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VOL. XXIV NO. 14, November 1-15, 2014
Trying to save Jerdon’s Courser

Following up on her ‘A bird that changed a canal’s course’ (MM, September 1st), Vijaysree Venkatraman writes:

One afternoon in 2008, as the curator of a natural history museum in Scotland was browsing through an uncatalogued set of birds’ eggs in the storeroom, he chanced upon a oval-shaped specimen labelled “Jerdon’s Courser”. Confirming its identity through DNA analysis was easy, because a specimen of the whole bird was available. But no ornithologist had seen its egg before, which made this a great find.

Science recorded the existence of Jerdon’s Courser (Rhinoptilus bitorquatus) in 1848, but we know precious little about it. Scottish surgeon-naturalist Thomas Jerdon found this elusive resident of the Eastern Ghats, and reported that “it has a plaintive cry and spends the day sleeping in the sparse shade of scrub jungles.” By the end of the 19th Century, the bird was declared extinct.

When the bird was sighted again in 1986, there was much jubilation. It was featured on a postage stamp. A sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh was its home then and it enjoyed protected status. The Telugu-Ganga Project, which could’ve carried water from that area to ever-parched Madras, was being planned then and, as the canal would have cut through the sanctuary, the engineers drew up another route.

The celebrity and the goodwill notwithstanding, the Courser maintained its low profile. Now a determined international team is on its track. The more they learn about the elusive bird, the greater the chances of saving it from extinction. P. Jeganathan of the Natural Conservation Foundation began studying the bird in 2000 for his PhD thesis. The first order of business of his team was to find the range of the bird.

Though not heavy or flightless, the Courser tends to get around by walking. So, the researchers laid swathes of fine sand to capture its distinct
claw-print. Along the sandy paths, he also set up infrared camera ‘traps’ to capture images of the ghostly bird whenever it appeared, night or day. After identifying its favoured haunts, satellite images were used to find similar pockets of shrub growth in the jungle. This was to pick an ideal spot for the team’s next survey.

Meanwhile, researchers analysed the birds poop and found it was a termite eater. They also managed to capture its call, the “plaintive cry” as Jerdon had described long ago. They put the recording in a simple playback device – the plastic square of a kid’s stuffed toys – and handed it to visitors along with the bird’s picture. More people became involved in finding its whereabouts.

When a threat loomed over the bird’s habitat in the form of illegal construction near the canal project in 2006, researchers had enough data to show that the bird’s range, narrow as it was, extended well beyond the sanctuary. The Supreme Court ordered a stop to the construction and even granted extra land to the bird.

Despite that success, the bird continues to be held on the critically endangered list. The sanctuary is protected, not closed off. Locals graze livestock in these scrub forests and cut firewood. In moderation, neither activity can drive the bird to extinction. Quarrying for Cudappah stone and clearing the forest for farming are bigger threats.

Jeganathan is often asked: Why bother to save the bird at all? Like the Taj Mahal or the Big Temple, our natural history too deserves to be saved, says the Thanjavur native. Genetically, this is an interesting species for biologists because the semi-nocturnal Courser’s closest kin is in Africa, not India. We can’t say what impact the Courser’s disappearance will have because its role in its habitat is not understood yet. Of course, in a populous country with many pressures on land, that entire ecosystem can vanish before scientists learn anything more.

But the egg, another piece of the puzzle that is the Jerdon’s Courser, holds out new hope. “If we find a nest or eggs in the future, we can compare those eggs with the present discovery to confirm it,” says Jeganathan. The curator, who confirmed the egg’s identity, also established its provenance and published the details of his investigations earlier this year. The egg was procured in 1917 (after the bird was declared extinct) in Kolar, further south of the Eastern Ghats. This particular lead may not amount to much after all these years.

The Courser was last sighted in 2009 in its official home. “The locals think there is no Jerdon’s Courser and we are trying to save it,” Jeganathan says wryly. Will it go the way of the dodo or grace us with rare appearances? If conservation efforts continue, we can be optimistic because the bird did, after all, make an unexpected comeback once before.

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In this issue

The sad state of our roads
Madras Landmarks - 50 years ago
Welcome sensitising of temple restorers
The early days of the I.A.S.
Madras beginnings of Hindi Prachar
Trying to save Jerdon's Courser
Advertising goes outdoors
Answering the need of the hour?
Studying during those 'Quit India' days

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Readers Write
Quizzin' With Ram'nan
Dates for Your Diary


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