Guwahati: What is the relation between the critically endangered bird Yellow-breasted Bunting, found in Assam’s Barak Valley after more than 130 years, and Alan Octavian Hume, the father of the Indian National Congress? The Yellow-breasted Bunting was first reported in 1888 by Alan Octavian Hume, who, apart from being the founder of the Indian National Congress, is also known as the Father of Indian Ornithology.

The critically endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting was sighted in Barak Valley after more than 100 years. The sighting has been published in the IndianBirds journal.  

The bird was spotted by renowned naturalists Anwaruddin Choudhury and Amar Sohail Choudhury of Assam University. Choudhury is an ornithologist, mammologist, artist, and civil servant.

Wildlife experts, who sighted the bird, said when they were writing a note on the Blackfaced species. They enlarged it on the monitor, and to their utter surprise, found it to be a female Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola), a critically-endangered species. 

The Yellow-breasted Bunting visits the Indian subcontinent during winters. In Assan, it is mainly found in the Brahmaputra Valley.

The Natural History Museum in the UK says the largest single collection of birds ever received by the Museum was the over 80,000 specimens (including more than 60,000 skins and approaching 20,000 eggs) received from Allan Octavian Hume in 1885. These represent the physical results of research into the birds of the Indian sub-continent that Hume had either undertaken himself or co-ordinated with others over the preceding 20 years.

It was only in 2004 that the species was listed as Near Threatened, but from 2008 onwards, it was treated as a threatened species and listed as Vulnerable in 2008, Endangered in 2013, and finally Critically Endangered in 2017. “This sudden change in its fortunes was warranted owing to large-scale trapping in its passage and non-breeding ranges. Large numbers of roosting birds were trapped with mist nets for the pot or sold in markets as ‘sparrow’ or ‘rice birds’, mainly in China and to some extent, in Cambodia and Nepal. Thousands were caught for the annual food festival of Sanshui city, in southern China,” the IndianBirds paper says.

In recent years, owing to the above-mentioned reasons, this once common bird has become rare in Assam, although, it has been reported with some regularity from around the Kaziranga National Park and the Maguri-Motapung Beels.

However, there was no record from the Barak Valley (also known as Cachar Plains) region of southern Assam for more than a hundred years. It was reported from the north-eastern part of Cachar district (Hume 1888) and recent reports from the neighbouring Sylhet Plains of Bangladesh and nearby Manipur Valley (photographic records in eBird and Facebook), so it would not be surprising to spot it in the Barak Valley.

The experts who spotted the bird say the broad yellowish supercilium and prominent white median-covert bar made it conspicuous. “Then we searched more photos and found out one more bird at some distance, about 300 m away. It was also a female. In total, there were three birds on that day. Then we saw two immature birds on January 24, 2021,” the experts were quoted in the paper.

The bird was spotted in Bakri Haorhaor is a complex of wetlands) in the Hailakandi district.

The habitat in Bakri Haor comprises smaller scattered wetlands —the area becomes one large sheet of water during monsoon—sluggish water channels, short grassy areas, cultivated fallows, plots of winter paddy, and some patches with dense grass. The small seasonal grassland patch of this haor, in the part where the buntings were observed, is small, less than 80 hectares, but seemed to be an important area for several grassland birds.

“The Yellow-breasted Bunting has become Critically Endangered in recent decades and hence any record is significant,” Anwaruddin Choudhury told EastMojo.

He said since the bird may occur outside protected areas there is nothing specific and many times without binoculars identification is difficult. “Some regular places outside protected areas may be given some conservation attention. Its main problem lies in China where it is taken as food,” he added.

Firoz Hussain, Founder of Ask Ids of Indian Birds, a group to discuss and identify Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, told EastMojo, “Small birds like Yellow Breasted Buntings are relatively difficult to identify when it is in the non-breeding plumage. Moreover, a female in non-breeding is more tricky compared to a male individual.” 

“In 2014, I saw more than 40 individuals in Borsola beel, Near Nimati Ghat, Jorhat in January. Last year, only two individuals were spotted,” Hussain said.

The experts who spotted the bird say the area is under constant threat as parts of this tiny grassland are lost to seasonal cultivation annually. “Some of these grassy patches may be earmarked for seasonal protection as community reserves,” they said.

Anwaruddin Choudhury thanked birders Firoz Hussain, Abidur Rahman and Rafiqul Islam for confirming the identification.



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