Birds of Sri Lanka
Birds of Sri Lanka

The richness of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity is well reflected by its avifauna. No less than 439 species have been recorded with 236 being resident, 203 migrant and the rest being occasional visitors or vagrants. This total may well rise to over 450 as a number of new species reliably recorded awaits ratification by the Ceylon Bird Club rarities & records committee (CBCRRC).

Being a tropical island situated at the southern most tip of the South Asia region (now recognized as a significant avifaunal entity) many species occurring in Sri Lanka, other than the endemics, are identical to, or show only minor differences to those occurring in the adjacent Indian mainland.

The high degree of endemism of the island’s avifauna is well demonstrated by the presence of 33 (Rasmussen & Anderton 2005) endemic species and 68 endemic subspecies amongst the resident forms.  The majority of the endemic species are found in the wet zone forests or the hills. It is speculated that most of these have evolved to be distinct from those in neighboring India due to long separation from this sub continent of which Sri Lanka is thought to have been a part of earlier. Also some species are thought to constitute a relic fauna whose parent stocks have died off in the mainland.  

The number of species considered to be endemic to the island has been fluctuating over the last hundred years or more. Legge considered 47 species to be endemic which was reduced to 21 during the first half of the 20th century (due to the biological concept being widely accepted). Subsequently the number rose to 23 (Sibley and Monroe) and then to 26 (Wijesinghe) until the latest figure has risen to 33 after Rasmussen in her Birds of South Asia ( 2005) elevated a number of species to endemic status in addition to the newly discovered Serendib Scops Owl by fellow member Deepal Warakagoda. 

As Sri Lanka is located at the tip of peninsular India, many bird species migrating annually from the northern autumn-winter along the Central Asian-Indian flyway end their southward journey in the island. Similarly, certain pelagic species which migrate from the southern autumn-winter to the Indian Ocean occur within the oceanic limits of the country.

The distribution of bird species has changed much in the country over the years. This is due to the drastic reduction of forest cover, burning of grasslands, filling of marshy lands etc. It is with much sadness and nostalgia one reads portions of Legge’s monumental ‘History of the Birds of Ceylon’  where he records that, the Rufous Babbler ‘is not found nearer the sea than Kirillapone at which point the country becomes wooded’ or the Red faced Malkoha occurs ‘ even at Mahara and Kotte , in the vicinity of Colombo’.  Many species have declined in numbers while others have increased. Distribution of certain species has become much restricted while others have expanded. On the whole habitat loss has always worked against the rarer more specialized species which are unable to adjust to change.

Nevertheless Sri Lanka has much to offer as a birding destination. One can travel from sea level to mountains exceeding 2000 metres within a few hours. As the terrain changes thus, the vegetation and the fauna including bird species change. Though many species are common at all elevations others which are confined to or are more abundant at specific altitudes and habitat are encountered. 

The presence of this central mountain massif and its effects on the two monsoon winds - the south-west and the north-east monsoons- blowing across the island has divided the country into two major climatic zones, the wet and the dry zones with the area in between these two zones being often referred to as the intermediate zone. The central hills described as the central hill zone also has its dry (north-east) and wet (south-west) portions depending on which of the two monsoon winds they face primarily.     

Thus it is customary to describe the country as having three major climatic zones, the low country wet and dry zones and the central hill zone. In addition, a very dry semi arid zone extending along the north-western coast from about Marichchukkaddi to the Jaffna peninsula has it s own characteristic avifauna. Such species as the Collared Dove,  Rufous-rumped Shrike and the elusive Indian Courser are rarely encountered outside this region. The extreme south-east from Hambantota upwards also has a somewhat similar arid country but does not have the above mentioned species. However both regions are a haven for migrant waders and waterfowl including the Greater Flamingo.

Similarly the hill zone has its distinctive species such as the Ceylon Whistling Thrush, the Blackbird, the Pied Bush Chat and the Ceylon Warbler while the migrant Kashmir Flycatcher is more easily seen in Sri Lanka’s hills than elsewhere in the region.  The wet zone forests or what little remains of it, is the home for many endemics including the Ceylon Blue Magpie, the Green-billed Coucal and the recently discovered Serendib Scops Owl. The low country dry zone birds have much in common with those of similar terrain in India but interesting species such as the Malabar Pied Hornbill, the Black-necked Stork are a few that can be seen only here.

A number of older texts were or are still available to the student of Sri Lankan birds, ranging from Vincent W Legge’s monumental ‘History of the Birds of Ceylon’, W.E. Wait’s ‘Birds of Ceylon’, W.W.A Phillips’ four booklets and G.M Henry’s classic ‘Guide to the Bird’s of Ceylon’ recently updated by Hoffmann, Ekanayake and Warakagoda,  all three, members of the Ceylon Bird Club. More recently  ‘ A field guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka’ by Harrison ( Ceylon Bird Club member)  and ‘A photographic guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka’ by De Silva Wijeyaratne ,Warakagoda and De Zylva (also members of the Ceylon Bird Club)  have appeared.

Useful checklists are those by W.W.A Phillips in 1978 and D.P Wijesinghe (both members of the Ceylon Bird Club) in 1994. The Ceylon Bird Club follows the latter until such time its new country list which is due shortly is completed.

Useful regional books are ‘Birds of the Indian Sub continent’ by Inskipp and Inskipp, ‘A field guide to the Birds of the Indian Sub Continent’ by Krys Kazmierczak (Ceylon Bird Club member) & Ber van Perlo and ‘The Birds of South Asia’ by Rasmussen (Ceylon bird Club member and a member of the CBCRRC) & Anderton.

Since its inception in 1943 the Ceylon Bird Club has published and circulated among its members the ‘Ceylon Bird Club Notes’ which faithfully scrutinizes and records members’ observations and the trends of direction of the Birds of Sri Lanka over the years.

The present web site also includes an image data base of the Birds of Sri Lanka aimed at helping bird watchers in Sri Lanka to identify species, articles of importance published by the Ceylon Bird Club and other important contributions by its members.


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