an opportunity for us to see if the three forms of the Variable Wheatear were indeed as they were shown in field guides.

We scanned various portals for photographs of Variable Wheatears, and ended up with a database of over 540 photographers of the three forms that also had year and location. We created maps for all three forms and also assessed if any were being seen more in recent times.

We discovered that our maps, created using photographs donated online by photographers, matched field guides only for one form. Two other forms of the Variable Wheatear were distributed much more widely than was suspected.

Photographers, of course, do not go to all places equally and some are more generous with their photographs than others. So it is likely that all three forms are distributed much more widely than what we have discovered. What was most exciting for us was that it was possible to use already available resources to create information on birds — however basic — in India.

With so many researchers in lockdown to help combat the novel coronavirus virus, perhaps many more attempts can be made to see what other aspects of Indian birds the freely available photographs online can reveal.

Given the rapidly deteriorating conditions for many birds in the country, any addition in information, especially those that require relatively small amounts of resources, will be hugely useful to document the ways of birds in India.

KS Gopi Sundar is a scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation

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