Snow-capped mountains, lakes, and pilgrimage sites are the first things one associates with Uttarakhand. But the state harbours some rare wildlife that few know about. The region is diverse both in terrain and the biodiversity it supports. Its habitat is spread across different elevational levels of the Himalayas which include the Terai plains, the Bhabhars, the Shivaliks, the lower Himalayas and the Trans-Himalayas. Such diversity makes it the perfect paradise for birds and birdwatchers.

In 2015, the Uttarakhand’s State Forest Department published the second revised edition of the Checklist of the Birds of Uttarakhand. It was compiled by Dr Dhanajay Mohan and Sanjay Sondhi- two eminent ornithologists. According to the checklist, India is home to about 1303 bird species of which Uttarakhand houses 693. With more than 50 per cent of the country’s species seen here, it says a lot about its dynamic habitat. Five species of birds that are “Critically Endangered” according to the IUCN Red List are also found here. These include Baer’s pochard (Aythya baeri), slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris), white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis), red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus), and Himalayan quail (Ophrysia superciliosa). This last species is considered extinct but may still survive in some remote unexplored areas in very small numbers.

Over the years, these winged marvels have attracted nature enthusiasts, researchers, and photographers to the region. In 2012, the Uttarakhand Forest Department’s ecotourism wing started the Uttarakhand Spring Bird Festival, hosting guided bird walks, talks, film screenings, and workshops for attendees from across the globe. In 2020, participants identified more than 300 species of birds during the festival. However, in 2021 the event was called off due to the Chamoli floods.

Nuthatches get their name from the word “nuthack” as they can hack off seeds with their beak until they open. They are popularly known amongst birdwatchers for their ability to walk on trees downwards, sideways, and even backwards, with ease. The chestnut-bellied nuthatch (Sitta (castanea) cinnamoventris) as seen here is one of nine species of nuthatches found in the Indian subcontinent. They reside in forests at the foothills of the Himalayas.

Nuthatches get their name from the word “nuthack” as they can hack off seeds with their beak until they open. They are popularly known amongst birdwatchers for their ability to walk on trees downwards, sideways, and even backwards, with ease. The chestnut-bellied nuthatch (Sitta (castanea) cinnamoventris) as seen here is one of nine species of nuthatches found in the Indian subcontinent. They reside in forests at the foothills of the Himalayas.

The Eurasian woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) belongs to the order Charadriiformes which comprises mainly shorebirds. But as the name suggests, it is a forest-dweller inhabiting dense woods where it can camouflage well. The genus Scolopax translates from Greek to “skew-eyed” which also refers to its extraordinary 360-degree vision. Large eyes positioned high on its head allow it to keep watch out for predators while on the ground or while foraging. The bird uses a unique technique to forage called the woodcock shuffle. It rocks its body to and fro, causing vibrations underground which makes worms and insects move. This helps the bird target prey easily as it digs its beak underground to feed. It winters in the Himalayas and performs the “roding” display during the breeding season. Roding involves the male flying in circles above tree canopies in its territory, emitting a shrill sound by beating its wings to attract the female.

The Eurasian woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) belongs to the order Charadriiformes which comprises mainly shorebirds. But as the name suggests, it is a forest-dweller inhabiting dense woods where it can camouflage well. The genus Scolopax translates from Greek to “skew-eyed” which also refers to its extraordinary 360-degree vision. Large eyes positioned high on its head allow it to keep watch out for predators while on the ground or while foraging. The bird uses a unique technique to forage called the woodcock shuffle. It rocks its body to and fro, causing vibrations underground which makes worms and insects move. This helps the bird target prey easily as it digs its beak underground to feed. It winters in the Himalayas and performs the “roding” display during the breeding season. Roding involves the male flying in circles above tree canopies in its territory, emitting a shrill sound by beating its wings to attract the female.

Do birds of a feather always flock together? The blue-winged minla, Actinodura cyanouroptera, (left) and black-throated tit, Aegithalos concinnus, (right) are some of the nuclear species in mixed-species flocks. These aggregations comprise several different species. Experts have been puzzled by this behaviour for long, although most assume that this gives them an advantage over others while foraging. Nuclear species like these are leaders which propel follower species in the flock. Mixed flocks use this strategy to avoid the same locations for feeding, reduce competition due to different diet preferences, and escape predators. These aggregations are different from feeding aggregations where the social structure is less complex than in mixed flocks.

In a study conducted at the popular tourist hotspot of Nainital, experts found that insectivores like the rufous-bellied niltava (Niltava sundara) (top left), rusty-cheeked babbler (Pomothorhinus erythorgenys) (top right) and white-crested laughing thrush (Garrulax leucolophus) (above) are dominant in mixed pine forests. The mid-elevational zone (1,350m-1,800m) provides abundant food resources, roosting sites, and shelter to such bird communities. These mixed pine forests mainly consist of cheer pine and oak.

In a study conducted at the popular tourist hotspot of Nainital, experts found that insectivores like the rufous-bellied niltava (Niltava sundara) (top left), rusty-cheeked babbler (Pomothorhinus erythorgenys) (top right) and white-crested laughing thrush (Garrulax leucolophus) (above) are dominant in mixed pine forests. The mid-elevational zone (1,350m-1,800m) provides abundant food resources, roosting sites, and shelter to such bird communities. These mixed pine forests mainly consist of cheer pine and oak.

Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus) is one of the least studied birds in India despite being the state bird of Uttarakhand. The male flaunts its dazzling bright colours (left) to attract the female (right) whose colour is quite drab compared to the male. The IUCN lists this bird under the “Least Concern” category. In India it has protection under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act as it is poached for its plumage and meat. Researchers have found that the bird prefers steep slopes for roosting sites to avoid increasing anthropogenic pressure. It also uses this as a strategy to avoid predators.

Cheer pheasant (Catreus wallichii) unlike the Himalayan monal does not show any distinct sexual dimorphism. It is classified as “Vulnerable” by IUCN, with a population of just 2,000-2,700 mature individuals left. Unlike the monal, cheer pheasants live in slightly disturbed, grazed areas, and are often found near human habitation.  Despite being closely associated with human settlements, the species faces threats such as hunting, overgrazing by livestock, and habitat loss which are responsible for declining numbers.

Cheer pheasant (Catreus wallichii) unlike the Himalayan monal does not show any distinct sexual dimorphism. It is classified as “Vulnerable” by IUCN, with a population of just 2,000-2,700 mature individuals left. Unlike the monal, cheer pheasants live in slightly disturbed, grazed areas, and are often found near human habitation.
Despite being closely associated with human settlements, the species faces threats such as hunting, overgrazing by livestock, and habitat loss which are responsible for declining numbers.

The Hindu Kush Himalayan Region is the world’s most densely populated mountain region according to a study published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa. This subjects the area to severe anthropogenic pressures. By 2050, temperatures here are expected to rise by 1-2 degrees, and rainfall will become more intense. Avitourism (bird tourism) plays a crucial role in influencing people and their mindsets towards bird conservation and will be impacted largely by such pressures. In this study, birds such as the striated laughing thrush (top left),  mountain hawk eagle (top right) and oriental-white eye (above) were recorded in this region where 76 per cent of households showed participation and earned a livelihood through avitourism activity.

The Hindu Kush Himalayan Region is the world’s most densely populated mountain region according to a study published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa. This subjects the area to severe anthropogenic pressures. By 2050, temperatures here are expected to rise by 1-2 degrees, and rainfall will become more intense. Avitourism (bird tourism) plays a crucial role in influencing people and their mindsets towards bird conservation and will be impacted largely by such pressures. In this study, birds such as the striated laughing thrush (top left), mountain hawk eagle (top right) and oriental-white eye (above) were recorded in this region where 76 per cent of households showed participation and earned a livelihood through avitourism activity.

Over 153 kilometres of the Bhagirathi river (71 per cent of its length) has been negatively impacted by the Tehri dam and the Koteshwar hydropower plant. Changing the course of rivers in such eco-sensitive zones is not only detrimental to human settlements but wild fauna as well. Over 30 species of birds are dependent on this river’s natural flow, the spotted forktail being one of them. Not only do they lose their habitat but also risk breeding cycles that affect their populations.

Over 153 kilometres of the Bhagirathi river (71 per cent of its length) has been negatively impacted by the Tehri dam and the Koteshwar hydropower plant. Changing the course of rivers in such eco-sensitive zones is not only detrimental to human settlements but wild fauna as well. Over 30 species of birds are dependent on this river’s natural flow, the spotted forktail being one of them. Not only do they lose their habitat but also risk breeding cycles that affect their populations.

Vultures of the genus Gyps were affected most during the worst diclofenac-related deaths in the 1990s and 2000s. The drug that poisoned them may even affect the steppe eagle and the bearded vulture in the future. Steppe eagles winter in India and have been found around large cattle carcasses which could be rich sources of the drug. Similarly, bearded vultures too are known to feed on bone marrow and could be exposed to the dangers of diclofenac.

Vultures of the genus Gyps were affected most during the worst diclofenac-related deaths in the 1990s and 2000s. The drug that poisoned them may even affect the steppe eagle and the bearded vulture in the future. Steppe eagles winter in India and have been found around large cattle carcasses which could be rich sources of the drug. Similarly, bearded vultures too are known to feed on bone marrow and could be exposed to the dangers of diclofenac.

Indian wildlife faces a massive threat from free-ranging stray dogs. With 60 million of them spread across the country, India has the fourth-highest population of these dogs in the world. After the mass death of vultures due to diclofenac, free-ranging dogs consumed carcasses in their absence. Vulture populations rose after the ban on diclofenac but these dogs became their new competition and often got chased away by them. A similar case can be seen here where a free-ranging stray dog chases away a Himalayan griffon. These dogs not only compete with wildlife for food but also spread diseases that can cause mass deaths of wild animals.

Indian wildlife faces a massive threat from free-ranging stray dogs. With 60 million of them spread across the country, India has the fourth-highest population of these dogs in the world. After the mass death of vultures due to diclofenac, free-ranging dogs consumed carcasses in their absence. Vulture populations rose after the ban on diclofenac but these dogs became their new competition and often got chased away by them. A similar case can be seen here where a free-ranging stray dog chases away a Himalayan griffon. These dogs not only compete with wildlife for food but also spread diseases that can cause mass deaths of wild animals.

Anushka Kawale
Anushka Kawale

is a zoology and botany student at St Xavier's, Mumbai. She enjoys writing about the natural world. When she's not travelling or at college, she’s usually lounging with a journal or a book and chai.

Dhritiman Mukherjee
Dhritiman Mukherjee

is one of India's most prolific wildlife and conservation photographers. His work has been featured in leading publications. He is also a RoundGlass Ambassador, and an RBS Earth Hero awardee.


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