The tiny bird did not make it easy but I have been fortunate enough to spot the Jungle Prinia on a few occasions. In June 2008, I saw one perched on a thorny bush in the dry lake bed of the Sultanpur sanctuary, not far from Delhi. It helped that the bird was very talkative, and two of its cousins, the Ashy Prinia and the Plain Prinia, were nearby, which made a quick field comparison possible. This sighting was very significant – at that time, I believed it was, perhaps, the first reliable reporting of the bird from Delhi region in a long time.
Birds of Delhi Area, the birding bible of the 1970s (written by one of the most active members of the Delhi Bird Club, Usha Ganguly), mentioned Jungle Prinia sightings from the years right after independence, and then once again in the late 1960s at two sites – Humayun’s Tomb and Safdarjung Airport in South Delhi. Ganguly concluded that the species was “presumably resident” but “uncommon” in these parts.
In the decade that followed the publication of Ganguly’s book, Jungle Prinia (scientific name: Prinia Sylvatica) sightings remained few and far between. The former diplomat and passionate ornithologist Sudhir Vyas, who birded extensively in the 1980s, wrote me an email confirming this:
“Over several years birding about Delhi, I have never conclusively identified Jungle Prinia – though I have on a couple of occasions seen prinias – especially about the bunds bordering the Yamuna river (before these parts across got so heavily urbanized and populated) that I suspect may have been Jungle Prinia. Also in the wilder, more brushy area (formerly!) along the eastern side of Sunder Nursery. Unfortunately I never found birds in song or with their distinctive dull white outer tail feathers in summer plumage that mark Jungle Prinia. I should have paid them more attention.”
Typically found in dry and arid regions, the Jungle Prinia is noticeably larger than other prinia species, all of which are endemic to the Indian Subcontinent. Identification errors, especially with the Plain Prinia are common, as a result of which Jungle Prinias have the unique distinction of being both under- and over-reported. Nevertheless, Jungle Prinia can be identified by its distinctive call, which is very different from Plain Prinia’s.
This tiny and plain bird tends to remain unnoticed by almost everyone expect the most diehard birdwatchers. The Jungle Prinias have marked variations in their plumage – the type seen in Delhi and its neighbouring areas is the Jungle Prinia, Prinia sylvatica insignis of North West India, paler above than the sub-Himalayan gangetica or the nominate race of the peninsula. Four species are recognised in the Indian mainland, and a fifth sub-species is restricted to Sri Lanka.
In 2006, a book by ornithologist Bill Harvey titled Atlas of Birds in Delhi and Haryana consolidated the most significant records for birds from our region. After gaining considerable experience of birding in and around Delhi, Harvey described the Jungle Prinia as “no more than an erratic visitor”.
Since then, a slow but gradual increase in areas that encourage the breeding of the Jungle Prinia seems to have led to an increase in its sightings. This year, based on accounts of birders who fanned out in the summer to areas near the Delhi Ridge with habitats similar to Jungle Prinia’s preferred habitat, there appears to be a healthy population of the species in the thorny habitats of the ridge.
Of late, members of my Facebook group Indian Birds (a group of over 80,000 ornithology enthusiasts) have also reported sightings from Sultanpur, the Bhindawas, Mangar, Najafgarh Jheel and Yamuna khadar.
On August 21, a group I was leading through the Aravali Biodiversity Park got lucky – we saw several Jungle Prinias together. The birds were chirpy and loud, belting songs from the tall grasses of the park.
The park in Gurgaon is contiguous and shares a boundary with the Rajokri forest, and this probably had something to do with why the family of Jungle Prinias chose that particular spot.
Preservation of thorny and scrub habitat of the Delhi Ridge and similar habitat of Aravalis in the neighbouring districts of Haryana is critical for this species to flourish. Restoring our country’s diminishing biodiversity and original ecology, by developing parks in Delhi and Gurgaon, has contributed to an increase in the population of this bird in our region.
I am not sure whether this is enough to contribute to a dramatic rise of the species population, but my binoculars will be trained and waiting.