There’s a Silence Spreading Across the Natural World

By Donna Mulvenna ILCW member (French Guiana)

“The earth has music for those who listen.”

George Santayana

I see a lot of trees from my office window. Although, I don’t actually have a window. I don’t have walls either. Or a roof. I have a small wooden table, a fold-up chair, and a laptop that sits on an open deck high in the treetops, and nature.

There are also a lot of distractions. More than I ever had in my former office with flickering fluorescent lighting, an air-conditioning unit, people coming and going, a telephone with six lines, and overlooking a busy road. White noise they call it. The scientists that is, who measure the stress-related symptoms that result from a day, in a week, in a year, in a life, listening to background noise.

I can’t say it particularly bothered me because for a few decades I had done a commendable job of blocking it out. In fact, I barely heard any noise that wasn’t directly aimed at me. As for taking regular breaks from looking at my computer screen… I was far too busy for that.

Later, when my indoors office was replaced with the outdoors kind, it was refreshing not to hear a constant hum of an air-conditioning unit, the incessant ringing of phones and the loud rumbling of passing trucks.

Instead, what do you suppose I heard the first time I sat outside in nature surrounded by wildlife, a natural breeze, and a running stream? It was Nothing. All I heard was the clatter of my own thoughts.

My brain had mastered the cocktail party effect, where it can focus intently on one stimulus while effortlessly screening out noises or visual images not relevant to me. Nature had become one of those, something irrelevant because I had so often ignored it. I had unintentionally tuned out the sounds of the natural world.

So, what happened next? I was re-schooled. With the help of some enthusiastic new friends.

It was when I was taking the washing off the line that I heard the loud buzzing of a giant insect. Like many creatures in French Guiana (the French Amazon), it had the potential to be one of the biggest in the world and I didn’t want it caught in my hair. I grabbed a T-shirt from the laundry basket and whirled it wildly above my head. As I turned to walk inside I saw it.

It was one of the most exquisite things I had seen. And it was so tiny. It was hovering in the air without moving in any direction, its little wings pumping at an incredible speed. Its body was a brilliant emerald green, except for its white thighs, and it had a bright metallic blue tail.

In my defence, I grew up in a land downunder where cockatoos say “Gidday Mate,” Kookaburras laugh at you each morning, and Magpies have made dive bombing a favorite pastime, so I had never seen a hummingbird before, much less heard one.

I’m kind of glad they chose to stick around as in the beginning, I made a fatal mistake. I cleared a large area around my home. It took me days to hack back and dig out all the Heliconia and replace it with banana plants, something that was useful to me.

When I learned the nectar from the Heliconia was one of the hummingbirds’ main food sources, I knew I had unwittingly robbed myself of many treasured appearances. I prayed they might just move to a different plant nearby, at least until I could let the Heliconia grow back, but I didn’t like my chances.

How would I have felt if each day I looked forward to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, and one day I woke up to discover they had all been stolen? Would I have settled for the diet cereal in the cupboard or would I have left the house to go to the store where there were more eggs?

On one occasion, because old habits die hard, I was overly focused on my computer screen. I heard an inkling of sounds around me, branches moving, leaves falling and some sort of squeaking. But it wasn’t until I was startled by the unmistakable sound of a branch snap nearby that I looked up. And there they were. Almost on top of me.

They were looking at each other as if to say, “Why does she just sit there staring at that blue screen?” I was staring at them thinking, “Why didn’t I take notice and look up sooner?” They had the most beautiful keen-eyed little faces and I sat mesmerized as their nimble hands reached out to pick fruit.

Suddenly, the tree came to life and the squirrel monkeys leaped and scurried across the branches. A mother a little further back was carrying what looked to be a tiny backpack, a baby clinging on like a limpet and only a few weeks old.

From that day forth, I listened carefully for rustling leaves, scampering feet, a branch surrendering underweight or the sharp snap of a twig, eagerly anticipating future visits. Not that I had much choice. They are natural exhibitionists that propel themselves through the trees with tremendous gusto before squeaking, “Hey you! Look at me!” as they all vie for my attention.

