- The Finn’s weaver, a lesser-known weaver bird species, currently listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List, is in fact at the risk of extinction, according to the Bombay Natural History Society.
- The bird prefers the Terai grasslands, found widely in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, but the landscape in these states has undergone changes due to conversion for agriculture and development.
- The Uttar Pradesh forest department has initiated a Finn’s weaver conservation and breeding programme in the Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Finn’s weaver (Ploceus megarhynchus) is listed as vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. However, the bird is at the risk of extinction, alerts the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) a wildlife research organisation in India that is looking to update the bird’s IUCN listing.
According to BNHS director Deepak Apte, the status of the bird is extremely precarious with real threat of extinction. “We have released a species recovery plan and are trying our best to list the species in the IUCN Red List as a Critically Endangered species. We are also working closely with respective state governments where the species is found, as well as with the government of India,” Apte told Mongabay-India via email.
As per the Status of Finn’s Weaver in India: Past & Present report released in 2017, BNHS estimates a global population of less than 1,000 Finn’s weaver, with an estimated 500 adult birds in India. IUCN’s estimate meanwhile is based on an analysis of records in BirdLife International (2001) and pegs the number at 2,500-9,999 mature individuals.
The Finn’s weaver is one of the four weaver bird species in India, primarily found in the Terai grasslands that are characteristic of the landscape in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. The BNHS has signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Uttar Pradesh for a captive breeding programme.
“Though we have not yet taken any birds in captivity for conservation breeding, we are preparing for breeding facilities. Once this is done and the COVID-19 threat is settled, we will move further in the programme, said Apte.
Apte feels there is a need for an exhaustive campaign for raising awareness about the species as it is not very well known and charismatic as some other avifauna. “People do not know much about these lesser-known species. In fact, this reporting will become one of many means by which we will be able to flag the issue (extinction risk) of this species.”
Tracing the bird
Few ornithologists in India have worked on this rare and elusive species. Among them are Salim Ali, Vijaykumar Ambedkar and Rajat Bhargava. Bhargava, senior scientist (ornithology), at BNHS, who has been studying the bird for over two decades, brought out a comprehensive report, Status of Finn’s Weaver in India: Past & Present, in 2017.
Though not extinct, the Finn’s Weaver was not seen or documented by any ornithologist, said Bhargava. Ali began a search for the bird in 1934, and he finally rediscovered it in 1959 in Kumaon terai – a documented sighting after a gap of 60 years.
Bhargava noted that there is a lack of researchers working on lesser-known species, which are less glamorous, which is why there is not much research on the bird. “We have more tiger wallas (tiger experts) than people studying birds,” he added. In his report it is mentioned that of the four species of weaver birds found in India, the Finn’s Weaver is the least known.
According to Girish Jathar, assistant director, climate change and Himalaya programme, BNHS, this species is a habitat specialist and requires a typical habitat for its survival. “As such habitats are being degraded, finding the bird is very difficult. Therefore, it is studied relatively less than other species,” Jathar said.
The Finn’s Weaver prefers the Terai grassland with typical habitat composition. Jathar explained that this kind of habitat provides several ecosystem services, like livelihood opportunities to communities as well as harbours rhinoceros, Asian elephants, tigers, the Asiatic wild buffalo and the critically endangered Bengal Florican.
“This habitat also provides year-round water supply to croplands, controls invasive species and maintains biomass and carbon stock in the soil. All these ecosystem services are extremely important for communities living in this region. So, if the Finn’s weaver is conserved, the habitat will be protected and the ecosystem services will also be utilised by the people,” Jathar pointed out.
Bhargava’s report estimates less than 200 birds in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh together.
Jathar added, “According to Bhargava, the bird population in north India is less than 150. Though in north-east India, its population has not been accessed, the bird is confined to the Kaziranga National Park and the Orang National Park in Assam. So far, they have not been reported from any other area. Looking at this data, this species should be considered critically endangered for India as well as the world.”
