A Galaxy of Falcons
[Gus] Good evening and welcome to tonight’s Monday night seminar here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.
I’m Gus Axelson, I’m the editorial director here at the Cornell Lab, and probably not surprising I’m also a big fan of science and nature writing, especially about birds. One of the perks of my job is that I get to be the editor of “Living Bird” magazine, and so that means that I get to indulge my fandom and stalk my favorite writers.
When I became editor a couple years ago, the first writer I stalked was Scott Weidensaul because I’ve been a huge fan of his since his book “Living on the Wind” which I’m sure all of you’ve read, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in the year 2000.
In that book Scott wrote about a time he was in the rainforest in Belize and he was surrounded by a cascade of Baltimore Orioles, and he talked about the magic of this moment, of seeing these birds that he would see atop red maple trees in his native Pennsylvania, and seeing them share trees with toucans, and motmots, and parrots. It was that chapter that inspired me to travel neotropical migrant birds down to Colombia and write a story about shade coffee, shade-grown coffee and bird conservation, and I’m sure that Scott’s writing’s inspired many of you as well.
Scott is a former newspaper journalist who’s written more than two dozen books. He also writes for many magazines including Audubon, Birdwatcher’s Digest, National Wildlife Magazine, and our own Living Bird. Scott is also an active field researcher who co-directs a collaborative effort among nearly 125 banding and research stations across North America, and he also runs his own field research station studying the migration of northern saw-whet owls. And in fact just last night he was working at his banding station, and had some saw-whet owls, and that’s another story he’s working on for the next autumn issue of Living Bird.
He also co-directs project snowstorm, which tracks the winter, the movements of snowy owls in winter. Scott is currently working on a sequel to “Living on the Wind,” a book that will look at the great bird migrations around the world.
And in a summer issue of Living Bird he wrote a story for us about the epic migration of Amur falcons through remote northeastern India. That material will be a chapter in his new book, and he’s here tonight to tell us more about his first-hand experience with the great Amur Falcon migration.
[Scott] Thank you very much Gus, it is, it is always a pleasure and an honor to be here. I was actually an art major in college because I wanted to be a bird artist, and so every time I have an opportunity to stand here surrounded by these incredible Fuertes paintings, and walk up and down the halls of the lab surrounded by all this incredible art, I am overcome with two emotions.
One is kind of a wish I’d stuck with the art stuff a little better, the other is a profound urge to commit larceny, so if you notice bare spots on the wall don’t tell them for a while.
So I’d like that, as Gus said I’d like to talk to you a little bit tonight about, about Amur Falcons, and this in arguably the greatest concentration of raptors on earth, which we knew nothing about until just a couple of years ago. And this is the first time I’m doing this program, so if it’s a little rough and rocky tonight give me, give me some some slack.
[Slide Text “A Galaxy of Falcons” with photo of hundreds of falcons flying in the sky above a forest]
[Photo of Scott releasing a bird]
I’ve been messing around with birds all my life. I grew up in the mountains of Pennsylvania very close to Hawk Mountain. I got started doing raptor banding back in the 1980s, then shifted into, into owls and then, and then hummingbirds and songbirds, and as Gus said, back in the late ’90s I spent six years overall, three years pretty much continuously, tracking bird migration up and down the Western hemisphere for Living on the Wind, which, which focused on on on bird migration in the Western Hemisphere.
But it’s been 20 years since the book came out and we’ve learned a lot more about migration since then. We’ve learned more about the science of migration, we’ve learned more about the challenges that are facing migratory birds. The technology by which we were studying migration has changed dramatically so as Gus said I’m working on on what in some respects is a sequel to Living on the Wind that’s, it’s a book, it’s going to be called “A World of Wings.” It’ll be coming out in 2020 from from Norton because the world is alive with bird migration.
[Photos of birds migrating and pelagic birds in flight]
It’s it’s it’s it’s arguably the greatest natural phenomenon on the planet and so for the last two-and-a-half years I’ve been zig-zagging back and forth across the globe, not just in the Western Hemisphere but worldwide. I’m chasing pelagic birds in the, in the Pacific and in the Bering Strait, in the Bering Sea, and and off the Atlantic. This spring in part for Living Bird I was over on the Yellow Sea in China where some 11 million migratory shorebirds funnel through from places as far flung as as Australia and New Zealand on their way to Alaska or Siberia.
[Photos of shorebirds and shorebird biologists]
And but in a place where 60 or 70 percent of the tidal wetlands on which these birds depend have already been destroyed in China and the Koreas. And so I was spending time in the field with an international cadre of shorebird biologists. People like Theunis Piersma from the Netherlands ,and you know Jing Lee from the, from from China, with the spoonbills in China, spoon-billed sandpiper in China. Nonprofit people working with community leaders and and government officials and and and common citizens and school kids trying to protect what is left of the coastal wetlands in China for this enormous hemispheric migration of birds that pass through there.
[Photos of scientist tracking birds and Kirtland’s warblers]
I spent time in the Bahamas. Yeah it was, it was work I was in the Bahamas, but it was work, never went near, I never went near a beach, with Nathan Cooper from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, who’s using one of these new forms of technology called light nanotech transmitters. You know, tiny transmitters that are small enough now you can put them on butterflies and dragonflies, but are finally allowing us to track birds the size of endangered Kirtland’s Warblers on their migration from the Bahamas up to their breeding grounds in in Michigan.
[Photos of police, drone, and birds caught in nets]
And I just got back about two weeks ago from the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean, where Cyprus is kind of the worst of the worst in the Mediterranean in terms of illegal bird killing. Every year between 11 and 36 million songbirds are killed and eaten for food in the Mediterranean, including about two and a half million in Cyprus. But the the Cypriot police, the the British military police on some of the big military bases there, are really cracking down on this. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has given them two $20,000 sophisticated drones that they can send up in the night sky with infrared to find the bird trappers when they’re setting up their nets at night. The RSPB actually sends down wildlife crime specialists that are in, you know, out there in these sniper ghillie suits, tracking these guys down, making a significant dent in illegal bird killing.
