Journal of Threatened Taxa | | 26 August 2017 | 9(8): 10538-10550






A reassessment of the avian species diversity in the Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu, after the Vernay Survey



J. Patrick David 1, R.J. Ranjit Daniels 2 & Vinoth Balasubramanian 3



1,2,3 CareEarth Trust, No.3, 6th Street, Thillaiganga Nagar, Chennai, Tamil Nadu 600061, India

1 (corresponding author), 2, 3




doi: | ZooBank:

Editor: C. Srinivasulu, Osamania University, Hyderabad, India. Date of publication: 26 August 2017 (online & print)

Manuscript details: Ms # 2763 | Received 28 April 2016 | Final received 03 August 2017 | Finally accepted 07 August 2017

Citation: David, J.P., R.J.R. Daniels & V. Balasubramanian (2017). A reassessment of the avian species diversity in the Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu, after the Vernay Survey. Journal of Threatened Taxa 9(8): 10538–10550;

Copyright: © David et al. 2017. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. JoTT allows unrestricted use of this article in any medium, reproduction and distribution by providing adequate credit to the authors and the source of publication.

Funding: Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Govt. of India.

Competing interests: The authors declare no competing interests.

Author Details: J. Patrick David is currently working as Ecologist in the Periyar Tiger Conservation Foundation, Kerala. He is an avid bird watcher and researcher. His interest lies in bird migration studies and nesting and ranging of birds. Dr. R J Ranjit Daniels is a Co-founder and Trustee of Care Earth Trust. He is a professional ecologist with wide experience in the field study of vertebrates. He advises various projects of Care Earth Trust on aspects of species identification and ecology. He served as the Principal Investigator of the present study. Vinoth Balasubramanian is a junior research fellow at Care Earth Trust. He is currently pursuing his PhD on Birds of Pallikarnai Marshland. His research experience includes predator-prey ecology in the Satyamangalam Tiger Reserve. At Care Earth Trust he is involved in all field projects that involve faunal studies.

Author Contribution: JPD - Data collection, data analysis and manuscript preparation; RJRD - Principal Investigator and designer of the study; VB - Assistance in the field.

Acknowledgements: The study was funded by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change of the Government of India. We place on record our gratitude to the whole-hearted support provided by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department both at the head offices in Chennai and each field site during the surveys. We thank Dr. Mayilvahanan, Dr. Vijayan, Saravanan, Ganesh, Sanjay and Naveen Chawla for their help in accommodation and travel at Salem, Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri. Dr. Ravi Rajasingh and members of the Kenneth Anderson Nature Society (KANS) helped us greatly with our survey in the Melagiris.




Abstract: The Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu have been poorly surveyed for birds. The best known bird survey in the Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu (EGTN) was by V.S. LaPersonne who carried out the the Surveys in Tamilnadu Eastern Ghats between 08th April, 1929 and 25th July 1929. This was reported by WHistler & Kinnear. Thereafter information about birds in EGTN has come only from checklists published from time to time, by researchers, whose primary focus was not birds. Hence, to fill this lacuna, a comprehensive survey of birds was undertaken in the EGTN from March 2012­–­­February 2015. The objectives of the study were to document the avian richness and abundance in EGTN, put them in perspective to the Vernay Survey conducted more than 80 years back, and identify priority sites for bird conservation. The study covered the hills and forests of Tamil Nadu spanning nine districts. In total, 262 species of birds were recorded during the survey. Eight species of birds fall under the threatened category. Species such as Square-tailed Bulbul Hypsipetes (lecocephalus) ganeesa, Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus, Asian Fairy Bluebird Irena puella, and Malabar Whistling Thrush Myophonus horsfieldii still persist in the same old sites reported in the Vernay Survey. The top five abundant species were the Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer, White-browed Bulbul Pycnonotus luteolus, Red-whiskered Bulbul Pycnonotus jocosus, Common Iora Aegithina tiphia, and Purple-rumped Sunbird Leptocoma zeylonica. The Vaniyar riparian tract in the Shevroys, from its origins in the hills to the Vaniyar dam downstream, is a potential bird conservation site in the Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu.

Keywords: Abundance, birds, distribution, diversity, Eastern Ghats, Vaniyar, Vernay Survey.





