At least 36 species of dry-land birds have been spotted in India’s coastal state of Kerala, known for its sultry weather, indicating a change in weather pattern, rapid urbanisation and deterioration in habitat
When people in Kerala, India’s southwestern coastal state famous in tourism circuits as ‘God’s own country’, wake up to the cries of the peafowl instead of the usual birdcalls or spot dry-land birds in their yards it is perhaps an indication that something is changing.
The state, where ornithologists have spotted bird species such as steppe eagle and red-headed bunting normally found in dry-lands, has been sizzling since mid-February this year. The government has been debating whether it should declare the state drought-affected and people, used to a sweaty environment, are being dry-roasted under a blazing sun. A few cases of heat stroke have been reported with the temperature touching 40 degrees Celsius in Palakkad and 39 degrees Celsius in Kannur districts.
It is not just the heat, it is the dryness. People in the state, known for its sultry weather, are finding it difficult to bear the dry heat. Compounding this is the fact that rivers, water bodies and dam reservoirs are running dry. With less water for irrigation, the soil is drying up, adding to ambient heat radiation.
High heat in February-March is not unusual in Kerala, and in reality it is this heat trough that pulls the monsoon from Indian Ocean into the Indian subcontinent. The heat epicentre heralds the monsoon and runs like a pilot car through the peninsula, taking the same path that the southwest monsoon will follow a few months later. Since the southwest monsoon starts from the coast of Kerala, it is the state that has to feel the heat first, so that pre-monsoon showers start in May and the monsoon arrives in June.
Even though the southwest monsoon started late in June 2015, there were showers right into the first week of January 2016. However, the state has gone dry within weeks of the rains ending.
According to data published by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the southwest monsoon was deficient in Kerala even though the northeast monsoon was in excess in 2015-16 — and thus the state overall received average rainfall of 2,124.40 mm instead of the normal 2,520.40 mm, a drop of 15.7%.
Adding to this is the El Nino effect, which was felt in 2015 and is continuing into 2016. World temperatures have been higher in the early part of 2016. A NASA study shows a hotter January this year compared to the previous years.
However, what has caught the interest of a group of wildlife biologists and birdwatchers across the state is not something that relates only to this year, but to the past 15 years. They have been able to identify at least 36 species of birds that have otherwise been seen and reported only from drier parts of the country. Has Kerala been consistently drying over the past decade is the question they have been working to answer.
Tracking dry-land birds
“Our group has been tracking the spread of dry-land birds in Kerala systematically and we are seeing a pattern,” said Dr P.O. Nameer, head of wildlife research at the College of Forestry, Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur. “Even though we need to do some more work correlating our observations from the field with historical weather and habitat data, our initial findings indicate that birds that seek drier tracts are moving into Kerala.”
This should raise eyebrows in a state that has an average annual rainfall of more than 2,500 mm in a year. Three of Kerala’s 14 districts – Kasargod, Kannur and Kozhikode – get more than 3,000 mm in a year, and Wayanad gets 2,965 mm.
The most common observation repeated ad nauseam across the state is of the appearance of the peafowl in recent years. “A few years ago, when we saw the bird in our farm, it was a novelty. Now it has become more of a disturbance,” said Mukundan Nair, a homestead farmer living at the edge of Thrissur city.
Revi Unni, a bank official and wildlife photographer, who lives on the banks of the perennial Thootha river in Palakkad district, adds that the bird is seen in his verdant homestead during most parts of the year.
As the bird-sighting map for peafowl aggregated in eBird (a project by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society) shows, up to 2010 the bird’s presence in Kerala was limited to the leeward side of the Western Ghats, where the tracts are drier. In the five years after 2010, peafowl distribution has spread across the state (see maps below).
“In the pre-mating period, peacocks need space for their trailing feathers, and thus they find it difficult to move in areas of dense vegetation,” said Dr P.N. Ganesh, a retired professor of life sciences and a keen birdwatcher. “The fact that their distribution is spreading in Kerala means that more areas are opening up.”
Nameer says that he and other birdwatchers started their documentation more than a decade ago when they started noticing bird species whose distribution has been reported from the drier tracts of central and northwestern India.
Starting from the time of British ornithologists and followed by eminent experts such as Salim Ali, Kerala’s bird population has been well documented, and these birds were not listed in them. First the sightings were sporadic and then they became more regular, indicating the presence of these species in Kerala.
“Though our study is still continuing, the fact that these birds are coming is an indication of changing temperature and also dryness,” said Nameer. “Along with the change in weather pattern, we should realise that our habitat is deteriorating. Our forests are reducing and wetlands are disappearing or being choked. These are the two natural systems that hold water. We didn’t have much incidence of floods in the past because these natural systems were holding water. Now rainwater runs faster into the sea, and thus the state becomes dry quicker.”
Add to this increasing urbanisation, clearing of vegetation and land use change, all resulting in increasing radiation heat. According to the Census of India report, Kerala urbanised rapidly between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. While in 2001, nearly a quarter of the state’s population (25.96%) lived in urban centres, this had increased to nearly half (47.72%) in 2011. The number of statutory towns plus census towns increased from 159 in 2001 to 520 in 2011.
Urbanisation is known to create heat islands, since urban centres take longer to cool than open spaces. Buildings absorb more heat, which they dissipate slowly. They also generate their own heat due to air conditioning and lighting.
The way urban centres are structured is also different in Kerala compared to the other parts of the country. Instead of the usual pattern of a cluster of houses surrounded by acres of agricultural land, houses and urban establishments in Kerala stretch in between homestead gardens and fields. Thus, with urban centres spread all across the state in Kerala, the heat and dryness dissipate into immediate surroundings, strengthening the adverse impact of heat and dryness.