[Photo of forested landscape next to a river]
But it can be kind of grim, you know. It’s the stories, the stories about bird migration these days can be can be fairly depressing. You know, we’re we’re at a we’re at a tipping point for many migratory populations. You know all of the stresses that that modern humanity has brought to bear from climate change to habitat loss to pesticides to to poaching and netting and illegal killing to you know windows to turbines to cats, are all having an effect on birds. And so it’s it’s rare when you find a story that encapsulates many of those those difficulties and challenges but you come out the other end in an optimistic frame of mind.
[Photos of Amur falcons in flight]
And so what I’d like to do this evening is take you to one of the more remote parts of Asia, certainly one of the most remote parts of the world I’ve ever been to. It’s place called Nagaland in northeastern India. It’s that little bit of India that sticks up like a finger to the Northeast between or you want to call it Myanmar or Burma on the south and China to the north. It’s rugged, it’s mountainous, it’s relatively lightly populated and every year millions of Amur Falcons gather there on their migration. Amur Falcons are a little bit a little bit smaller, excuse me a little bit bigger than an American Kestrel. They’re a largely insectivorous falcon.
[Google Earth image of Amur falcon breeding range]
They they breed in northern China and northeastern China, southern Siberia and it doesn’t look particularly large on this map, but it’s actually you know hundreds of thousands of square miles of of breeding range.
[Google Earth image of Amur falcon migration to India and photo of termites]
And then every year in in autumn they take off on one of if not the longest migrations of any Raptor on earth. They they hook South kind of around the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas. I mean you got to be nuts to fly across the Himalayas. There’s a few birds that do it but the falcons don’t. They, because they feed on insects they stay mostly in the lowland and then they stage up in northeastern India in late October, in early November and they time their arrival with the end of the monsoon season and then the emergence of subterranean termites.
Now these are not the termites that make the big mounds like you see like you see in Africa or Australia. They’re hidden underground but after the monsoons are over when the ground is still moist, the termites will chew their way up to the surface and the alates, the the the fertile winged females and males will emerge on these mating flights by the trillions. And they’re big and they’re fat and they’re juicy and they’re the perfect food for a falcon that’s got a long way to go because after they’ve they’ve gorged themselves on on termites and laid on a tremendous amount of fat, what these birds do is they make the longest overwater crossing of any raptor that we’re aware of.
[Google Earth image of Amur falcon migration from India to southern Africa]
They, they fly 2,400 miles non-stop across the Indian Ocean and down in and to spend the winter in southern Africa in South Africa and some of the neighboring some of the neighboring countries. In all their annual migration is about 18,000 miles a year. The only other Raptor that even comes close is the Swainson’s hawk here in North America.
[Google Earth images of Nagaland]
And the area where they where these birds gather in huge numbers in in October and November is is centered on Nagaland, so we’re just gonna zoom in here. This is a somewhat troubled part of the world. If you’ve been paying attention to the news out of out of Myanmar, you know that, and also if you look at Google at Google Earth you see all those red lines those are contested boundaries. India and China went to war in the 1960s over some of this territory and there’s and there’s still an awful lot of tension in that area.
Nagaland is, is ruggedly mountainous. It is largely undeveloped. It is the defiantly un-Indian part of India. It is not ethnically Indian, it is an officially English-speaking state. It is 95% Baptist, we’ll get into that yet. That’s, it’s just, it’s an it’s an odd little corner of India. In fact you can see the boundary between Nagaland and the neighboring state of Assam from space because literally where the pancake flat rice paddies of Assam end, and the hills start to go up, it’s the only it’s the only border I’ve ever seen that precisely follows a topographic line on a map, and whereas the the Assamese lowlands are mostly cleared, I said mostly the hills in Nagaland are densely forested.
[Photo of hydroelectric dam]
So our, the the center of our of our focus tonight is a little tiny village called Pangti, which is about halfway between the Assam border and the border of Myanmar. In 2000 the Indian government opened a hydroelectric dam that they built on the Diyung River and something odd happened. And we’re not really quite sure what did this, why this happened, but when they when they built the dam the falcons that were always traditionally coming through that part of northeastern India began gathering in huge numbers in enormous roosts along the banks of the Diyung Reservoir. Something about the microclimate, something about safety and security, maybe they just liked the water view, I don’t really know, but they started gathering by the tens of thousands and the hundreds of thousands in enormous roots.
Amur Falcons are social migrants like Swainson’s hawks, like broad-winged hawks here in North America. They travel in immense flocks, they gather both in migration and on the wintering grounds in immense flocks.
[Photo of Bano Horali and members of Conservation India]
In 2012, actually a year or two before that, a woman named Bano Horali, that’s Bano over there on the on the right – a former television journalist, she grew up in Nagaland, made a, made a rather spectacular career for herself elsewhere in in northeastern India, but she’d come back to Nagaland and founded a small wildlife and biodiversity conservation trust there. And she’d been hearing rumors about large numbers of falcons in Nagaland, and hearing disturbing rumors that many of these falcons were being killed.
So in the fall of 2012 she and and several of her colleagues including some folks from, let me just bring up their names. There were some folks from Conservation India, which was another fairly newly formed NGO, decided to go in and investigate. And what they found absolutely horrified them, and they produced a video.
[Video: “The race to save THE AMUR FALCON.” Photo of dead Amur falcon hanging on a string. Footage of man removing falcons from a fishing net, in a boat with several falcons, then walking with many dead falcons hanging from a stick over his shoulders. Additional images of dead falcons.]
