Wild Buzz: Taxing bean matters

  • Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Mar 01, 2015 09:12 IST

Among the most ogled and anticipated migratory birds that winter in India are vagrants. These birds, which mistakenly wander to India with a "carrier group" of regular migrants of other species, attract birders, ornithologists and media.

An exceptionally rare vagrant has been the Bean goose, first photographed in India at Harike wildlife sanctuary on February 12, 2003. The fourth sighting of this goose in India came very recently from Mangalsar dam near Alwar, Rajasthan, where it provoked the paparazzi to make a beeline for an esoteric click. Photographers noticed that the carrier group for this lone Bean goose at Alwar was Greylag geese and that the vagrant was well accommodated by the latter in their sub-group. Greylags are regular migrants to India.

The Bean goose is one whose taxonomy attracts conflicting and complex views. I sought the advice of Praveen J, who has co-authored a learned paper on Indian Rarities, and Thomas Heinicke of the Bean Goose Complex Working Group under the IUCN Species Survival Commission/Wetlands International.

Heinicke told me, "I checked the photos (of the Alwar Bean goose) and the bird is clearly a Bean Goose of a Tundra form. Unfortunately, the separation between the western ssp. rossicus and birds of the western range of the eastern ssp. serrirostris is extremely difficult and not well known. For me, due to coloration of head and neck, the bird is more likely a western type of serrirostris, but I wouldn't determinate this bird at ssp. level for sure."


CAPTION:The Bean goose (centre) with a Greylag goose (to its left) and a Bar-headed goose (to its right) near Alwar. Sudhir Garg

Heinicke had earlier viewed the lone Bean goose photographed at Tumariya reservoir (Uttarakhand) on December 1, 2011, by the Corbett Foundation and determined it as of the rossicus/serrirostris taxa within the Bean goose species complex. Praveen J's paper does not assign a racial identity to the Harike Bean goose of 2003 but does state that the Bean goose photographed by Craig Robson at Dibru Saikhowa National Park, Assam, on April 1, 2007, was of the middendorffii race.


CAPTION: Bean goose at Harike in February 2003. Mike Prince

Putting matters of taxonomy into perspective, Praveen J told this writer: "The Alwar Bean goose is definitely
of the 'Tundra group' (rossicus/serrirostris group). Apart from the small size, I do not know if the features shown in these pictures are sufficient to eliminate serrirostris but will be asking more people who are familiar with these birds.

You should be aware that two of the widely accepted taxonomies (Howard & Moore, Birdlife International) do not accept the split as Tundra & Taiga. As mentioned in our paper (Indian Rarities - 2), rossicus and serrirostris is recognized by several world taxonomies (IOC taxonomy, eBird/Clements taxonomy) as Tundra Bean Goose, separate from other three (i.e. fabalis, johanseni and middendorffii). However, the two other taxonomies, as mentioned above, do not recognise this split."

The IUCN's view on Bean goose taxonomy is that it is "one polyphyletic species, Anser fabalis".


Rocky, the lone surviving hybrid of Asiatic and African lions at the Chhatbir zoo, is in the running to claim the record of one of the longest surviving big cats in captivity. Despite illnesses, a complete cataract of one eye and this winter's relentless cold, Rocky has weathered all storms and got his roar back due to excellent care extended by the veterinary staff.

Zoo director Manish Kumar estimates Rocky to be "at least in the 20s". If we go by the zoo records updated in September 2006, Rocky was18 years old then. That would make his age currently a record 26 years. But there is a catch. The zoo does not have a date of birth for Rocky as the age recorded in 2006 was based on an estimate of physical characteristics.

"When hybrid lions proliferated at the zoo in the last century, no records were maintained. It was only between 2003 and 2006 that lions were profiled, named and estimated for age.

We are consulting experts to have Rocky's age determined by DNA and other tests at the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology because this lion is way beyond normal age. However, such tests require detailed samples from the animal and we do not want to take this 'interventionist' risk as Rocky's health is fragile. An option could be to get the test done with samples that do not require anaesthesia etc., such as hair follicles. Or, we wait till Rocky dies," Kumar told this writer.

Rocky has been maintained on choice meats, tonics, supplements and enclosure innovations by the veterinary staff. Rocky had a close call this January when the icy cold laid him up with high fever. He had stopped eating and only the provision of a special dish, chicken soup, got the patriarch interested again in food and roaring with vigour!

Kumar is proceeding cautiously to establish Rocky's age as he is well aware of bagging a faux pas in such record claims! In January 2014, Kanpur zoo authorities rushed to the media with claims that a tiger, Guddu, 26, had died. They planned to approach the Limca and Guinness World Records' keepers with the claim of Guddu's record age.

However, a verification was later undertaken of Guddu's age from Chhatbir from where it had come to Kanpur in 2001. Chhatbir's accurately-maintained tiger records revealed Guddu was actually 19 years at the time of death!


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