The Eastern Ghats in India run from Odisha in the east to Tamil Nadu in the south. Unlike its biologically rich counterpart (Western Ghats), the Eastern Ghats are relatively dry, broken, and move away from the Coromandal coast as they proceed south. The Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu (EGTN) consist of hill ranges lying in the northern and northwestern parts of the state. These hill ranges have not been thoroughly explored for birds, unlike the hills in Andhra Pradesh or Odisha, and the contiguous Western Ghats. Ornithological records for EGTN are either old (Beadnell 1923; Whistler & Kinnear 1930–37; Roy 1969) or checklists from specific hill ranges (Vasanth 1990; Karthikeyan & Arun 1992; Daniels 1993; Karthikeyan 1996; Daniels & Ravikumar 1997; Daniels & Saravanan 1998; Kalaimani 2011; Tom & Praveen 2014; Chandrasekaran & Kumaraguru undated - booklet).

Hence, there was an urgent need to thoroughly explore this region for birds and analyse the changes in bird diversity since the Vernay Survey in the late 1920s (Whistler & Kinnear 1930–37), and to identify potential bird conservation site/sites. Vernay is the name of the person who funded the ornithological expedition in the Eastern Ghats. Whistler and Kinnear examined the specimens collected and published the manuscript. The need for a comprehensive survey in EGTN was also stressed by Santharam, a well-known bird watcher from southern India (see Santharam 2010) and was boosted by records of Western Ghat endemic species such as White-cheeked Barbet Megalaima viridis, Malabar Parakeet Psittacula columboides, White-bellied Treepie Dendrocitta leucogastra, Yellow-browed Bulbul Acritillas indica, Rufous Babbler Turdoides subrufa, and Black-throated Munia Lonchura kelaarti in EGTN (Daniels & Ravikumar 1997; Daniels & Saravanan 1998).

Though the above surveys did bring out some interesting bird records, these were checklists from specific hill ranges (did not cover all hill ranges of EGTN), and there was no information on bird abundance, distribution, and conservation issues affecting birds. To fill this lacuna, a thorough survey was undertaken in almost all the hill ranges of EGTN. A few hills south of the River Cauvery could not be covered due to time constraints. The survey was carried out from March 2012–February 2015, with the support of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Government of India. In this paper, for the first time, apart from checklists of birds, we provide information on bird abundance, comparison with old records, and bird conservation issues in EGTN. The objectives of the study were to document the avian diversity, put them in perspective to Vernay Survey records, and identify priority sites for bird conservation. The survey was spread over nine districts, covering 16 forest divisions and 47 forest ranges (Table 1), mostly in the hills, but included reserve forest and adjacent wetlands in the foothills. The habitat types covered include forests, wetlands, countryside (including cultivation) and plantations.

Study area

The Eastern Ghats in Tamil Nadu (EGTN) are a range of disjointed and continuous hills lying in the north (hereafter Eastern cluster) and north-west (hereafter Western cluster) parts of the State (Fig. 1). They stretch from the hills of Vellore and Krishnagiri districts in the north to Sirumalai in the south (Jayakumar et al. 2008). The major hill ranges in the Eastern cluster are the Yelagiri, Javvadu, Shevroys, Chitheri, Kalrayan, Gingee, Kolli, Pachamalai, and Sirumalai. The hill ranges in the Western cluster are the Melagiris and hills of Erode and Sathyamangalam forest division. The forest in Sathyamangalam division slopes gently into the Moyar valley, and joins the Western Ghats in the Nilgiris. The hill ranges in the Eastern cluster lie north and south of the river Cauvery, while those on the Western cluster lie mostly west of the river Cauvery.

The hills of the Eastern cluster roughly occupy an area of about 6,000km2 (Jayakumar et al. 2008). There are several rivers that drain from these hills, these include the Vaniyar, Thopayar, Varatiyar, Kutar, Periyar (in Shevroys), Kambalai, Varatiyar (in Chitheri), etc. Overall the average annual rainfall varies from 800–1,600 mm and average temperature varies from 17–35 0C. The elevation ranges from 130–1700 m. Nine forest types have been identified in these hill ranges (Jayakumar et al. 2008; Ramasubramanian 2010; Tom & Praveen 2014).





Avian diversity

To document avian diversity, pre-existing trails in each forest range were walked and bird species encountered were noted down. The trail passed through both forests and non-forest habitats. The distance walked in each trail varied from 1–5 km. In addition, bird species were recorded from natural and man-made waterbodies. To record crepuscular and nocturnal birds, we sat silently in village-forest edges or in clearings within the forests and listened to bird calls. If there were no calls, we played calls of nocturnal species using a mobile phone and speaker to elicit response. Nocturnal species were also recorded from their day time roost. The surveys were carried out from March 2012­–­­February 2015.