I’m just gonna play a few a few clips with no audio from from this to give you a sense of what they found. What they found was that the fishermen in Nagaland particularly from this village of Pangti, were were repurposing their fishing nets to start catching falcons. And they were catching something on the order of a hundred and forty thousand falcons during the roughly 10-day peak of the migration in the middle of fall.
They were, they were catching these birds, they were killing them, they were smoking them, and they were eating them themselves. And I recognize these are disturbing images and I apologize for that, but I think it’s necessary for you to understand the scope and the scale of what was going on here. They were they were primarily selling these in other villages, in some of the larger towns and cities elsewhere in Nagaland, and for fairly desperately needed cash. A lot of the, a lot of the families were selling these birds to pay for their kids’ school fees.
[Photos of news articles about the falcons]
Well the word got out about this and, many of you, because you’re you know, we’ve got a lot of bird conservationists in the crowd here, you’ve probably heard about this in the fall of 2012 there was international outrage. And and concern because you know Amur Falcons are a fairly common raptor, but they’re not that common and a hundred and forty thousand, and that’s that’s a conservative estimate, because that was what they calculated during the the roughly 10-day peak in the migration. These birds are there, some of them are there for almost two months and it’s probably more on the order of 200,000 to 250,000 birds a year that were being killed.
That’s unsustainable but the population would not have have been able to sustain that for very long. So there was, there was outrage from around the world and you know usually when something like this happens there’s kind of a predictable script that goes that you, that we follow. You know there’s there’s outrage, there’s there’s there’s you know people try to try to change it, there’s pushback from the local community. This can go on for years, it becomes it becomes a you know almost a battle of wills. That didn’t happen in Nagaland.
[Photo of Amur falcon perched on snag]
Instead conservationists like those from Conservation India, from the Nagaland Biodiversity and Wildlife Trust, from Birdlife International, from from a host of different agencies and NGOs, came in, worked with the local community, and explained to them what the ramifications of this were.
And you know the Naga saw this enormous multitude of birds come down every year. Then when they built the reservoir, the the government flooded their farmland, these the Naga the Naga communities are on on mountaintops for defense, as you’ll hear in a little bit, and their their fields were all in the valleys, and so they lost their farmland. They tried farming on the hillsides, it’s not very not very productive land and the wild elephants destroyed their crops. They tried to make a living as fishermen, but they didn’t, the government didn’t cut the trees down in the reservoir before they flooded it, so you it’s difficult to fish in basically in a sunken forest.
[Photos of locals in Amur Falcon Roosting Area Union]
And they’re all good Baptists and this looked like manna from heaven, literally manna from heaven, like God was providing these birds for them, and when they found out that these birds were traveling such an enormous distance that their their depredations on these birds were endangering their, endangering their survival, and it also has to be said that when they when they were informed by the government that this was this was illegal and they were not going to tolerate it anymore, they stopped literally from one year to the next. They went from a hundred and forty thousand dead Falcons in 2012 to probably a couple hundred in 2013 and not a single falcon since then has been taken.
And these communities, especially Pangti, have, have embraced wildlife con–well, excuse me, they’ve embraced falcon conservation with with with what I might call an evangelical fervor. Hundreds of the former trappers have formed the Amur Falcon Roosting Area Union. They are now guides and guards, they built watchtowers near the, near the near the roost sites with the idea that that tourists would come in here and replace the income that they used to get from selling and killing these Falcons from people coming in to view them, and in a matter of just a couple of years the story out of Nagaland has changed dramatically.
[Photos of news articles about falcon conservation]
You know “Falcon hunters become fervent preservationists” says the New York Times and the newspaper of record it’s it’s an extraordinary story. But it’s also an extraordinarily difficult place to get to, and tourists have been pretty thin on the land in Nagaland, and so my curiosity was what happens when really poor people do a really hard thing for the right reason but expecting a certain outcome. What happens when that outcome may be slow to materialize or may not materialize at all? And so for the last two years well actually two years prior, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get myself over to Nagaland this is not, as I said this is not an easy place to get to, it’s not an entirely safe place to get to.
Nagaland –is is the site of the longest-running guerrilla war in in Asia. Since the 1940s there have been been separatist groups and breakaway insurgencies they’ve been trying to break Nagaland away from India, you know you know there are still cross-border insurgents coming in from Myanmar. The weird thing about Nagaland is even the Maoist guerrillas coming in from, from Myanmar are mostly Baptists. It’s an odd place but it’s, you know ,we were you know, when we were planning our trip to Nagaland for last year we were told repeatedly do not be on the road after dark.
[Photo of Kevin Loughlin]
But my good friend Kevin Loughlin who runs Wildside Nature Tours, he’s been doing ecotourism stuff for years. When when Kevin found out about Nagaland and found out about how important ecotourism was going to be to making a success for falcon conservation there, he and I started plotting to find out is it possible for American ecotour companies, bird tour companies, to take groups in to Nagaland to see this incredible spectacle of, you know, somewhere between 1 and 3 million Amur Falcons gathered in one spot for an extended period of time in the fall.
[Photos of other travelers]
Is it possible to to safely and efficiently bring tourists in there to pump a little money into the economy? So last year we took, we took a group of guinea pigs in on an exploratory expedition. In addition to Kevin and me we had my friend Catherine Hamilton. Many of you are familiar with Catherine’s work, she’s a superb bird artist living in in California. Her participation was was underwritten in part by Zeiss, um Peter Trueblood who’s gone on a bunch of Kevin’s expeditions and is up for an adventure, and he and his his cousin Bruce Evans from Maryland decided that they would be paying guinea pigs on this trip, that that that they would, they would help underwrite the costs of this exploratory expedition so that they could be among the first ones going in there. I don’t think they regretted it, although there may have been a couple of, there may have been a couple of times.
