Scientists Catch Tibetan Snowcocks on Camera in their High-Elevation Habitats

There are few well-studied high-elevation animals. Harsh climate conditions can make it extremely difficult to conduct field research and observe species in their natural, alpine habitats. It’s now more important than ever to examine the changes in habitat and activity in these animals, especially since these high-altitude regions are being severely impacted by climate change. Without such knowledge, it is difficult to design conservation strategies to protect them.

In a recent study published in the journal Avian Research, Gai Luo and several colleagues from Sichuan University and the Administration of the Gongga Mountain National Nature Reserve investigated the distribution of the population of soft-colored, yet brightly-billed, Tibetan snowcocks. Their objective is to provide both a baseline to measure the influence of warming on this species and also provide valuable information on ecology and conservation.

The Tibetan snowcock is a bird the size of a small chicken and part of the pheasant family. They can be found all across the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau in high elevations. These birds have red-colored bills and feet and brown and white stripes along their bodies, which provides camouflage. The bird’s coloring can make it difficult to spot among the high-altitude rocky mountain slopes.

These pheasant birds blend in really well with their environment (Source: Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons)

According to the researchers, based on limited descriptions available of this species, Tibetan snowcocks can be found inhabiting zones exceeding 4,000 meters in the summer and descending to 3,000 meters during the harsh winters. Breeding season for these migratory birds begins in mid-May and ends in July. During this season, snowcocks build shallow nests on the ground lined with dead leaves and grass, and the monogamous mates remain together throughout the season. Quantification of snowcock populations is difficult due to the extreme environments, but some previous research suggests that the Tibetan snowcock population declined in the 1990s.

Environmental changes in the previous decades prompted researchers to think about how glaciers changes and rising temperatures might affect the snowcocks. The proximity of snowcocks to glaciers raises questions of the role of glaciers and meltwater on this species. There is currently very little information on the life history and general ecology of the Tibetan Snowcock, and this information is essential for potential conservation efforts.

The study was conducted on the western slope of Mt. Gongga, a glacier located in the eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in the Sichuan province of China. Mt. Gongga is the highest point in the Hengduan Mountains, standing at 7,556 meters and surrounded by many mountains with elevations over 6,000 meters. This region is considered to be a global biological diversity hotspot. Is is one of the major homes of Tibetan snowcocks, along with several other rare pheasant species.  

The researchers used infrared-triggered camera traps to observe the species during the post-breeding period from late June to early November. In total, over 100 traps were deployed at altitudes covering a range of more than a kilometer in elevation. The traps were carefully hidden among rocks and rubble so as not to disturb the animals. They operated 24 hours a day, and if any activity was detected, the cameras would take three consecutive photos, followed by a 9-second video. The team also collected information on location in order to study whether being near a road or village influenced habitat use.

Distribution of camera traps over the study region (Source: Luo et al.)

Researchers were able to utilize 92 camera traps for their study. Several of the traps suffered from equipment failures or were disturbed by curious animals. Like other pheasants, snowcocks are social birds. Nearly two-thirds of all observations showed birds with at least one other individual nearby. The largest group contained 13 individuals. The snowcocks were most active in the morning and before nightfall. The team was unsure as to why this might be, though they infer the birds avoid activity during midday to prevent energy loss and evade the intense sunlight.

They also found that Tibetan snowcocks prefer environments with high elevation, gentle slope, and low EVI (enhanced vegetation index). A low EVI means low-vegetation production and poor food quality, which is common in high-elevation regions. Researchers believe that there must be a trade off between predator risk, foraging efficiency, and food availability for these snowcocks in which they favor low-predator risk over good quality and quantity.

Interestingly, researchers also found that the species prefer habitats near human activity. Results showed positive correlation with occupancy and road and settlement density. Do the birds actually prefer being near humans, or do they like the way that humans have altered the environment? Do birds and humans both like the same place—relatively gentle slopes with open vegetation? One study from 2010 showed that Tibetan snowcocks liked to forage in potato fields in Nepal, suggesting that the human impact provided a species advantage. The study team suggest further research to expand on this.

The Blood Pheasant is another rare pheasant of the Himalayas, known for its bright red coloring (Source: Dibyendu Ash/Wikimedia Commons)

Virat Jolli, an expert on avian ecology and biodiversity in the Himalayas, commented on the importance of this study in building a better understanding of high-altitude species. Jolli said the researchers are providing useful insights on a bird that is rarely studied and can be used in future studies of the species.

“It’s an important study throwing light on bird species which are poorly studied and little is known about it in published literature,” he said. “Pheasants are the most threatened and rare group of birds which are relatively difficult to monitor.”

Jolli added that the study can also be replicated in parts of the Trans-Himalayas, where similar bird species reside. Knowledge of the basic ecology of high altitude species is vital to perceive the influence of global climate change on species composition and distribution.

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