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White-naped Tit: Whistler in the Bush

Partial to thorny scrub forests in the western and southern parts of the country, this rare bird is slowly losing its preferred habitat

Text by: Sutirtha Lahiri
Photos by: Shashank Dalvi

Around us was a thorn forest surrounding a small waterbody. Though it was getting dark, my collaborator Ram Mohan and I waited. We’d been told that this was the most reliable location to spot the rare white-naped tit (Machlolophus nuchalis). Amidst the last calls of the flock of noisy large grey babblers, and peafowls tucking in for the night, we were hoping to hear the tit’s distinct “pit-pit-pit-pit-pit”. Our friend had once seen it in the Capparis bush next to us, but we knew our chances of seeing it on the first day of our trip into insectivorous species were slim. And indeed, the bird evaded us on that trip.

We were in Nahargarh, near Jaipur, Rajasthan, for fieldwork, funded by The Rufford Foundation, to study the white-naped tit and other thorn forest birds using passive acoustic monitoring — a sampling technique using acoustic recorders that are set up to record for extended periods of time. Over the course of the next few days, walking forest patches and conversing with local birdwatchers, we realised just how difficult it is to sight (or even hear) this bird here.

Found only in India, the white-naped tit is partial to dry scrub forests in the western and southern parts of the country, and this individual was photographed in Pushkar, Rajasthan. This shy species is threatened by the degradation and fragmentation of its habitat.

Found only in India, the white-naped tit is partial to dry scrub forests in the western and southern parts of the country, and this individual was photographed in Pushkar, Rajasthan. This shy species is threatened by the degradation and fragmentation of its habitat.

The white-naped tit (also called pied tit or white-winged tit) is the only black-and-white tit on the Indian subcontinent, where it is endemic. It has an unmistakable white-nape and can be easily distinguishable from the cinerous tit, which is sympatric (i.e. occurs in the same or overlapping area) in some of its range.

According to a study by Satish Sharma and Vijay Koli published in 2004, the white-naped tit moves seasonally to different habitats. In the monsoon, it confines itself to hilly thorn forests dominated by Boswellia serrata (salai) trees, and in the summer, it prefers lower elevation scrub habitats with Acacias and Ziziphus trees. Being a secondary cavity nester, the white-naped tit uses nest holes created by species like woodpeckers and barbets. In the study mentioned above, all the nests were observed in holes on Boswellia serrata trees, while other ornithologists, Jugal Tiwari and Dr Asad Rahmani, observed them nesting in the Salvadora persica in Kutch. Interestingly however, Salim Ali has vividly described how in 1943 he observed the white-naped tit roosting inside a hole on a gate in Bhuj. An insectivorous species, this tit gleans its food from leaves and twigs of Acacia and Prosopis trees.

The white-naped tit is found in two disjunct populations in India: in the northwest (in Gujarat, Haryana, and Rajasthan) and in the south (thorn scrubs of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu). Although previously considered very rare in southern India, more recent surveys have recorded it there. Lott and Lott, in a report in 1999 in Forktail collated a list of all records from Southern India, “When I first saw this fascinating habitat specialist in thorny scrub near the river Palar on the Tamil Nadu/Karnataka border, I was amazed at how starkly ‘pied’ it was, completely unlike the cinerous tit,” says Ashwin Vishwanathan, a scientist working with eBird, a platform that uses citizen science data to understand birds. “As always, they shared their habitat with white-tailed ioras, a species pair I have seen in the same patch many times since,” he adds. Such endearing field notes have only improved our understanding of this and many other species that are thought to be rare.

Easily identified by its black-and-white plumage, the white-naped tit is quite vocal and can be identified by its high-pitched musical whistling notes.

Easily identified by its black-and-white plumage, the white-naped tit is quite vocal and can be identified by its high-pitched musical whistling notes.

The white-naped tit’s numbers have dwindled in several of its ranges and it is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. Its strict habitat requirements of thorn scrub forests, and its disjunct population have meant that it is in desperate need for conservation. It is important to protect both the thorn patches that are found in its range, and the specific tree species that are important for its nesting and feeding ecology. Unfortunately, a lot of thorn forests in India are being taken over by invasive species like Prosopis juliflora (vilaayati keekar).

Being a rare bird, there have not been any comprehensive ecological studies on its population, or on other aspects of its natural history. There is an immediate need for more studies on the species. In the Nahargarh Biological Park, a small group of dedicated nature lovers — led by Mr Govind Yadav of the Tourism and Wildlife Society of India — along with the forest department of Rajasthan have undertaken extensive studies on the white-naped tit, including its habitat requirement, nesting and feeding ecology. They are now working on restoring some habitats and are testing the efficacy of nest boxes on salai trees for breeding. However, there continues to be an urgent need to further understand the white-naped tit’s habitat requirements and lobby for the protection and restoration of key thorny habitats.

Sutirtha Lahiri
Sutirtha Lahiri

is a researcher at IISER Pune. He is keen about natural history, writing, indigenous knowledge in conservation and sustainability, and loves exploring local food and good tea.

Shashank Dalvi
Shashank Dalvi

is one of India’s leading ornithologists, alumnus of NCBS and a core member of the Amur Falcon Conservation Project. He runs Eco-Connect Ventures, that developed a birding app called 'Vannya'.

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