[Google Earth image of Nagaland]
Getting to Pangti is not easy. That’s the main road through Nagaland. We were not gonna be on the main road for much of the time.
[Photos of bridge and very muddy road]
That’s what the main road looks like in places, mostly the main road looks like that. Now now I have to say that that last year we headed in there toward the end of October. Last year the monsoon rains continued weeks and weeks and weeks later than they normally do and so the roads were in even worse condition than usual, but the roads in Nagaland are some of the worst roads on the planet. It’s not just that they’re, that they’re muddy and there’s traffic jams. And in some places you actually have to drive through active landslide zones, where the side of the mountain slips away and they just bring in a bulldozer and push another road across it, and they use that until that slips away.
And as we’re driving and you can’t really see, that continues considerably farther down from out of the picture, you know that the road was actually shaking and quivering as we were going across it it’s it’s it’s it’s a bone-jarring, tooth rattling eight or ten or twelve hours to get to get back into Pangti.
[Photo of forested area and Diyung Reservoir]
We finally found ourselves at the Diyung Reservoir, which is where these falcons gather. Two years we’ve been planning this, two years we’ve been, we’ve been, um dreaming about getting to the Diyung Reservoir and seeing the sky alive with falcons. And on the drive in we saw four. Not four hundred thousand, not four thousand, four.
[Photo of Pangti village]
We figured they just must be somewhere else. We finally made it into Pangti. Then the Nagas live in these in these hill communities. Until just a generation or so ago many Naga communities were still active headhunters, and they and they fought with each other. There are depending on how you characterize a tribe, there are anywhere from thirty to to more than a hundred different tribal differentiations in Nagaland, many of them speaking mutually unintelligible dialects, and for for time out of mind fighting with each other, attacking each other, taking taking heads from each other, yes Baptist headhunters I know it is it is it is strange.
[Photos of Pangti villagers]
I mentioned that the the Naga are not ethnically Indian, they’re a Tibeto-Burmese ethnic group. You know, look, and the moment you drive across the border out of out of Assam where the signs are all in Hindi, and you know and if you know there’s there’s Hindu iconography everywhere on the moment you cross the bridge into Nagaland, the people look different, they sound different, all the signs are in English, everybody dresses differently, as it is it is like going from one country to the next, and the Naga, most of them would prefer that to be the case.
[Photos of homestay in Pangti village]
We were staying with, there’s no tourist facilities in Pangti. Catherine was told repeatedly that she was the first Western woman they had ever seen. In the village they were not as excited about us guys because during World War Two there were British army officers there, so we were kind of old hat. And it’s and I don’t want to convey the sense that this is some, you know, primitive village. They’ve got electricity, they’ve got cellphones, they’re, some of the houses have television, but getting there is really difficult and almost nobody from outside ever ever goes there.
So because there’s no tourist facilities we were just staying with a local schoolteacher and his and his wife. They had converted part of their house into a homestay in anticipation of tourists coming. They had installed a western-style toilet out in the, in the back with a with a, it wasn’t a flush toilet, but at least it was a seat to sit on. The, you know, we had just absolutely delicious food out of their, a very traditional Naga open fire kitchen, fish and chicken and smoked beef.
Every every house in the above, above this open wood fire they have racks of, bamboo racks on which beef will season and smoke for weeks or months or years at a time. You just it was incredibly good food. We did discover however that the Nagas do not use mattresses, and so for the week or so that we were in Pangti, it was very kind, this the the Sopo family moved out and let us move in, but we were sleeping on hard wooden beds. So note to self if you’re taking in American tourists, take mattresses.
[Photos of sunset and excursion looking for falcons]
We got there just at sunset the first evening, made it just in time and as we were eating our dinner they brought a couple of the the young men who were part of this Roosting Site Union, some of the young guides to come in. And of course the first question we asked him is how many falcons are here, and they said one, two thousand, and we said I’m sorry one or two thousand? Yes yes one two thousand. We’ve been spending, we spent two years and a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of effort to come see the greatest raptor concentration on Earth, man one or two thousand is not going to cut it.
It was, it was it was crushing, it was absolutely crushing news. But we got up at 3 o’clock the next morning and loaded up into our vehicles to drive down to a watch tower that was built near one of the roost sites, and as we, it was it was actually very cool, as we as we’re walking through the darkness, we could hear the trumpeting of wild elephants in the distance, and we could hear the rustle of wind blowing through the through the the bamboo fronds as we climbed up into the tower.
[Videos of thousands of falcons flying overhead]
And still almost completely pitch black but Catherine raised her binoculars and looked out and gasped and said “Oh my God, look!” because the sky was absolutely covered with birds. There weren’t one or two thousand falcons, there were probably 50 or 60,000 falcons.
We never figured out if it was a, if it was a lapse in translation or if it was simply because these birds had just come in. I mean that this, this extremely late, this extremely late monsoon season had delayed the migration significantly and, and so these birds came whirling up. The sound, what we thought was the sound of of wind blowing through the bamboo was actually the sound of tens of thousands of these Falcons coming off the roost, wave after wave after wave, and then, and then heading out. You know they would they would start to thermal up heading out to hunt for the day, and each time you get one of these massive waves of falcons coming up we think, well that’s that’s done, it that’s emptied the trees. And then we’d put our spotting scopes up and we’d realize that coming out, and these birds are coming out of like maybe two and a half or three hectares of forest, very tiny little patch of forest, that they were dense, the trees were still dripping with falcons.