Status and distribution

To ascertain the status of a species, a number of bird records were used. Even if three birds of a single species were sighted together it was considered as single record. Totally, we obtained 8,419 bird records. We classified a species as common (≥100 records), uncommon (21–99 records) and rare (≤20 records). To determine the distribution of a species we divided the EGTN into 51 clusters based on proximity and habitat contiguity of sampled sites. Then we classified the species as widespread (present in ≥30 clusters), moderately distributed (present in 10­–­­29 clusters) and sparsely distributed (present in <10 clusters).


Avian richness, abundance and distribution

The birds of EGTN represent various habitat types from dry scrub in the lower elevation to high elevation moist forest species. In total, 262 species were recorded during the present survey (Appendix 1). This included eight threatened species (Table 2). If the Vernay Survey records and records from subsequent surveys (Karthikeyan & Arun 1992; Daniels 1993; Karthikeyan 1996; Daniels & Ravikumar 1997; Daniels & Saravanan 1998; Tom & Praveen 2014; Chandrasekaran & Kumaraguru undated) are also considered, the list for the entire EGTN stands at 305 species.

The five most common and widespread species were the Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer (427 records), White-browed Bulbul Pycnonotus luteolus (282 records), Red-whiskered Bulbul Pycnonotus jocosus (279 records), Common Iora Aegithinia tiphia (225 records) and Purple-rumped Sunbird Leptocoma zeylonica (196 records). Apparently, all these species are habitat generalists, and use a wide variety of habitats from forest to countryside vegetation and plantations (Ali & Ripley 1987; Grimmett et al. 2011).

Western Ghat endemic species

Among the 17 species of birds endemic to the Western Ghats (Praveen 2015), five were recorded during the survey. Grey-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus priocephalus was recorded from Talamalai and Kadambur in Sathyamangalam forest division; the Nilgiri Wood Pigeon Columba elphinstonii from Talamalai and Gutheri in Melagiris; Malabar Parakeet from Sathyamangalam Forest Division, Melagiris, Shevroy and Kolli Hills; Crimson-backed Sunbird Leptocoma minima from Germalam; Rufous Babbler Turdoides subrufa from Kolli hills.




Other significant records

Other significant records made during the present survey were of the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx erithaca, Great Hornbill Buceros bicornis, Indian Swiftlet Collocalia unicolor, Grey-headed Fish Eagle Icthyophaga ichthyaetus, Lesser Fish Eagle Icthyophaga humilis, White-browed Fantail Rhipidura aureola. All the above bird species were recorded from the Western Cluster.

In the Eastern Cluster, significant records include the Square-tailed Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus ganeesa, Savanna Nightjar Caprimulgus affinis and Yellow-throated Bulbul Pycnonotus xantholaemeus. The Square-tailed Bulbul was recorded from the high altitude regions of the Shevroys. This species has not been recorded in other hill ranges in the Eastern cluster and has not been reported anywhere else in the Eastern Ghats. The Savanna Nightjar was recorded from the foothills of Shevroys and Pachamalai. This is the first record of the species from the EGTN. An endemic bird of peninsular India, the Yellow-throated Bulbul was recorded from two previously unreported sites in the Bargur range of Erode Forest Division (900m) and Manmalai (450m), adjoining Pachamalai.

Doubtful Records

We sighted a pair of what we suspect to be the Western Ghats endemic Nilgiri Flycatcher Eumyias albicaudatus along the Vaniyar riparian tract in Yercaud range, Shevroy Hills; however, we have no photos of the birds to prove it beyond doubt. Similarly, the White-naped Tit Parus nuchalis could occur in Vepanapalli reserved forest in Krishnagiri District which is an Albizia amara-dominated scrub forest, and the Spot-bellied Eagle-owl Bubo nipalensis could also occur in Tirthamalai range in Chitheri foothills on the Eastern side. The latter species was recorded from the Western cluster. We base our last two assumptions on a fleeting glimpse and call record.



Vernay Survey

It is more than 80 years since the Vernay Orinithological Survey of the Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu was published by Whistler & Kinnear (1930–37). The Vernay Survey covered both the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which were part of the larger erstwhile Madras Presidency. The survey was necessary as systematic work on Indian ornithology was hampered by the absence of data from Madras Presidency. During the survey in Tamil Nadu, the hills of the Western cluster were not covered (Melagiris, hills of Erode and Sathyamangalam Forest Division). Specimens were collected from Kurumbapatti (foothills of the Shevroys), Shevroys, Chitheri, Gingee, Tiruchy (exact location not specified) hills and the plains surrounding these hill ranges, leaving out the others; however, the authors quote extensively from other sources wherever necessary.

