When I tell people I work on the conservation of pheasants, they usually look at me as if I’m mad. ‘Aren’t there rather a lot of them about?’ they ask. The UK certainly isn’t lacking for long-tailed, portly game-birds, strutting suicidally down country roads. However, the taxonomic group, the Galliformes, from which the common pheasant hails, is one of the most threatened groups of birds with over a quarter of its species classed as at risk by the IUCN.
There are around 290 galliform species and they are found in every continent of the world, bar Antarctica. With their wide variety of habitats and ecological traits, the Galliformes lend themselves well to macroecological studies. Often large and brightly-plumed they play an important role in many cultures from the peacock, the national bird of India, to the Famous Grouse of Scotch whisky. Sadly, like so much of Earth’s biodiversity, Galliformes’ numbers are swiftly diminishing due to human hunting and habitat destruction.
One galliform, the Himalayan Quail, is known from a mere handful of nineteenth century sightings. It is very likely extinct. The Common Quail, in contrast, has an estimated population of 25 million and occurs across Europe, Asia and Africa. However, in this rapidly changing world, a high abundance or wide geographic spread does not guarantee persistence. (Ask the passenger pigeon – relegated to museum drawers by over-hunting it was once the most abundant bird in North America, its flocks blotting out the skies.)
Our team was keen to investigate whether species which are perceived as being of ‘least concern’ through virtue of a wide geographic range might actually be undergoing rapid, undetected, decline. We were also interested in examining the spatial patterns of range change – do species ranges tend to decline from the edge inwards or fragment across the centre? In order to answer these questions we needed to know not just where Galliformes occur now but where they were found 100-200 years ago. And so began our data collection…
Over ten years on, I am still overwhelmed by the generosity of the many people around the world who gave their time, whether mining journals, transcribing museum labels, sending in their own personal records or informally reviewing records that fell within their regional expertise. At a time of high political tension between the UK and Iran, I found the offer of help from an Iranian ornithologist particularly poignant. It was good to know that the bonds of scientific collaboration were stronger than threats of war.
It was fascinating visiting different museum collections. I remember constantly barking my knuckles on the wide wooden drawers of the Smithsonian, struggling to gently cram specimens back into overflowing boxes in Paris and rigging up electric lights in a still bomb-damaged collection hall in Berlin. The curator at the Natural History Museum, Tring, taught one of our volunteers taxidermy during lunch breaks. I loved chancing across specimens collected by the great Victorian naturalists – Gould, Forrest and, on one particularly special occasion, Alfred Russell Wallace.
Trawling through literary archives was also a privilege. At the Edward Grey Institute, Oxford, I read the correspondence of the Indian ornithologist, Salim Ali. Scattered in amongst natural history reports were his fears for India in the lead up to Partition and his despair at the violence which followed.
All in all, it took 21 of us around 1500 person days to collect over 185,000 occurrence records, spanning the last two centuries. 9 peer-reviewed publications have resulted so far; we have examined bias in different sources of biodiversity data, assessed the effects of missing data on biodiversity metrics and explored the optimisation of Protected Areas. We have looked at local extirpations in Southeast Asia, estimated the completeness of geographic range estimates and modelled the potential distributions of highly threatened species. There is still plenty of scope for further study and in publishing the database, we very much hope it will be used by other research groups.