It was, it was it was an extraordinary thing. I’ve seen some of the world’s greatest concentrations of raptors. I was part of a team in 1992 that first documented the the river of raptors in Veracruz, Mexico, four and a half million raptors migrating through there every year, but there’s no place else on earth where these birds come in such concentrations day after day after day. I mean in Veracruz the birds are there passing through on migration over the course of the fall you get four plus million birds, but and but in in Nagaland they’re they’re in these extraordinary numbers, you know as I say just day after day after day.
[Photos of Amur falcons]
So you know just to give you a little primer again on on Amur falcons, the the juveniles and the and the females are barred, the males are these absolutely gorgeous gray birds, red you know sort of rufous down on the thighs. Until relatively recently they were considered conspecific with red-footed falcons, which breed a bit farther west in in Eurasia, but they’ve they’ve been split-off on their on their own species. You know we were interested obviously not just in in falcons and not just the spectacle, but it it’s fair to say we saw fewer birds than we thought we would.
[Photo of birdwatcher standing in road through forest]
Nagaland is densely forested, but it’s almost all fairly young second growth forest. They grow a lot of teak in Nagaland, and so a lot of the forest is constantly being cut, planted with with teak, the teak grows up, they cut it down. There’s also a tradition of slash-and-burn agriculture there and the rotational speeds have accelerated over the years, so the forest doesn’t get as much of an opportunity to to recover as it did.
[Photos of other birds and butterflies]
But you know and we’re also there in November, we were not there at the prime time of the year for birding, but we had a lot of other terrific terrific South Asian specialties like black drongo, this is an immature black drongo, long-tailed long-tailed shrikes, and an extraordinary diversity of butterflies.
Photos of Naga hunters]
We actually were kind of blown away by the butterfly diversity in this part of of Asia. We we spent more time probably looking at butterflies than we did at birds, and part of the reason for that is the Naga love to hunt and they hunt everything. That’s one of the one of the differences about the rest of India, you know Assam for example, and in Nagaland as soon as you cross the border into Nagaland almost every guy you see over the age of 16 has a shotgun or an air rifle or a light caliber 22 rifle over his shoulder. Every kid under the age of 16 has a slingshot, and some of them like this guy have both. And particularly around the villages the birds are just scarce. They they simply they simply eat them all. It’s it’s been a real problem.
One of the things that the falcon conservation push has done is start to generate a conversation among the Naga communities about conservation in general. A lot of the big game has gone. The last tiger that was seen in Nagaland was was about 15 years ago. They had one that that showed up there last year and was almost immediately shot.
[Photo of mithun skull hanging outside house]
There are still wild elephants, there’s barking deer, there’s there’s a number of species, but it’s it’s it’s not what it could be given how lightly populated Nagaland is and how relatively forested it it is. When you go into the villages you’ll often see skulls. This is a mithun, which are the the large semi-domestic cattle, their native cattle to that area. Barking deer are still fairly common and every house has barking deer skulls hanging up both as hunting trophies, but it’s also it’s also a good luck charm.
[Photos of Pangti and Baptist Church]
There this is this is Pangti, the Baptist Church dominates them dominates the community. It’s about 500 households, and as I said as with all of these Naga communities they’re they’re high up on mountaintops. I mean Pangti has been there for many many, many generations, and you know 50 or 60 years ago there was still, they were still village to village warfare going on there. It’s you know the architecture is a you know typical Tibeto-Burmese architecture. They love flowers, it’s really it’s quite a beautiful community, a very welcoming community.
[Photo of open fire and kitten]
One of the things I found entrancing was just, was getting tea. I love this picture and a lot of these photographs are Kevin Loughlin’s by the way so I know the credit line is there, but I want to give Kevin a shout out for them. And this is it this is a typical a typical Naga home, open hearth fire dirt floor, but there are also homes in the community that you know are you know thoroughly modern construction with like you know, the whole village is electrified. That’s one of the advantages of having a hydroelectric dam built fairly close by.
[Photos of host and his parents]
Our host was anxious to introduce us to his parents. His his mother is 98 years old and blind, his father is a hundred and two, was a famous tiger hunter in his day. During World War Two he he worked with the with the British when they were fighting the Japanese invasion into India, and in fact his father still has his, keeps his tiger spear handy. You can’t really see it in this picture but his his right hand has these massive scars on it. He got jumped by a tiger when he was in the forest one day, and killed it with his machete. Interesting interesting guy, Mister Sopo was was very proud of his father’s a lot of his father’s hunting trophies. Most of these were, most of these were taken with spear.
[Photo of tombstone with drawings on it]
When you when you walk through the village, they the tradition there is to bury your family dead in the courtyard of the house, and so a lot of homes have have two stones. This is a, not sure how well you can see that, this gentleman died in 1947 and he killed four tigers, two leopards, an elephant, and he took six human heads. He was alive during World War II. It’s possible that that those were Japanese heads. The Battle of Kojima there was there was a lot of Japanese were killed. They’re, they’re buried in the war cemetery. They’re the the the joke I heard was well there’s you know there’s X number of Japanese bodies in that cemetery but there’s not X number of Japanese heads in that cemetery.
[Photo of human skulls]
Then the Naga today are reluctant to talk about head hunting, they’re you know, it’s it’s it’s not in keeping with with with their with their their Baptist tradition although it was for a long time. The American, I should say American Baptist missionaries came to Nagaland in the 1850s, 1860s, I forget exactly when, and established a presence there. And but they they made only modest inroads through much of the 20th century, but after Indian independence the Indian government kicked foreign missionaries out, and the Nagas sort of took that like, okay you’ll get it, you’re gonna kick that you’re gonna kick our missionaries out, all right we’re gonna become Baptist. And that was the point where where conversion rates skyrocketed. Like I said they’ve been they’ve been defiantly un-Indian for a very long time.