The Uttar Pradesh programme
Last year, the Uttar Pradesh (UP) forest department started a Finn’s weaver conservation and breeding programme. Such programmes are usually done over a long term, sometimes over a decade. The UP programme is for five years and Jathar terms it as a very proactive decision by the forest department which will certainly help in reviving the bird population.
“The forest department funded the project last year to initiate a conservation breeding centre at the Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary near Meerut at an allocation of Rs. 15 lakh. Aviaries are yet to be built,” Bhargava, who is leading the programme from the BNHS side, told Mongabay-India.
Meerut divisional forest officer Aditi Sharma said as it is a small bird (it measures 17 cm in length or 6.7 inches) searching for it is difficult. But before the advent of monsoon, these birds start building nests. Their population estimation is carried out after that. As the project work is in the Hastinapur sanctuary, the forest department’s permission is needed and a project report was submitted in this regard, she added.
Sharma explained that the aim of the project is not limited to only increasing the Finn’s weavers’ population. “Captive breeding is the second objective. An assessment will also be done where we will assess how many birds are there and why they are declining. That is why the project is long. The work is restricted to only for four to five months in a year during the breeding season between May and September,” Sharma explained.
According to Jathar, lots of people are interested in conservation of this species, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Assam and BNHS is also actively involved in education programmes related to conservation of this species in these states.
Threats at large
The entire Terai landscape (Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh) has undergone changes due to its conversion for agriculture as well as human interference, thus putting the bird at risk, as explained in Bhargava’s report. Exploitation of natural grasslands has caused the local extinction of the species in most known locations. Increasing livestock population is also responsible for the birds’ decline because there is harvest of grasses before they seed out as well as the clearance of large tall grasslands as foraging grounds, Bhargava added.
“The Finn’s weaver is a species whose presence defines the true Terai grasslands’ undisturbed habitat. We don’t want to lose a species in front of our eyes,” he pointed out.
In his report, Bhargava says elimination of the hemp (Cannabis sativa) plant by farmers not only disturbs the birds but also takes away a vital food component. The male birds are fond of this plant’s seeds.
There are two sub-species of Finn’s weaver; one, P. m.megarhynchus, is found in Nepal and the Indian states of UP and Uttarakhand. The other, P. m.salimalii, is found in Assam and West Bengal. Both the sub-species are equally vulnerable, though no study has been conducted in Assam and Bengal.
“The conservation requirements of Finn’s weaver should be viewed in combination with the needs of a variety of other threatened grassland birds within its range, so that a programme of habitat management and research can be implemented with benefits to each of these species,” a report, Threatened Birds of Asia: The BirdLife International Red Data Book, says.
According to Bhargava, traditional bird trappers or Baheliyas knew about the Finn’s weaver due to the rampant illegal bird trade for caging. “At one time, India was one of the biggest exporters of birds. People used to trap them as there were many buyers. It was a business conducted by unscrupulous people. For some bird keepers, keeping a rare species is a matter of pride. Some people like keeping birds but they may not know it is not a right thing to do,” Asad Rahmani, the former director of BNHS, said. Between 200 and 300 birds are traded annually in India, even though trapping and trade has been banned since 1991.
India’s increasing crow population is also a major threat to the existence of the Finn’s Weaver. Globular structured nests built by the birds for nesting often on silk cotton trees are destroyed by crows. These trees offer some degree of protection from terrestrial predators as a result of their spiny trunks and branches, Bhargava’s report mentions.
Rahmani said besides habitat protection and control of crows, there is a need for conservation breeding of this species to save it from total extinction. “Every species has its own importance as they are a part of the ecosystem. The Finn’s weaver is a good representative of the Terai habitat in north India and the Brahmaputra floodplains. Its disappearance shows how much we have destroyed and changed the Terai. An individual species may not appear to be important in an ecosystem. But today it is Finn’s weaver, tomorrow it can be something else, and day after tomorrow, another species,” Rahmani added. His book, Threatened Birds of India, published in 2012 also devotes a chapter to Finn’s weaver.
Banner image: A male Finn’s weaver. Photo by Rajat Bhargava.