SPECIES

Spiny Babbler Turdoides nipalensis Scientific name definitions

Carol Inskipp and Hem S. Baral
Version: 2.0 — Published May 7, 2022

Conservation and Management

BirdLife International (6) assessed Spiny Babbler as a species of Least Concern. A detailed review of all of Nepal’s bird species also considered Spiny Babbler as Least Concern at the national level (14). It is a restricted-range species in the Central Himalayan Endemic Bird Area designated by BirdLife International (7) and is the only bird species endemic to Nepal.

It occurs in a number of protected areas, including Khaptad, Shivapuri Nagarjun, Langtang, and Makalu Barun National Parks; it also occurs marginally in Bardia National Park, and in Annapurna and Kanchenjunga Conservation Areas. However, considering the species’ use of secondary scrub habitat, its distribution lies mainly outside the protected areas’ system (see Management).

Effects of Human Activity

The combined requirements of secondary scrub, preferably dense in structure, and narrow altitudinal range, form a major factor determining the Spiny Babbler’s occurrence and abundance and account for the species’ local distribution.

Habitat Loss and Degradation

Spiny Babbler is a shy species, and as such, it is prone to disturbance. Thakuri (31) found the species to be significantly impacted by road building, vehicular traffic on roads, anthropogenic activities near settlements, and tourism (see Population Regulation).

The secondary scrub habitat used by Spiny Babbler is created and maintained by human activity. The cutting of primary forest for timber, fuelwood, and other domestic needs of rural communities, followed by grazing of domestic livestock resulted in the development of extensive scrub cover in the mid-hills (3). Abandonment of agricultural land has also led to an increase in scrub cover, although this is temporary as the scrub eventually develops into forest. Although surveys of Spiny Babbler in this abandoned farmland have not been carried out, this land within the species’ altitudinal range has the potential to be good habitat for the species.The spread of urbanization, cash crops, road construction, tourism development, community forestry, and habitat protection provided by national parks and conservation areas, which encourages the development of scrub into high forest, all contribute to the reduction of the Spiny Babbler's scrub habitat. For example, the species was regularly recorded in the Phulchoki Mountain Important Bird Area on the slopes of the Kathmandu valley in the 1990s until 2003 (e.g., 40, 41; Baral, unpublished data). However, a review of Kathmandu valley records between 2004 and 2006 failed to find the species (38). By then, the former scrub habitat on Phulchoki had developed into forest which was unsuitable for the species (14). The forest habitat of Phulchoki improved as a result of the local community forestry program (see Management for more details).

Gains in forest cover have also been observed in the Middle Mountains and within the altitudinal range of Spiny Babbler. In a detailed analysis of Landsat satellite images of Nepal, it has been found that forest cover in the mid-hills expanded from 26% in 1992 to 45% in 2016 (42). Forest gains have been partly because of community forestry, but also due to agricultural abandonment. Studies have shown that increasing out-migration in recent years has resulted in ‘unprecedented’ land abandonment in the mountains (43). As there is a lack of human resources to carry out cultivation, forest has gradually replaced scrub habitat on abandoned agricultural land (42). Mapping the spatial distribution of reforestation and out-migration in Nepal showed that areas with the highest levels of out-migration experienced the most forest recovery on average, and that there was a strong positive effect of out-migration on forest regeneration (44).

In a study of Spiny Babbler in Kaski district in the Annapurna Conservation Area, loss of its scrub habitat was found to be a major factor reducing populations of the species (31). Here, Spiny Babbler was observed in tea plantations and in cardamom (31). However, populations in tea plantations and cardamom were found to be significantly lower than in the scrub habitats they replaced (31). The species has also been observed in coffee plantations, where there are scattered shade trees amongst coffee shrubberies (CI, personal observation). As both tea and coffee plantations form quite uniform habitats compared to scrublands and are usually heavily treated with pesticide, it is likely these plantations will only support low populations.

The spread of urbanization, cash crops, and road building are all likely to have reduced secondary scrub throughout much of Nepal. Once a area is forested, its clearance is a punishable act, but clearance of thickets that are preferred by Spiny Babbler does not fall under any such offense, making it easier for people to convert such habitats into other uses. Removal of scrub for road construction, together with debris flow resulting from construction work were found to be major threats in the Annapurna Conservation Area. As the roads were of poor construction, landslides occur every monsoon resulting in the destruction of more scrub habitat (31). Unregulated and haphazard road construction elsewhere in Nepal’s Middle Mountains is a major threat to the extent of scrubland and forest, as well as to the wellbeing of people. The Department of Roads in Nepal estimated that around 2,500 km of rural road tracks had been opened by 2010, most of which were constructed without any environmental safeguard (45). In more recent years, the pace of road building has quickened dramatically, driven by the country’s new constitution, enacted in 2015, which emphasizes decentralized economic growth and includes a directive that roads be constructed to remote settlements (46). The Nepali government is now seeking to build roads (paved, gravel, or dirt) to every village in the mountainous nation (46); many of these new ‘roads’ are unsurfaced tracks which lead to serious erosion each monsoon, resulting in further loss of scrubland and forest. Studies have shown that haphazardly built and poor quality roads significantly increase the number and magnitude of landslides (47).

Shooting and Trapping

Hunting for fun, pure entertainment, and opportunistically for eating is practiced throughout the country (HSB, personal observation), including in the mid-hills, where it may be affecting Spiny Babbler populations locally. In Nalang, Dhading district, for example, nestlings and eggs were found to be collected for food (Bharat Regmi, personal communication). Some birds are also killed by people using slingshots, purely for entertainment (48).

Human/Research Impacts

Birdwatchers playing songs and calls in order to attract birds and see them, and some photographers who try to approach too closely, may cause disturbance, especially during the breeding season.

See Population Regulation for more information.

Management

Conservation Measures and Habitat Management

No management has been carried out specifically for Spiny Babbler. In fact, many forest management plans that seek to restore forest habitat have direct negative impacts on Spiny Babbler habitat. In Phulchoki, the forest habitat improved as a result of the local community forestry program; community forestry is a successful participatory forest management system in Nepal, covering the control, protection, and management of forest resources by rural communities for whom trees and forests are an integral part of their farming systems (49). The program has been most successful in controlling or reversing the trends of deforestation and forest degradation in the country’s Middle Mountains where the Spiny Babbler population is located. Here, the initiation of community forests has resulted in the gradual restoration of degraded forests and scrubland to mature forests (50), which has subsequently led to a reduction in suitable habitat for Spiny Babbler.

In another example of habitat restoration resulting in disappearance of Spiny Babbler, the protection of land around around Tokha Sanatorium on the lower slopes of Shivapuri mountain in the Kathmandu valley has led to forest regeneration. The scrub jungle around Tokha supported good numbers of the species from at least 1959 (51, 34) until the early 1990s. However, Shivapuri was protected, first as the Shivapuri Watershed and Wildlife Reserve in 1984, then as Shivapuri National Park in 2002, which was extended to become Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park in 2009 (52). With protection, the formerly extensive scrub jungle has developed into mature forest and is no longer suitable habitat for Spiny Babbler (CI).

Recommended Citation

Inskipp, C. and H. S. Baral (2022). Spiny Babbler (Turdoides nipalensis), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.spibab1.02