I found them understandably reluctant to want to talk about about their headhunting past, but you know until fairly recently almost almost all the homes would have would have displayed trophies or there would have been a special house in the village where where war trophies would have been, would have been displayed.
[Photo of woman in traditional dress]
Um each village has its own, its own colors, its own traditional dress. We had an opportunity to visit with some of the women in Pangti one day, and I’ve got a little video here.
[Video of women grinding and sifting rice]
They were they were pound- they were grinding rice, and the use a use a traditional mortar and pestle. And it’s a little bit like Scottish walking songs where you keep the rhythm for the work by singing. That’s what they do here as well. So there’s there’s hard-hulled rice in those pestles. They invited me to try there’s no way I was going to be able to do that in time. And those are heavy posts as well, seven, eight feet tall, probably five or six feet in diameter, probably weigh about 25 pounds or so. You get a workout and then after the rice has been has been ground, then it has to be, has to be sifted and then there’s always, that’s what it looks like when it comes out of the the pestle, and there’s always somebody around to pick up the scraps.
[Photos of Amur falcons]
So you know as I said one of the things I was interested in is what happens when when folks who don’t have a lot do something difficult and really take a hit for it, you know the money that people were making selling falcons, most of the families that I talked to use that money to pay their children’s school fees. In in many parts of India that you have to pay for your kids’ education and it’s it’s not it’s not cheap, especially in a place like this where higher education, they have to be you know for like at some of the higher primary grades, they have to be sent to boarding schools in the in the in the larger towns or villages.
During the days of the of the Falcon harvest, and this really only lasted for a few years. I mean they started catching Falcons in the early 2000s, you know it peaked around 2010, 2012 and then went away, but during that period almost everybody in the village had some sort of a hand in this. They were either trapping the falcons or they were processing the falcons, either taking them to the to the cities to sell them, almost everybody benefited financially from that. Now that the focus is on tourism, there’s there’s a lot more income inequality, there’s a lot more inequity.
[Photo of Inchomo the guide]
For some of the people like like Inchomo, who was a who was a falcon trapper, he’s now he’s now a guide and, and he’s a he’s a remarkably skilled birder, as you know most people who live close to the land and spent every day out in the forest are, but he’s really embraced this. He’s you know ,he’s learning the English names for the birds. He he really he wants he wants to learn you know butterfly identification, bird identification, in fact we left him a copy of a field guide to the birds of India so he could start to learn the English names for these birds, not just the not just the local names for the birds.
[Photos of watchtower]
So he’s making money taking taking tourists out guiding them for for birds, you know which is important because some of Inchomo’s kids are in boarding school, and this is expensive, and he really misses financially, misses the money that they made from this relatively brief period of every year during the falcon harvest. A relative of his owns the property where one of these large roost sites is, and so they you know he invested in building a watch tower, and every day when tourists come there they pay a small fee to enter the property. So you know there’s there’s money that the guides get, there’s money that the landowners get. This is this is the landowner right here. Now he, they made, they’re you know.
Not everybody is necessarily connecting the dots. The the roost with where the birds actually spend the night. This forest last year we went there, he’d cut down about a quarter of the trees in that roost because it was time to plant that area with teak. I’ve always done that, that’s how you make money, he I don’t know that he’d really quite connected the dots that if you cut down that roost site, those birds that people are paying to come see will go somewhere else. So we had a we had a fairly urgent conversation with him about that.
Some of the families in the village like the family we were staying with had enough cash on hand to invest in the facilities they needed to turn their homes into homestays so that when visitors came they could stay with them. But you know there’s 500 households in Pangti and so far, as I think three of them have setup stays. So one of the really pressing questions over there, and I don’t have an answer for this, is how they’re going to be able to share the wealth equitably, so that there isn’t a building resentment on the part of the rest of the community that they’ve given up this ready source of income for you know, for the benefit of a relatively smaller number of people in the community. What what they did have going for them in terms of falcon conservation is this was not a traditional hunt.
You know I mentioned you know I’ve just been in Cyprus where there they catch two and a half million songbirds a year because it’s a tradition, and much of the Mediterranean in Italy in France in Malta, to eat small songbirds, and trying to get past that tradition is really difficult. This was not a tradition, and once once they understood how dangerous it was for the birds they were willing to step away from it but you know the fact of the matter is more of the people in these communities need to make money from falcons, so that they embrace this notion of of conservation. Which brings us to one of the weirdest aspects of the situation in Nagaland.
[Photo of Bano and Scott]
In our conversations with with Bano she said something that I’ve almost never heard from a conservationist in a relatively undeveloped part of the world. She said we need more and better roads. Roads are usually the enemy of conservation. Roads go in, wildlife disappears. But her point was if if the existing road network in Nagaland were in better shape, that it wouldn’t be you know like you didn’t feel like you were taking your life in your hands driving in these god-awful roads, if they could more easily bring people in from outside, it would give these communities an opportunity to benefit from tourism.
[Photo of car driving on muddy road]
It’s it is an extraordinarily beautiful place and and even though you know even though the the the bird life might have been a little sparse er around the villages then I might have I might have preferred, there’s a lot there for ecotourism if it didn’t take you 8 to 12 hours to make the relative, it’s really a relatively short distance that you’re driving. It would be absolute no-brainer to connect visiting Nagaland at the peak of the falcon migration in late October and early November with the opening of Kaziranga National Park in the neighboring state of Assam, which opens at the close of the of the monsoon season in early November.
[Photos of Kaziranga, Indian one-horned rhinos, and other wildlife]
Kaziranga is one of the crown jewels of Asia’s national park system. It’s along the the Brahmaputra River, it’s not all that far from from Pangti. It’s home to the largest Indian one-horned rhino population in the world, is three thousand Indian one-horned rhinos there when we visited Kaziranga after our time in in Pangti.