Green iguanas don’t do that. They prefer a more discrete approach, laze for hours on the same branch and are completely unperturbed by me. I always know where they are now because I can hear the branches buckle beneath their weight. And that’s a good thing because the first time one decided to jump 10 metres to the ground, crashing through leaves, clawing bark and snapping branches on its way down, within only an arm’s reach, I almost had a coronary. I had no idea it was there and was very relieved when it, and its massive claws, sailed past without making contact.

To be fair, wildlife isn’t in the habit of landing on me. Apart from mosquitoes, that is. And with the exception of ants which are the most hostile beasts in the jungle. Everyone else is happy to live by the co-existence rule, which is to give each other space so we can all go about our business.

My treetop office is in a deep valley, the type where inland driven cloud creates a blanket of mist most mornings. I visit it with the same urgency a person reaches for their first cup of coffee each day. The rain comes at me from over the hill on the east. I had always taken an umbrella, because despite setting out on a beautiful clear morning, somehow I always managed to get caught in a downpour. Now, it is rare I bother with an umbrella. I can hear the rain approaching and the speed at which the wind whips through the trees. I know whether it’s the type of rain that falls so hard and for so long it’s going to form puddles or whether it’s the type that stops as suddenly as it starts. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times I get it completely wrong and clatter through the door with sodden clothes, limp hair, and a big smile.

Afterward, I listen to large droplets of rain fall from overhead branches onto the broad flat leaves of the elephant ears and taro plants below, the sound of water rushing over the rocks of a newly swollen stream, the piercing call of a faraway bird, and a different kind of buzz across the forest.

It is a gift to have my hearing back, especially as large tracts of forest are falling deathly silent due to housing development, habitat destruction, and climate change; and skies may fall silent because of illegal poaching and trade of migratory birds.

Initially, I barely heard a bird at all. Within a few days, I could hear a bird but it was just a bird. Now I don’t hear just a bird, I hear an orchestra of a hundred birds and a hundred different birdsongs. Some venture so close I can see their beaks open and their tail bob when they sing. Others prefer to perform from behind a curtain of lush green foliage, and some make just one shrill call as they rocket within inches overhead. Sometimes, I try and sing back and they tilt their heads to one side as if to say, “That’s a new one!”

I listen to pitch, rhythm, length, and non-vocals like humming wings, all of which become clearer, more detailed and more familiar each day. I mean I really listen. Sometimes I close my eyes so that I can block out everything else. Other times, I cup my hands behind my ears and push them forward so I have bigger sound catchers, and I spin my head from side to side because there are so many beautiful and clear lyrics coming from all directions.

I hear so many things I couldn’t hear before. I hear sudden stillness.

In some parts of the world little birds are known to tease big birds such as eagles, safe in the knowledge they don’t manoeuvre so well. This would be a mistake in the French Amazon because Harpy eagles are definitely built for manoeuvring.

They have rounded wings and a long tail which helps them to navigate in tight spaces, make super-fast turns, and when they flip upside down in mid-flight to pluck monkeys and sloths from branches, they do it with the stealth of a bomber.

I didn’t hear her but I did sense an unmistakable restlessness sweep across the forest, with more calls and more fluttering about on the perches. I could almost imagine the birds sidestepping toward the main trunk and flattening their little bodies against the bark in an attempt to disappear from view. Tension seemed to build, another alarm call, and again, five times over five minutes. I grabbed my binoculars and eventually spotted the source of all this consternation.

She was perched high in a tree looking every bit as intimidating as her reputation suggests. Considered the most powerful bird in the world imagine claws more powerful than a Rottweiler’s jaws I took my cue from the wildlife and headed for more cover.

They are positively the scariest looking of all carnivorous birds, which is obviously why it is they who are depicted in Greek mythology as horrid winged women with breasts hanging out that swoop down to take humans to the underworld.

I made a conscious decision to tune into nature because it lets me know what is going on around me. Sometimes it is a quiet affair, but there are times when the action really heats up and I hear the distant call of a screaming piha, the croak of a toucan, the squeaking of monkeys, and the drilling of a woodpecker.

Hearing the sounds of nature is easy if you follow the steps, which is to take the time to relax, breathe and be still, give forest creatures time to recover from you crashing headlong into their space, and stay long enough that nature can come forth and begin your re-schooling.

Nature extends to humanity a heartfelt invitation and offers something in return that is far beyond my human understanding.


One in Eight Bird Species Are Found in India – But Do We Really Care?

