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Migratory bird tracking

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  • Migratory bird tracking


    A bird in hand
    Pranav Kulkarni Posted: Sunday , Jun 14, 2009 at 2252 hrs IST

    Migratory birds have long been a source of amazement for the great distances they cover in search of habitat and are keenly watched by birding enthusiasts. Now scientists have trained their eyes—and satellite trackers—on them. In a project undertaken by an international team at Chilka Lake in Orissa, along with Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary and wetlands near Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, the movements of migratory birds visiting the country will now be tracked to provide clues on avian influenza. The team consists of researchers from the US Geological Survey (USGS) working in collaboration with United Nations-FAO, the Indian Ministry of Agriculture, the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, Wetlands International, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and High Security Animal Disease Laboratory (HSADL), Bhopal.

    Says S. Balachandran, assistant director, BNHS, “Migratory birds visit India from Siberia, Mongolia, China and many other countries. It has been speculated that major outbreaks of HPAI and H5N1 are possible along the birds’ migratory pathways due to their interactions with wild and domestic birds. The USGS and FAO approached us with the proposal of capturing some birds, fitting them with transmitters (since they put on weight during migration, the transmitters are fitted with great precision) and then tracking their trajectory on the satellite in order to obtain relevant data from point to point.”

    As part of the project, over 80 migratory birds—60 from Chilka and 20 from Tamil Nadu—were marked with satellite tags in the beginning of the year by the research team consisting of US researchers, three BNHS scientists, one veterinary doctor and 12 bird catchers. “Amongst the birds captured, there are 25 bar-headed geese (Anser indicus), 11 northern pintail (Anas acuta), 10 graganey and a few others like northern shoveler (Anas clypeata), common teal (Anas crecca), rudey shel duck and so on, that are recorded to have been afflicted with HPAI, H5N1 in the past,” says Scott Newman, international project coordinator.

    The researchers will track the satellite-marked birds, which will help them identify the relationships, if any, that exist between the locations of these marked birds and HPAI and H5NI outbreaks along their migratory pathways. The birds are constantly monitored by US satellite, the data generated from which is uploaded on a daily basis by an international agency, ARGOS. In addition, the flying birds are intercepted midway during their northward movement where samples of their saliva and droppings are collected. The samples are then sent to HSADL, Bhopal and checked for avian influenza. “So far, we have not found any trace of the disease,” says Balachandran.

    While most birds have returned to their destinations such as China and Mongolia, a few are still in India. “The bar-headed geese were tracked a couple of days ago crossing the Ganges in Malda district of West Bengal during their northward journey. Many of the birds from Tamil Nadu have been tracked following the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka-Madhya Pradesh route towards China and on June 4, we traced them crossing Bhakra Nangal Dam,” he says.

    With an investment of over Rs 2.5 crore only on transmitters, the project is part of a global programme to not only better understand the movement of avian influenza viruses and other diseases in the Central Asian flyway, but also to improve the understanding of the ecological habits of water birds internationally along with their interactions with wild and domestic birds.

    “Chilka Lake is the largest brackish-water lagoon in Asia. More than 890,000 migratory and resident water birds representing 226 species use the lagoon for at least a part of their life cycle,” says Sujit Narwade, scientist-in-charge, ENVIS centre, BNHS. A large number of wildlife researchers from across the country are following the project. Dharmaraj Patil, programme officer, Centre for Environment Education, Pune, who has been active in the field of environmental research, says, “It might throw light on the secrets behind birds that cover over 11,000 km in one flight or the source of oxygen for birds that fly at a height of 20,000 ft and above. A continuous documentation will also help us observe the evolution that these species undergo with changes in nature such as global warming and climate change.”

    While the project was intended to last a year, the team wants to continue with it next year in order to generate a continued report.