The injured masked booby could have straggled towards the Kerala coast due to the inclement weather and winds caused by the south-west monsoon.

The masked booby found at Kuzhupilly beach areaManoj Karingamadathi
news Wildlife Thursday, July 28, 2022 - 16:41

A sub-adult masked booby, a large seabird of the Sulidae family, was released into the deep sea off the Kochi coast by a team led by Assistant Conservator of Forests Jayamadhavan A on July 25. The bird was found by fishermen near the Kuzhupilly beach area on July 4. While masked boobies fall under the ‘least concern’ category of the IUCN, the bird was a rare sight as they seldom come to the Kerala coast.

The bird was found with a slight injury to its wings and was handed over to a local animal and bird enthusiast named Abdul Shukkoor. The masked booby recovered under Shukkoor’s care, even supposedly responding to being called “booby”. “It is not usual for large seabirds like this to be tame. But this masked booby was exceptionally tame, and never once left our compound even when let out of the cage,” Shukkoor said. As the bird is a heavy feeder, taking care of it was a demanding task. Shukkoor later alerted officials of the Forest Department after which release measures were undertaken.

Manoj Karingamadathil, a bird watcher involved in the coordination of the bird’s release, said that the bird must have straggled towards the coast due to the inclement weather and winds caused by the south-west monsoon. “One or two sightings are reported along the Kerala coast annually. Around the same time this year, another masked booby was rescued in Thrikkarippoor of Kasaragod district too,” Manoj informed. The earliest recorded sighting of the masked booby in Kerala was made by H R Baker in Kannur in 1911. Birds of Kerala: Status and Distribution describes the bird as an exhausted young female. The rescue team under Jayamadhavan consisted of officers of the Forest and Fisheries departments, the Cochin and Bombay Natural History societies as well as bird watchers. They undertook two attempts to release the bird back to the sea.

During the first attempt, it was taken to the seashore, where it was let out. That attempt failed as the bird did not take off as expected. Dr Dilip K G, retired Sociology Professor and bird watcher associated with the Cochin Natural History Society, said that releasing a seabird back to the sea is a time-consuming process which involves re-orienting the bird to the sea. “The time chosen for release during the first attempt wasn’t favourable as it was raining then. Birds usually tend to perch somewhere and not fly in the rain,” he explained. The bird was also used to being regularly fed at Shukkoor’s place. “It is a common behaviour trait for birds, or any animals, to stay close to whoever provides regular feed. They are likely to choose the convenience of being fed over having to forage. In this case, the masked booby cannot be said to have been tamed. It could have merely been responding to the food,” Dr Dilip added.

The team chose to release the bird in the deep sea during the second attempt. By then, the bird had also become healthier. “The bird had a lice infestation. It is common for such parasites to attach to animals and birds in the wild. By the time of the second attempt, the infestation had been treated,” Dr Dilip said. The bird was taken twenty kilometres into the sea where it was released. Fishermen and sailors have reported instances where these birds would fly in from the sea and perch on boats or ships. According to Dr Dilip, “Even during its second release, the bird perched on the boat for a while. It took some encouragement from the team for it to take off.” “As soon as it touched the water, it took several dips in the sea, making evident its delight at being back in its natural habitat,” Manoj observed. 

“Masked boobies may be present in high, uninhabited islands, possibly with sparse vegetation, found deep in the Indian Ocean all the way from Australia to the Maldives. Sailors may spot these, but sightings of their breeding colonies are rare,” Dr Dilip stated. Manoj, who has been on two birdwatching journeys in the deep sea, said that he has never spotted a breeding colony of the masked booby. “I have only seen masked boobies as part of rescue and release measures, and not in their natural habitat. Rarely, individual boobies are seen between the rocks of breakwaters a few hundred metres into the sea. This is despite them being distributed across almost all oceans,” he said.

The masked booby was ringed under the supervision of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) before it was released into the sea. “It was an aluminium ring inscribed with BNHS’s name and an identification number that will help track the flight and sightings of the bird,” he added. Bird ringing is a research method used by ornithologists that helps in studying migration and feeding patterns along with other scientifically significant information. “Ringing using the aluminium ring is actually an old technique. Newer methods that make use of radio tracking with radio apparatus help track daily or hourly activities. While there are studies that have used radio tracking in India, they are very rare,” he explained.

On being asked whether global warming and associated rise in global temperatures and sea level has had any adverse effect on the masked booby population, Dr Dilip said that no such effects have been recorded so far. “Sea level rise will submerge several small islands in the deep sea. This will adversely affect the seabirds that were dependent on these islands for breeding. This threat will extend to the masked boobies too. This will become reality gradually and is not an immediate threat,” he clarified. 

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