By Neha Sinha, ILCW member (India)

Previously published by The Wire


One of the dozen megabiodiverse countries of the world, a new checklist says India also has an impressive 1,263 species of birds – 12% of the number of species worldwide.


While searching for birds, you could either use your eyes or ears. Some people search for birds by looking out for their colours – a brilliant cobalt blue of an Indian roller; a dash of turquoise worn by a white-breasted kingfisher bossing about near a stream; a dull muddy-coloured munia sporting a shining silver bill. Others ‘look’ for birds using their ears. The Malabar whistling thrush, for example, has a trilling, undulating, phee-phee-phee song which sounds exactly like someone whistling a favourite childhood melody.


Praveen J. looked for birds by listening. On December 24, 1994, he heard the whistle-like song of the Malabar whistling thrush. Since then, he has been searching for the endemic bird, named for the region in south India, in the Western Ghats. Hyderabad-based Aasheesh Pittie marvelled at a pair of pied mynas who went about building their nest in the middle of the city’s polluted bustle. Rajah Jayapal searched for warblers, a very diverse and difficult-to-identify group, with his occasional failure at recognising a particular warbler not dampening his enthusiasm for them.


India is one of the twelve megabiodiverse countries in the world, containing profusions of taxa, sub-species and endemic species. Of these, birds are the most well-known, well-followed and numerous by far. But while birds are held popular by the casual birdwatcher and ornithologist alike, just how numerous are they? It is a question that both old-fashioned taxonomists as well as new-age, digital-camera-toting bird-watchers have pondered for years. Praveen, Pittie and Jayapal decided to answer that question.


Several years later, the results are in: India has an impressive 1,263 bird species.


Of these thousand-plus birds, the newest addition has been the Himalayan forest thrush (Zoothera salimalii; Alström et al 2016). Interestingly, this bird was found by ‘ears’ rather than eyes. A differentiating song from the plain-backed thrush got biologists interested in the species. Meanwhile, the white-browed crake (Amaurornis cinerea) is the latest entrant to the country’s bird list (Gogoi & Phukan 2016).


‘How many birds does India have’ seems like an easy enough issue to tackle. Wouldn’t it just mean combining bird-lists, created after much labour, over the years, by thousands of birdwatchers? After all, birdwatching is one of the most popular natural history pursuits globally, generating huge tourism revenue. A lot is known about birds in India; the country stood third in the world in terms of the number of bird checklists being uploaded for bird counts. But the making of a definitive checklist was not just about adding up existing bird lists. It also involved a lot of ratification and re-checks.


“To make a case for a bird’s inclusion, all records were looked up for veracity. Authors were contacted to further verify sightings,” Pittie says. Moreover, decisions needed to be taken on which birds to exclude: more than sixty bird species, understood to be found in India, were left out for want of evidence.


The authors began by calling for publications on Indian rarities. “We started a specific series in Indian Birds dedicated to conservationist Zafar Futehally known as ‘Notes on Indian Rarities’. It involved tracking each and every record of a rare species – be it published in peer-reviewed journals or grey literature including newspapers, websites, discussion groups, museum specimen catalogues or even personal communication,” Praveen says. “We had to touch base with a large number of correspondents in India and abroad to get sufficient details to evaluate the status of each bird, and whether it should be ‘included’ or ‘excluded’.”


The checklist includes all of Indian territory, including bird records from the marine area under the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that extends to 370.4 km beyond the coasts. Several pelagic or oceanic birds are not recorded on shore but far into the sea. Several other are nomadic, as the checklist points out.


“We had to be over-cautious before we decided to knock off [some] species from the India Checklist, as they have always been believed to occur in India. This is particularly so in the case of ‘familiar-sounding’ birds, like Nordmann’s greenshank, the eastern crowned leaf warbler and the White’s thrush, which are often assumed quietly by Indian birders that they are regular here. But we find no supporting evidence for occurrence of these taxa within Indian limits,” says Jayapal.


The poet William Blake wrote about seeing the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower – elegies to how the smallest things could show us the meaning of life, science and our sympatry with nature. And much like the allegory, birds have been described as being bio-indicators of the natural world, proxies for the status of environmental degradation and pollution, thus providing inputs for conservation and planning.