At one point I was standing at an observation point looking out over the floodplain of the river. I counted 59 rhinos in one sweep of my binoculars and you have wild buffalo and swamp deer and hog deer and wild hogs and wild elephants and an extraordinary range of bird life of Pallas’s sea eagles, red-wattled lapwings, giant hornbills, and it would be a perfect match to bring people to Kaziranga and and and to the Amur falcons, but you’re gonna need, you’re gonna need roads, better roads to get them in. There don’t have to have more roads, there’s, that there’s a lot of other social social socio-economic reasons why a better a better road system in Nagaland would be beneficial for the environment they’re in.
[Photos of Nagaland landscape and Amur falcon]
Unfortunately because Nagaland’s been trying to break away from the rest of India for for something like 80 years, the Indian government has no real interest in pouring money into Nagaland. Nagaland has also been cursed with really corrupt and inept state management and so I don’t I don’t know that it’s necessarily gonna change anytime soon, but you know I came away with feeling like that a feeling that I agreed with Bano that for the first time in my career as a conservationist, a natural history writer, it was kind of, I was kind of rooting for the paving trucks to show up and and the and the road engineers.
Every morning we would go down to the watch sites, we’d watch these birds as they, as they departed they’d spread out across the landscape. We’d see them in small kettles as they were feeding on on termites, and then we would come back in the evening and particularly we’ve the last evening that we were in Nagaland, that low light again walking walking through the high elephant grass, finding finding where elephants had just come through, you know earlier that day left these enormous crushed paths through the through the elephant grass. It’s a little nerve-wracking because Asian elephants can be extremely aggressive and extremely dangerous and not that last evening, we didn’t really see that many falcons. They kind of, they were kind of lingering wherever they were.
[Video of sunset with falcons flying across sky and photos of falcons in flight]
We climbed up into the watchtower, we listen to the crickets, we listen to the frogs, we watched the Sun go down, and then after dark as the as a gibbous moon was rising, these birds started coming in by the hundreds and then the thousands and then the tens of thousands, and unlike the morning when there was a cessation of of wings, this the sense of you know like rushing water. It was utterly and completely quiet, these birds gliding in. It was kind of like they were being drawn into a black hole. Just coming from every point on the compass to this, to this central, to the central point. And even after it was full dark, when we can no longer see them against that the the disc of the moon would see and I found myself, okay so the disc of the moon covers X percentage of the sky, and I just stopped at that point because sometimes you just let science go, sometimes you just let the numbers wash away to just stand there in this incredibly remote place watching this astonishing migration, and and to realize that this horrible thing that had been happening had had had ended, and potentially a new day for these birds had dawned. and potentially a new day for the Naga.
It’s going to be critical to get tourists in there and Catherine Hamilton who was over there with me last year she and Luke Tiller have a Wildside group in there right now, they actually they just left Nagaland and headed to Kaziranga a couple of days ago, with mattresses, they made sure they’ve got mattresses.
And if anybody is feeling adventuresome I’m taking a group in there next year and Gus kindly gave me permission, there’s some there’s some flyers over there. I’m not just trying to hawk a an ecotour trip for an ecotour company. This is this is gonna be critical for making this whole conservation thing work for the falcons in Nagaland. So if you if you don’t mind muddy roads in landslide zones and butts potentially sleeping on fairly hard beds in order to see one of the most astonishing raptor spectacles, talk to me afterwards.
Thank you so much for coming out this evening. I want to thank Gus and everybody else here at the Cornell Lab. It’s always such a pleasure and such a privilege to come here and Fitz just keep doing what you’re doing. Thank you all very much. We have time for questions, Gus says we have time we have time for questions.
Yes so so Leo’s holding up the big sign that says repeat the question for those on the livestream.
So there, this 2,400 mile crossing of the Indian Ocean, how many days does that take them? They’ve actually put satellite transmitters on Amur falcons and in fact the the year they discovered this big slaughter, in 2012, there was the first Amur Falcon that had ever been satellite tagged was passing through that area and Bano and her crew were terrified that it was going to be killed because it would be horrible publicity. And and I’m and and I’m sort of spinning this out because I’m trying to remember how many days it takes. I want to say it’s a it’s a two and a half day crossing but I’m, I I’ll be very honest with you, I forget. We could look it up in the magazine article because it is in it is in their constant flight, yet they can’t do, not you know there’s there’s no thermals out over the air, over the ocean and you know and some of them, some of the individual birds have now tagged a number of of Amur falcons.
Some of them take a somewhat more northern route and go across to the Horn of Africa, but some of the some and in the springtime they tend to go a little bit further, excuse me, from your perspective farther north this way, but in the fall they’re generally going kind of across the white part of the of the Indian Ocean. Yeah it’s it’s an extraordinary thing. We we still don’t know what migratory birds are capable of, you know every time we think we’ve got it figured out they do something else that that astonishes us.
Any other, any other questions. Yes, [Music] so so the question is you know I was wondering, you know what what are the chances of the people in Nagaland are gonna prosper with what seems like a fairly iffy situation as far as tourism goes. Um I don’t know I I do I do think, I don’t think anybody’s gonna go back to killing falcons. First of all it’s illegal. It was illegal when they were doing it, but the Indian government had kind of turned a blind eye to it. If they went back to doing it now it’s just the wrath of the world would come down on them, so that’s that’s not going to happen. What what is happening is actually there are significant concentrations of falcons in other communities in Nagaland, so you know some of that, some of these other communities are trying to replicate what Pangti is doing, and also they were discovering large concentrations of falcons in some of the other states, so it’s becoming, it’s becoming more of a regional thing.