The Vernay Survey publication not only lists the species procured by the survey, but also provides crucial information about species recorded by other birders. In total, the publication lists 285 species of birds for the region east of Stanley reservoir, up to Trichy in the south and Madras (present day Chennai) in the east. If the records from around Madras (east coast rather than Eastern Ghats) are removed, the list stands at 153 species.


Comparison of records from Vernay Survey and present survey

It is difficult to make a comparison between the two surveys, as the Vernay expedition did not cover the hill ranges in the Western cluster. The following text is a comparison of avian diversity in the hill ranges of the Eastern cluster. During the present survey 232 species of birds were recorded, while the Vernay Survey procured 126 species (54% of species recorded during the present survey). Species that are persisting locally for the past 80 years include the Square-tailed Bulbul, Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus, Asian Fairy Bluebird Irena puella, and Malabar Whistling Thrush Myophonus horsfieldi in the Shevroys; Blue-bearded Bee-eater Nyctyornis athertoni in Chitheri, and Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica in Yercaud and Chitheri.

The Indian Grey Hornbill Ocyceros birostris which was reported to be fairly common and appeared to be breeding in Kurumbapatti was not recorded from the locality during the present survey; however, it was recorded from Chitheri Hills (also reported by the Vernay Survey), and from Sathanur Dam in Tiruvannamalai District. The species was recorded extensively in the Western cluster.

Three species which were not recorded during the Vernay Survey but found to be widespread during our survey were the Laughing Dove Stigmatopelia senegalensis, Indian Nightjar Caprimulgus asiaticus, and Jungle Owlet Glaucidium radiatum. Other species which were not recorded by the Vernay Survey were the Sirkeer Malkoha Taccocua leschenaultii, Malabar Parakeet Psittacula columboides, Red Avadavat Amandava amandava, Malayan Night Heron Gorsachius melanolophus, Striated Heron Butorides striata, White-naped Woodpecker Chrysocolaptes festivus, Savanna Nightjar Caprimulgus affinis, Brown Hawk-Owl Ninox scutulata, Nilgiri Flowerpecker Dicaeum concolor, and White-eyed Buzzard Butastur teesa. The White-eyed Buzzard was recorded nesting in the foothills of the Shevroys in Asthampatti range.

Some species that were recorded by the Vernay Survey, but not from the present survey were the Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl Bubo nipalensis, Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting, and Green Imperial Pigeon Ducula aenea. Two species of Vultures - Indian Vulture Gyps indicus and Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus, which appear in the IUCN Red List were reported from the Shevroys by Packard and others. Presently, both the species have not been reported outside their stronghold in Moyar Valley and adjacent hills of Sathyamangalam Forest Division.

Conservation issues

Our survey through the various hills of EGTN inferred a mosaic pattern of denuded inner valleys and the existence of forests in the riparian tracts, hill tops and outer slopes. The valleys have been mostly taken over for human habitation and cultivation. Crops like tapioca, paddy, sugarcane, and banana are being cultivated. Coffee plantations are abundant in the Shevroy and Kolli hills, and patchily in the Yelagiri and Kalrayan hills. Tourist resorts are rampant in Yercaud and Yelagiri. Direct disturbance/threats to wildlife and forest are also evident in the form of hunting for local consumption, wood-cutting, cattle grazing, and use of explosives for stone quarrying.

Inspite of these changes in land use pattern and human disturbance, birds continue to persist in this degraded and fragmented landscape. Areas with good forest cover still exist in certain forest ranges. These include Polur, Kavalur and Amirthi in Javvadu hills and most of Chitheri hills.

Bird conservation site

The Vaniyar riparian tract, right from its origin near Vazhavandhi in Shevroy Hills to the Vaniyar Dam in the foothills is a good bird watching destination. The riparian tract is a good place for sighting bird species such as Square-tailed Bulbul, Asian Fairy Bluebird, White-cheeked Barbet, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike Hemipus picatus, Lesser Yellownape Picus chlorolophus, Black-hooded Oriole Oriolus xanthornus, Common Iora, White-browed Bulbul, and White-rumped Shama Copsychus malabaricus. Water birds such as Indian Spot-billed Duck Anas poecilorhyncha, Little Cormorant Phalocrocorax niger, and Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis can be sighted in Vaniyar dam downstream at Pappireddipatti.

Based on this study, we have identified the entire Vaniyar riparian tract up to to the Vaniyar Dam in the foothills and the adjacent forests as a potential bird conservation site in the Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu. This will conserve both moist and dry forest birds and also the livelihood of many people dependent on the waters of the river.



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