Within the 1,263-bird-long checklist, 61 are endemic birds. These are ‘Made in India’: they are found only in India. They include the Nicobar scops owl (Otus alius; Rasmussen 1998), the Bugun liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum) and, most recently, the Himalayan forest thrush. Several of these species represent dual challenges to conservation: they are found only in the country and some are found specifically in habitats under threat. For instance, the endemic Narcondam hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami) is found only on the volcanic island of Narcondam in the Andaman sea. And this remote island is tiny – about seven square kilometres – and the bird is under threat from the development of a radar station on the island.


Then, there is the question of birds that are in the checklist because they’ve occurred in the past but, tragically, may be extinct in the wild today. Conservationists have been searching for the Jerdon’s courser, for example – a bird that lives in Andhra Pradesh’s scrub forests, with little luck. Last seen in 2009, the bird has not been spotted since.


“The nocturnal Jerdon’s courser is a congener of an African family, connecting back to that continent via the ocean floating Gondwanaland. Whether the species is at the end of its avatar on Earth, due to a disappearing ecological niche, mostly human-induced, or whether there is a biological reason, like the loss of critical numbers that induce breeding, or a vital food source vanishing, we don’t know,” Pittie says. “The tragedy is that, being nocturnal, it is a difficult bird to study, compounded by what I would term ‘criminal’ negligence by governments in obstructing biological studies, not really bothering about the bird’s impending extinction if the present deterioration of its habitat continues.”


“The moot question is why endemics are not treated as national treasures, and given all the support required to ensure their survival? Each endemic species is as unique as the Taj Mahal, and perhaps more vulnerable, because they are icons in the eyes of a paltry few, whereas the Taj is adored the world over.”


Apart from a wealth of endemics, India also has large bird families with several ‘members’. Among them, the chats, robins and flycatchers (Muscicapidae) are the most diverse in Indian avifauna (97 species). They are closely followed by raptors (Accipitridae: 57); and typical babblers, laughing thrushes and allies (Leiothrichidae: 53). Other significant families include ducks and geese (Anatidae); galliforms (Phasianidae); waders (Scolopacidae); gulls and terns (Laridae); woodpeckers (Picidae); finches (Fringillidae); and leaf warblers (Phylloscopidae). Each accounts for over 30 species among the Indian birds.


And bird names in themselves can be whimsical and confusing. For instance, teal in the bird-world is not just a colour but a sort of duck, too. A bird described as ‘Greater’ may appear quite small to the uninitiated. Several birds have alternate names that don’t seem to have been derived from any English. Some birds are named after the people who discovered them. And some more are named after their wives.


For instance, the British naturalist Allan Octavian Hume ‘discovered’ and described many birds, such as the Hume’s short-toed lark. Mrs Hume’s pheasant, an elusive pheasant that is the state bird of Manipur and Mizoram, is named after Hume’s wife.

If one says ‘zitting cisticola’, you might think of a fizzy drink. The story is that the famed ornithologist Salim Ali said the zitting cisticola’s call sounded like a pair of scissors sniping with a ‘zitting’ sound. The bird has the alternate name of streaked fantail warbler, which the checklist mentions.


For the format of bird names, hyphens and diacritics are also of relevance. The authors used the standard set by the Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. This capitalises the first letter of the first word, while descriptors like colours and features are set with hyphens. So: Large-billed crow, Black-and-orange flycatcher.


With or without hyphens, diacritics, or even names, the idea of a checklist for birds is about underlining India’s avian wealth, a sort of call towards conservation, caring for these ephemeral and fragile creatures that we share our nation with. “If we feel birds are an integral part of ourselves, we don’t need any additional reasoning to protect them,” Praveen says.


For Jayapal, birds are an opening to a fantastic world. “Birds are my window to the world of nature. Literally so, as I sit in my office and reflexively peep out of the window after hearing the call of the first booted warbler of the season,” he says.


“I understand that it’s a one-way ‘relationship’, if I may call it that, as there is no communication between birds and man,” Pittie says. “Yet I revel in their ability of flight, their beauty, charm, song, dance, character, power, delicacy, tolerance, stamina, characteristics I aspire to, as does every human being. Birds do not know these terms; they are our way of understanding them, limited by our lexicon. I paint on them emotions in trying to understand my own. Sometimes they reflect my happier spirit, when the world is spinning out of control, and a glance into that innocent, feathered mirror changes the air I breathe.”


