Conservation biologist KS Gopi Sundar is co-chair of the IUCN specialist group on storks, ibis and spoonbills and editor-in-chief of the global journal ‘Waterbirds’. Speaking to Srijana Mitra Das at Times Evoke, he discusses conducting a study on birdlife in Udaipur — and finding some surprises:
We recently carried out a study of cities and how these matter for biodiversity. An earlier study done by us had shown how even a bustling megacity like Delhi can sustain incredibly high levels of biodiversity, especially birds, when it lets ponds be — Delhi’s pond diversity levels actually broke global records. Following from there, with Kanishka Mehta, my student from Sukhadia University, Dr Vijay Kohli and Swati Kittur, we designed a study to investigate birdlife in Udaipur, a smaller location than Delhi but a bustling tourist hub and selected for Smart City development work. We designed a framework covering the entire city through sampling and for the first time perhaps in India, surveyed each season to see if bird populations changed with the weather.


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ARRIVING IN STYLE: The superb Dalmatian pelican is one of the many migratory species which visit Udaipur, adding to the splendour of its lakes. Photo courtesy: Kanishka Mehta Via: KS Gopi Sundar

The project has thrown up some fascinating results. We found Udaipur has around 208 species of birds, of which about 80 are migratory. We describe a bird’s niche as a range of environmental conditions in which species can thrive, including urban parameters like people, land uses (agriculture, concrete, etc.), tree species, open areas and so on. Combining these, we could provide numerical estimates of how a species’ niche is doing.

KS Gopi Sundar 4-Pheasant-tailed Jacana

LOTUS STEPS: Pheasant-tailed jacana. Photo courtesy: Kanishka Mehta Via: KS Gopi Sundar

Interestingly, we found few species needed very specialised conditions in Udaipur, suggesting the city could support a diverse bird assemblage. This is unusual as urban areas are often thought of as having a narrow set of conditions and thus, a low number of species. We also expected these niches to correspond differently to resident birds versus winter migratory ones. The literature suggested migratory birds would do ‘niche packing’ or squeeze themselves into existing spaces. However, we found the opposite happening in Udaipur — migratory species didn’t pack themselves in thus. Udaipur has enough open spaces to accommodate many species in a season, which birds use in ways that defy our current measuring ability.


SURPRISE! An urban white-naped tit. Photo courtesy: Kanishka Mehta Via: KS Gopi Sundar

We also gathered data on whether bird niches varied across seasons — if a species is very common in one season and restricted in another, that’s a red flag, indicating conditions are becoming too severe to sustain it. However, we found practically all resident species changed their niches every season — clearly, they could adapt to varying resources. There were no large differences in the niches of feeding guilds or groups with similar dietary habits like insectivores, frugivores, etc., implying Udaipur’s layout, with waterbodies, grasslands and limited construction, can preserve a very diverse community.

KS Gopi Sundar 5-White-bellied Minivet

White-Bellied Minivet: A truly rare species everywhere – yet, many locations in Udaipur have breeding pairs of this bird, making the city a rather unique bird habitat. Photo courtesy: Kanishka Mehta Via: KS Gopi Sundar

We then investigated what else was working. Udaipur is nestled between valleys of the Aravallis which have been mostly maintained thanks to multiple court decisions. That helped retain scrubland, woodlands, etc., in the city, supporting birds like the spot-breasted fantail.


IN SCRUBLAND: Spot-breasted fantail. Photo courtesy: Kanishka Mehta Via: KS Gopi Sundar

The Aravallis, among the least studied ecosystems globally and often considered highly degraded, are not doing so badly on biodiversity. Our work in Delhi, at one extreme of the Aravallis, and now this study in Udaipur, at the other extreme, shows this. The Aravallis seem healthy ecologically and that’s in cities — imagine its biodiversity outside urban areas.


Sarus Crane: These tall, graceful birds point to the importance of retaining wetlands and rice farming, both uncommon in the usually dry Aravallis. A small but significant population is found in Udaipur’s city limits. Photo courtesy: Kanishka Mehta Via: KS Gopi Sundar

This study is thus a note of hope in a generally bleak atmosphere concerning biodiversity. It also suggests our view of human-caused ‘disturbance’ can be rethought — the disturbance in Indian cities is not strong enough to drastically shrink birdlife. Birds are also an excellent barometer of the environment — any place housing over 200 species reflects a high level of ecological health. The presence in Udaipur of the pheasant-tailed jacana, which can only walk on lotuses, tells a tale of water quality. It is important to note that our cities are also not as sterile in layout as those abroad. In Udaipur thus, birds were not put out by humans, houses or cattle — the biggest positive component working for them was the presence of trees.


Chestnut-Bellied Sandgrouse – Like an alarm clock, these sandgrouse appear as if by magic even beside small puddles in the early afternoon and evening to drink water before disappearing again. This species showcases the importance of even tiny wet patches for biodiversity in urban areas. Photo courtesy: Kanishka Mehta Via: KS Gopi Sundar

These learnings can help rethink our conservation ethos, currently heavily oriented towards protected areas which have the highest levels of biodiversity. Such studies provide an alternative vision for India though, seeing cities also as preservers of biodiversity. Thanks to its lakes, trees and the Aravallis which citizens maintain, Udaipur can be proud of its birdlife. This varies from the tiny plain prinia to the rare white-bellied minivet and whitenaped tit, earlier thought to not be urban at all. We also found over 2.5 lakh house sparrows here — this is heartening for a species thought to be collaps ing in urban areas. We found large birds too, like ibises, cranes, woollynecked storks and Egyptian vultures, thought to be declining in forests, yet seen breeding in Udaipur.

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Cities should be considered potential habitat for birds. Studying a city, conservationists could discover new ways of preserving birds, frogs, etc. Thanks to government initiatives, practically every town has a university with science and zoology programs — this offers a chance to adopt cities as important habitat for biodiversity and develop new conservation modes in India.


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