There was actually a an Amur falcon festival for the first time in in Nagaland this year because nobody doesn’t like a bird festival. Nagaland is also, they’ve developed a fairly significant tourism industry, cultural tourism industry in Nagaland. I mean you have you know these these large tribal divisions they all have incredibly beautiful traditional regalia clothing and headdresses made of hornbill feathers and hornbill casks. There is a huge hornbill festival and I think in early December in in one of the larger towns, so the the the novel and the sort of nascent tourism industry in Nagaland as a whole. There’s also a lot of foodie tourism in Nagaland because the cuisine is delicious and very different than the rest of India. So they’re they’re starting to coordinate I think a little bit more, a little bit more, but you know in the more remote areas like Pangti it really is going to come down to to better roads. But now they have an incentive to try to get those roads fixed up.
Yes so the question is if there have been any attempts to coalesce you know NGO and international aid toward getting those roads done. I don’t know I haven’t heard of it. I can’t say that there hasn’t been but I don’t I don’t have an answer for that, unfortunately. Yes right so the question the question of what partners would be involved in that kind of road work. It’s a good question because you know the the money as I understand it would have to come from the Indian sort of national government and they’re not they’re not anxious to make that kind of money available to Nagaland because of all the political problems or something and so, but there needs to be a partner and there might be some kind of, wait I mean there’s you know the state of Nagaland has a road department, it’s just that they’re they’re poorly funded. And and I have to say also the conditions are God-awful, I mean it’s, they’re steep mountainsides, it’s it’s extremely rugged terrain to be building to be really building roads through. It’s not like building roads in New York or Pennsylvania would be and I and I wish I knew more about the political situation there as as relates to these roads and I and I apologize that I don’t know. Yes right well soon right.
So how long are the Falcons staying there? We don’t really know how long each individual Falcon is there and there’s there’s work going on right now to try to try to answer that. The the Falcon numbers in most years start building about the second or third week of October, they usually peak around the first of the first week of November, and then some of them some of the birds are there into late November or early December. But whether you know an individual falcon is there for two months or not I’d be surprised if that turned out to be the case. They’re there of course because of the termites, because of this enormous flush of termites we now know that they’re you know they’re wandering in that whole area of Nagaland and Assam, and some of the surrounding states into into neighboring Myanmar/Burma what what are we calling it these days? I don’t I don’t know what’s the proper the proper term the proper name but you know the bulking up on these on these termites.
But there’s a there’s a couple of young scientists, some of them working for the the Indian Forest Department, some of them University students. In fact I’m involved with Hawk Mountain down in Pennsylvania, and we have two young scientists, a young conservation biologist with the Indian forestry department who’s coming to Hawk Mountain as an international trainee in the spring and a fellow who’s working on his master’s looking at the diet of of Amur falcons. Are they just feeding on termites? What kind of termites are they feeding on? And he’ll be coming I think spring of 2020 as a trainee at Hawk Mountain to try to give them the tools that they need, the educational and professional tools they need to go back. And you know the the young fellow who’s coming next spring is is very involved in outreach working with these communities and were going to be we’re going to be teaching him as much as we can about you know building constituencies for conservation for raptors and in rural communities.
Yes yeah and termites, eating termites and and in fact I can’t remember the numbers now but a couple of South African biologists actually calculated how many billions of termites the Amur Falcons are eating when they’re, when they’re in southern Africa because they’re arriving down at the time when the termites are emerging or emerging there.
so it’s kind of like you know Eastern kingbirds leaving here and going to South America for the winter and then moving across the Amazon basin in sync with with local rainy seasons because that’s when the fruit’s ripening, and they can they can feed on fruit. You all know that kingbirds feed on fruit in the winter time rather than insects. So and we see this again and again with migratory birds, with it they’ve created these global networks of movement so that they hit exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Where you have these seasonal flushes of food.
Now when they’re up in, on the breeding grounds in Siberia, they’re not getting a lot of of termites up there. But in not in in India and in Africa they’re feeding on termites. Yes that’s a good question. I don’t think anybody has an answer for that. You know I, we missed the opportunity to necropsy a lot of Amur Falcons five years ago, but it wouldn’t, it would not surprise me at all. You know we’re finding that many migratory birds undergo profound physiological changes, now not necessarily to the same extent that like bar-tailed Godwit do where they basically they’re in you know, most of their digestive system atrophies over the course of a few days. but you know most migratory birds just before they take off on migration, their pectoral muscles increase dramatically in size, their heart muscle increases dramatically in size, and they do that without exercise. Sign me up for that, like I want that in a pill, and there and there are there are human physiologist working on that.
Yes sir they nest, they nest in low trees and on the breeding grounds, yeah often in kind of open you know sort of steppe areas. Small small groups yeah, they’re not in dense, they’re not in dense forests, no and there and it’s like southern Siberia so you know more you know more more more steppe grasslands. All right well I’m I can keep talking about this until your eyes roll back in your head if you want to do it privately, but again I want to thank you all very much for coming out.
[Gus] Scott, thank you so much. So Scott has agreed to hang out afterwards and he’ll be out here signing books. With that we can conclude the program. Thank you very much for coming out, and thank you very much to our web audience tonight. Thank you very much Scott.
[Applause]End of transcript
Each autumn, more than a million Amur Falcons congregate in India’s remote northeast state of Nagaland, pausing on a 9,000-mile migration from Asia to southern Africa. Until 2012, no one in the outside world knew this great gathering existed — or that the local villagers were killing hundreds of thousands of the birds for food. What happened next was one of the most remarkable conservation success stories in recent years, but also poses thorny questions about what happens when a poor community does the right but difficult thing. Join author and researcher Scott Weidensaul as he discusses his 2017 expedition to Nagaland, and the future of this galaxy of falcons.