Confirmed breeding records of Asian Woollyneck in Northeast after a long time
Woollyneck stork enjoying sunlight before going to the nest at Diporia in Gohpur. (Credit: Aditya Prasad)

Guwahati: The Asian Woollyneck (Konua in Assamese) can be seen occasionally in Assam, but the good news is that confirmed breeding records of the stork have been finally reported after a long time.

Chicks waiting for their parents at the nest at Dipora. (Pic credit: Aditya Prasad)

Researchers from different institutions in Assam have for the first time confirmed successful breeding records from Biswanath, Lakhimpur and Majuli districts in the state, which are suitable areas for Asian Woollyneck conservation as they have several wetlands as feeding grounds for the storks.

The study has been published in the Ecological Questions journal by Nicolaus Copernicus University, Poland.

The Asian Woollyneck (Ciconia episcopu), is a near-threatened species sparsely distributed across South and South East Asia.

The global estimated population is about 50,000–249,999 individuals. They are generally found in wetlands of flood plains, rivers, ponds, swamps, tidal mudflats, paddy fields, and even man-made tanks. They feed on insects, fish, crabs, frogs, molluscs, lizards, and snakes, slowly foraging through water or vegetation.

The Brahmaputra floodplains of Assam were known to support three breeding species of storks- Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius), Lesser Adjutant (L javanicus), and Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans). Asian Woollynecks were considered seasonal non-breeding migrants to Assam during the winter months.

“This is the first long-term observational study conducted on Asian Woollynecks in Northeast India,” Ranjit Kakati of the Zoology Department at Gauhati University who was a part of the study team, told EastMojo.

Female Woollyneck stork with subadult individuals at Sootea in Biswanath.  (Pict credit- Ranjit Kakati) 

So far, only two breeding sites are known in Assam: 6-7 nests between Sukani and Diffolu rivers, and one in Kohora village within the Kaziranga National Park.

“A few individuals were regularly sighted in Majuli, Lakhimpur, Morigaon and Biswanath districts of Assam and also the north bank of Kaziranga National Park, raising the curiosity to look for probable nests in the localities. It was believed that high levels of flooding dissuades the species from nesting in Assam, but there are no detailed surveys across the state to prove this suspicion. The observations of nesting of the Asian Woollyneck at Biswanath, Majuli and Lakhimpur Districts of Assam are new confirmed breeding records from northeastern India,” the study says.

Researchers involved in the study observed that the Asian Woollynecks build their nests in tall trees near human habitats, preferably 10 to 15 metres above the ground.

“From the study it was seen that they generally prefer tall trees and they build their nest in the middle canopy. They prefer nesting near human habitations because they feel safe from raptors residing in proximity to humans. Their breeding time is also peculiar in Assam as according to Mridupawan Phukan, he recorded individuals with their nests in April. But we observed it between July and September,” Kakati said.

 Copulation on the nest at Bamgaon in Biswanath Chariali. (Pic credit- Ranjit Kakati)

Kakati says they are also called farmers’ friends because they act as biological pest control agents. However, this beautiful and elegant bird species is now facing serious threats in Assam.

“Some major anthropogenic threats to them are habitat loss through tree-felling, ignorance, rapid unplanned urbanisation, pollution and destruction of wetlands, being hunted for meat, highway constructions, and collection of their eggs,” Kakati added.

Apart from anthropogenic pressure, the birds face interspecies conflicts with rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulata) and crows.  “Another major problem we have observed is that they build their nest in solitary tall trees which are susceptible to lightning strikes. The nesting tree at Bamgaon in Biswanath town was an example of such a case. However, the woollyneck pair nesting in it got lucky,” he said.

The study also found that the nesting sites are always near bamboo groves, wetlands and paddy fields for easy access to building materials as well as food. Nest-building was observed to be from April to the last week of July. The storks are found to co-habit the same tree with vultures in Garmur, Majuli avoiding any form of conflict.

In Assam, this species is seen in the central region of the Brahmaputra valley — Majuli, Lakhimpur, Biswanath, Sonitpur, Golaghat, Nagaon, and Morigaon districts. It is rarelt spotted in other districts. The species is listed as near-threatened with a decreasing population trend according to IUCN, 2022.

“Generally, we give more importance to endangered or critically endangered species, but the other neglected species face the same or higher threats as they reside in non-protected landscapes where conservation remains a challenge. It is high time to be conscious, concerned, and create awareness to focus on every neglected species so that we can save them before they vanish completely,” Kakati said.

Researchers say the observations of Asian Woollyneck nesting on trees inside towns in northeastern India suggest that future studies on this species will be needed to cover more towns and cities.

Also read | Assam: 2 killed as car plunges into pond near North Lakhimpur district

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