Citation: Praveen J., Jayapal, R., & Pittie, A., 2016. A checklist of the birds of India. Indian BIRDS 11 (5&6): 113–172A.

Featured image: A Himalayan forest thrush. Credit: Craig Brelsford/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0.


Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.

IUCN to Support End to Canned Hunting

IUCN World Conservation Congress Underway
The congress ends on September 10, 2016.)
The congress, currently taking place in Hawaii, has had a very successful first half. Please follow the link for highlights.

The Blood Lions™ team, in association with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), South African Wildlife College (SAWC), Wildlands and the National Association of Conservancies (NACSA), has secured global conservation support for their efforts to stop the canned hunting and non-conservation based captive breeding of Lion and other Predators. This will be formally announced at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, from the 1st to 10th September. The IUCN – the International Union for the Conservation of Nature- is the world’s largest and most diverse environmental network, with over 1 300 member organizations and support from over 16 000 environmental experts.

The theme for this year’s IUCN conference is “Planet at a Crossroads”, and the presenting of this particular motion could not be more relevant to the IUCN statement that: “The ecosystems that underpin our economies, well-being and survival are collapsing. Species are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates. Our climate is in crisis. And it’s all happening on our watch…Time is not on our side. The success of these agreements depends on how quickly we turn them into sustainable action.”
The IUCN support flows from a formal motion submitted by the Blood Lions™ team and partners, to the IUCN membership. This motion has been approved and will be adopted during the congress.

The motion recognizes:
* That the continued breeding of lions for the specific purpose of ‘canned lion hunting’ or ‘canned lion shooting’, by sectors of the wildlife industry in South Africa has escalated.  ‘Canned hunting’ is regarded as a situation where an animal is physically unable to escape from a restricted enclosure and/or is captive bred and mentally disinclined to escape due to humanisation as a result of hand-rearing, petting of young animals and close human contact in captive facilities.
* That professional hunting associations within South Africa and internationally oppose the hunting of animals under ‘canned’ conditions;
* The limited scope of legal options currently available to the South African Government to terminate ‘canned lion hunting’;
* That most South African captive lion breeding facilities do not conform to or comply with the animal welfare standards published by the International Organisation for Animal health;
* That welfare matters associated with the captive breeding of lion are currently not regulated through appropriate legislative provisions;
* That enhanced compliance monitoring and enforcement is required to ensure compliance with existing legislative provisions relating to captive breeding facilities;
* That there is a need to undertake research to determine whether the captive breeding of lion has a conservation role and the impact of hunting of captive populations on wild lion populations.
* That the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Cat Specialist Group has not identified captive breeding as a conservation action.
* That captive breeding of lions has not been identified as a conservation action in any African Lion Conservation Planning Programme.

The motion requests the IUCN Director General, relevant Commissions and the South African National Committee to encourage the South African Government, as well as all other southern African Governments, to support this initiative by reviewing existing legislative provisions regulating this activity and drafting, enacting and implementing legislation by 2020 and giving reasonable time frames to:

a.   develop and implement norms and standards, supported by the South African Scientific Authority, that define the conditions under which the hunting of Lions is regarded as “canned hunting” and to legally prohibit the hunting of lions under these conditions.

b.   restrict captive breeding of lions to registered zoos or registered facilities that demonstrate a clear conservation benefit;

c.   develop norms and standards for the management of captive-bred lions in South Africa that address welfare, biodiversity and utilisation aspects (including new emerging uses such as harvesting of lion for the bone and meat trade), taking into account Threatened or Protected Species (ToPS) regulations, legislation and IUCN guidelines governing this activity;

d.   ensure compliance with, and enforcement of, all relevant legislation.

After the motion has been formally approved, the Director General and IUCN Commissions will be requested to take the necessary actions to provide the guidance, leadership, support and international lobbying that may be required by the South African Government to enable the motion; and encourage and provide support for other Member States in southern Africa to follow this initiative.

Blood Lions™, a film launched in July 2015, has brought the horrors of predator breeding, canned hunting and a variety of other exploitative activities using lions and other species to the world’s attention in a way that has not been achieved before. The films powerful visual narrative as well as the global campaign have provided a compelling call to action to have these practices stopped, as well as inspired partnerships that have enabled this motion to be presented at the IUCN World Conservation Congress. More information about the film.