The Kanger Valley National Park in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh is a mysterious place dotted with caves, waterfalls and dense forests. The protected area notified in 1982 is also famous for the Bastar hill mynah (Gracula religiosa peninsularis), a species placed under Schedule 1 (b) of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The Chhattisgarh government declared it as the state bird in 2002.

The jet black coloured bird mimics the human voice exceptionally well. For this reason, it is often found in cages and sold as pets in the market. The distribution range of the common hill mynah includes India, China, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the South East Asian islands. There are 12 sub-species that are very similar but separated by their distribution range, according to a 2020 study. In India, four sub-species of the common hill mynah are found.

The Bastar hill mynah is endemic to the Kanger Valley National Park, where the felling of several dry trees for cultivation and developmental activities has put the species in danger. The common hill mynah nests in colonies, along with parrots and woodpeckers.

Holes made by woodpeckers in dry sal (Shorea robusta) trees are preferred by the common hill mynah. In Bastar specifically, there are 11 resident woodpecker species that make holes regularly in several trees. The common hill mynah surveys each hole and then chooses a nest after multiple visits.

“There are 14 sites across Kanger Valley where the birds come for eating fruits during the fruiting season and are spotted. My three-year observation says that the birds need dry trees, about 20 metres 25 metres in height, near water sources. It needs this much height for security reasons,” Ravi Naidu of Conservation and Research of Wilderness Foundation, a non-profit based in Jagdalpur, Bastar, told Mongabay-India.

Naidu and Ameet Mandavia of Conservation and Research of Wilderness have studied the species in detail for some years. Apart from deforestation and almost zero patrolling in Kanger Valley due to Maoist presence, Mandavia informed that the bird is also hunted by tribal people. “Trees which support the common hill mynah should be grown to support its decreasing population,” he said. “Banyan trees are suitable for them as they bear fruits twice a year. If a tree does not have fruits, the mynah will not sit in it.”

Is count decreasing?

The population of the common hill mynah in Chhattisgarh stands at 350 birds to 400 birds if scattered populations from other nearby districts of Bastar are taken into consideration, according to Newsletter for Birdwatchers September 2017-October 2017. Though there is no recorded data, there have been reports of flocks disappearing.

In an unofficial count by Conservation and Research of Wilderness Foundation, 100 breeding pairs were reported.

“A total of 100 breeding pairs were counted. Counting was on for five years till 2016 and the report was published in 2017,” Mandavia added. “Obviously, the population has reduced. About 20 years ago, a flock size of 200 birds to 300 birds used to be seen. Now spotting even five to six birds in a flock is a most fortunate thing.”

Kanger Valley National Park. Photo credit: Theasg sap/Wikimedia Commons

But it is incorrect to deduce that the population is decreasing or increasing as there is a significant local movement of the species, explained Bharos, co-author of the 2017 Population Assessment And Status Of Common Hill Myna study and a Raipur-based wildlife expert.

He added that the birds congregate wherever food is available. Assessment of their population is not easy as they travel long distances, sometimes even to the neighbouring state of Odisha in search of food. “Once, in the Kanger Valley National Park, I counted 40 birds and they were converging and leaving at the same time which made counting difficult. I think it is more or less static in Kanger Valley which is a good indication,” he said.

Attempting captive breeding

A captive breeding experiment was initiated by the forest department in the early 2000s at the forest training school in Jagdalpur, but it did not have any success.

Talking about the project, Vijaya Ratre, the director of Kanger Valley National Park, said, “There is a cage where we have now kept two birds (after the death of birds during the captive breeding project). It is tough to identify the male and the female as the sexes do not have any distinguishing features for easy identification.”

Both sexes are visually similar and can be identified only after plucking their feathers or when they mount each other during mating. “Captive breeding was thought about to add on to the population but we could not get success,” Ratre said. “It is a rare bird and its distribution is limited. It is found in parts of Andhra and Odisha as well. In Chhattisgarh, it is found in the Bastar region.”

Rahul Kaul, senior director at the Wildlife Trust of India, said captive breeding is usually carried out as an alternative option to prevent the decline in the wild population. However, the best place for recovery of a species is in the wild itself with a little better protection by the forest department, he said.

“Captive breeding, and now conservation breeding, is an important tool, but only when we have understood that a particular species has declined to certain levels from where its population needs to be built with some assistance,” he said. “It is also important to understand the reasons behind the decline in numbers so that that it can be corrected as well. So first, let us understand the status and distribution of the Bastar hill mynah before efforts are made to breed it in captivity.”

New project

Ratre, director of Kanger Valley National Park, informed that there is an adequate budget of approximately Rs 40 lakh available with the forest department for the conservation of the common hill mynah. A new project under this funding will be initiated under which, bird habitats in Kanger Valley will be surveyed and developed. The project was passed last year around October 2020-November 2020.

According to Ratre, Conservation and Research of Wilderness Foundation which has worked on the common hill mynah has been roped in for the project.

“There will be field visits in February,” the forest officer told Mongabay-India. “For the revival of the bird population, the Conservation and Research of Wilderness Foundation has identified a few areas and camera traps will be set up inside Kanger Valley.”

“After the field visits, it will be decided if captive breeding is feasible as it is a very shy bird,” the forest officer. “They may not breed if disturbed, as they have a specific choice of nests. So, we will have to see if we can go in for captive breeding or just protection and monitoring of nests.”

Assessment of the common hill mynah population is not easy because of its movement. It travels long distances in search of food. Photo credit: Ravi Naidu

Ratre added that in-situ captive breeding is a good idea but efforts will be made so as not to bring the birds outside their natural habitats.

“We can try in-situ breeding sites inside Kanger Valley where they can be in their natural surroundings,” Ratre said. “For herbivores, it is easy to breed them in captivity and release them, but for some birds it is a difficult thing.”

Mandavia agrees that the birds will not breed in captivity and under stress. “We want to assess the population,” Mandavia said. “Conservation and Research of Wilderness Foundation has submitted a proposal where we have also talked about nest protection for the birds as well as planting of trees. The nesting season will start in April and May.”

“When they do nest for breeding, it is the perfect time to give their nests protection,” Mandavia said. “If the population has to be increased, the number of fruit-bearing trees will have to be increased too.”

Naidu informed that the parakeet is a tough competitor of the Bastar hill mynah. When both the male and female birds go out for food, in their absence parakeets occupy their nests made in holes. Naidu has made a design for 30 nesting holes for the birds in Kanger.

These have to be monitored continuously. “If the birds choose even the nests, then our conservation plan will be successful,” Naidu said. “They are not getting an adequate number of woodpecker holes made in dry trees. Many sal trees are being cut down.”

Naidu spotted a flock of 22 birds between November 2020-December 2020 and January. His voice holds urgency when he says that if nothing is being done, the birds will vanish.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.