Though the tiny black-breasted parrotbill (Paradoxornis flavirostris), measures only 19 cm, it is at the top of any birdwatcher’s wish list when on a trip to the Northeast. Spotting this elusive bird is likened to finding a needle in a haystack. Which is why, any birdwatcher would be more than overjoyed to spot this creature for longer than five seconds.
The black-breasted parrotbill is one of nine species of parrotbill found on the Indian subcontinent. It’s one of only two birds that belong to the genus Paradoxornis; the other is the spot-breasted parrotbill. Black-breasted parrotbills are a very distinct species, with a rufous-brown head and brown upper parts and a bright yellow bill. It is best distinguished from the similar looking spot-breasted parrotbill by a solid black ear covert (behind it’s eye) and black breast patch, from which it gets its name.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons the species holds such a prime place in a birder’s heart and mind is its highly restricted range and distribution. It is endemic to northeast India, though it was once found in Bangladesh as well.
Habitat and conservation status
Black-breasted parrotbills are designated ‘vulnerable’ according to the IUCN Red List. They are restricted to specific grassland patches of Arundo donax, Phragmites karka, and others grasses. The rapid destruction of these suitable grassland habitats, poses a threat to their survival. These grasslands face pressure from grazing, conversion for agriculture, as well as inundation by floods. Seasonal burning of grasslands may also affect this species. Further, the unwillingness to recognise grasslands as anything other than wasteland makes the protection of these habitats and their denizens a much harder task.
Studies on lesser-known bird species like the black-breasted parrotbill are almost non-existent. It is interesting that they have survived and thrived despite the pressures on their habitat. To protect them, we must understand their ecology, and their responses to the pressures on them.
Spot them: The black-breasted parrotbill is known to inhabit the plains of the Brahmaputra and Barak River in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and northern West Bengal. In Assam it is found in widely separated spots in Manas National Park, Debeswari grasslands in Kaziranga National Park, and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. In northern West Bengal, there are museum records of the bird from Jaldapara National Park. In Arunachal the bird has been seen at D’Ering Wildlife Sanctuary and the grasslands around Roing, and at Keibul Lamjao in Manipur.