Wildlife & Biodiversity

Nano technology enables scientists to study migrations of Pied Cuckoo

The project is the first to study the species, which is closely linked to the arrival of the south west monsoon in India

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 16 July 2020
A new project by the Wildlife Institute of India and the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing has used nano technology to track the enigmatic Pied Cuckoo. Photo: Mohammad Shakur

A new project by a number of agencies is using advancements in nano technology to study migratory patterns of the Pied Cuckoo, a bird closely linked with the arrival of the south west monsoon in India.

The project is a joint effort by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS), which comes under the Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO.

“There are basically three subspecies of the Pied Cuckoo of which one is resident in Africa while another is resident in South India. The third is a migrant moving between India and Africa. It moves to India during the summer,” Suresh Kumar, a scientist in the Department of Endangered Species Management, WII, told Down To Earth.

“Being a small, terrestrial bird, a sea crossing holds a lot of risk for this cuckoo. Before it migrates back to its home in the southern African region, by flying over the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, it must be stopping somewhere. It is these stopovers that we want to find out about,” he said.

In the long term, the scientists hope to find out how the birds respond to climatic variation.

The Pied Cuckoo is famous in North Indian folklore as ‘chatak’, a bird that quenches its thirst only with raindrops. From Southern Africa, it comes to the Himalayan foothills stretching from Jammu to Assam to breed every year. The birds come to the same localities every year.

The Pied Cuckoo, 'Chatak' fitted with the 2 gram transmitter. Photo: Debanjan Sarkar

It is also a brood parasite in that it does not make its own nest and instead lays its egg in the nest of other birds, particularly the Jungle Babbler.

In 2019, the team had banded a Pied Cuckoo on the outskirts of Dehradun to check whether it would return to the same site the following year. Sure enough, the bird returned this summer.

On July 12 and July 14, 2020, two Pied Cuckoos were captured in the agricultural fields near the WII campus in Dehradun and fitted with a 2-gram tag, with permits from the Uttarakhand State Forest Department. The cuckoos were named Megh, meaning cloud and Chatak.

Here, Kumar emphasises and lauds the advancements in technology.

“Small birds have lots of stories to tell. But we are usually technologically challenged as the right size of device is not available. Before the Pied Cuckoo, the smallest bird that we fitted a transmitter on was the Amur Falcon that weighs 160 gram. The Pied Cuckoo is half that weight,” he said.

Adult cuckoos weigh between 65 to 75 grams and so any tracking device to be put on them needs to be really very small or the thumb rule is it has to be less than three per cent of the body weight.

The team got its 2-gram transmitter, a solar powered one, from a US-based firm, Microwave Telemetry Inc USA, although the device is available only on a limited order basis.

“This collaborative effort is a first of its kind and through this an online web-based geospatial dashboard will be developed for near-real-time monitoring of trends and patterns in movement of Pied Cuckoo ie, development of a location analytical tool with an API for interoperability and to perform geospatial modeling,” Sameer Saran from the IIRS, said.

Signals from Megh and Chatak have been coming in regularly, and the birds are moving around the site they were captured. The two cuckoos, Megh and Chatak are expected to stay in the Doon valley till the end of the monsoon season and start their southbound migration in late September.

The Pied Cuckoo migration study is part of a larger project — Indian Bioresource Information portal (IBIN) funded by the Department of Biotechnology, under the Union Ministry of Science and Technology, that aims to deliver relevant bioresources (plant, animal and other biological organisms) information of India through a web portal.

“The IBIN project consists of various biodiversity and environmental parameters which will help in assessing the likely impacts of projected climate change on the potential distribution of Pied Cuckoo in the altered climate change scenarios,” Gautam Talukdar from WII, said.

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