ASIAN OPENBILLS: NEW CHI­NESE IM­MI­GRANTS

China Scenic - - Special Report - By Han Lianx­ian, Han Ben, and Yang Yafei Pho­to­graphs by Han Lianx­ian

In re­cent years, a large bird who orig­i­nally lives in South and South­east Asia—the Asian open­bill, has be­come new bird im­mi­grants to China. What sto­ries do they have to tell?

In re­cent years, a large bird has grad­u­ally in­fil­trated the lakes, wet­lands, and rice fields of South­west China. It has come in great num­bers, and flour­ished. Th­ese new ad­di­tions to China’s avian fauna are Asian openbills ( Anas­to­mus

os­c­i­tans ), mem­bers of the stork fam­ily with an eye-catch­ing beak that seems to never close. As unique as their beak may be, the more per­plex­ing ques­tion is just how th­ese openbills got to China in the first place. And why so sud­denly? What was their route? Bird re­searcher Han Lianx­ian has fol­lowed and mon­i­tored th­ese new im­mi­grants for the last four years, and brings us a first look at China’s new­est storks.

In Bangkok, along the shores of a sub­ur­ban wet­land in the spring of 1992, I saw my first Asian open bill( An as tom us os cit ans ). I was a short­term vis­i­tor at Mahi­dol Univer­sity, and dur­ing a break from class I headed out to the wet­land, a known bird haven, for some fresh air. An ex­pe­ri­enced birder, I was able to quickly piece to­gether its tax­on­omy—legs… body… habits… plum age; it was a stork—and the beak, once one turned al­low­ing me to see them side-on, was un­mis­tak­able: it was an open­bill. But I was not an ex­pert on Thai­land birds, so I car­ried my cu­rios­ity back to the of­fice and af­ter a short check with lo­cal bird iden­ti­fi­ca­tion guides I was able to pin down the ex­act species—asian open­bill. At the time there were no records of such birds in China, so ev­ery­thing about them was new to me. I learned that they were com­monly found “through­out South and South­east Asia” and that they were “mainly trop­i­cal waders”. Scan­ning a map of their known range, I listed off the coun­tries in my mind that th­ese charis­matic birds called home: In­dia, Pakistan, Nepal, Myan­mar, Thai­land, Sri Lanka, …

At the time of my chance en­counter, I could never have ex­pected that more than 20 years later my pro­fes­sional work would bring me back to th­ese birds. Af­ter leav­ing Thai­land I re­turned home to China, and be­gan work­ing as a bird re­searcher. When left Thai­land, I also left the birds, never ex­pect­ing to see them again. How­ever, af­ter years of liv­ing apart I one day found my­self fac­ing down an­other Asian open­bill— but this time, they came to me.

In trop­i­cal Yun­nan Prov­ince, in the wet, sunny, and warm south­west­ern re­gions of China, the Asian openbills have made a new home: they are China’s new­est im­mi­grants. Species of­ten change their ranges—shift­ing, ex­pand­ing, and shrink­ing—but of­ten it is done slowly. Th­ese storks have ig­nored the eco­log­i­cal rules and have in­stead come in droves. The ar­rival of such a great num­ber of th­ese birds caused quite stir for mul­ti­ple rea­sons. The most press­ing ques­tion was “how”: how did they get here? To try to an­swer this and other ques­tions, for the past few years we have tracked a group of th­ese storks, car­ry­ing out a sys­tem­atic study of not only how many there are and where they are, but also their eco­log­i­cal be­hav­ior. All I knew of them at the time were the tid­bits I re­mem­bered from the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion books I skimmed through all the way back in Thai­land. To re­ally know the birds, and un­der­stand their role within China’s ecosys­tems, we would have to get to know them a whole lot bet­ter.

In Con­stant Fluc­tu­a­tion: Asian Openbills in China

To the Chi­nese, th­ese strange storks came as quite a sur­prise. On Oc­to­ber 3, 2006, the first of­fi­cial ob­ser­va­tion within China was made by Bei­jing birder Wang Yi­tian in Yun­nan’s Eryuan West Lake, a pic­turesque oa­sis well known to bird­ers. At the time he had

no idea ex­actly what it was, but he was ex­pe­ri­enced enough to know that it didn’t be­long here; he up­loaded his photo to a bird­ers web­site and waited. It was on that very web­site that I saw this lonely im­age of an out-of-place bird on the shores of a lake I knew so well. My heart stopped, flooded by mem­o­ries of my first en­counter so many years ago in Thai­land. I sat back in my chair, wide-eyed and stunned, and said to my­self: “They’re in China.”

A few years later, in the spring of 2010, I re­ceived an early morn­ing phone call from Xiong Shengx­i­ang, an em­ployee of the Zhenkang County Forestry Bu­reau in Yun­nan. He told me that some “black and white birds” had re­cently ap­peared around the lo­cal fish ponds and rice pad­dies through­out the county. “No­body knows what they are,” he told me, hint­ing that he needed my help. “Let me have a look, I’ll try my best” I replied, not sure that I would be able to outdo a host of lo­cal ex­perts from a re­gion I was not overly fa­mil­iar with. “I’ve al­ready emailed you the pic­ture…it’s wait­ing for you” he said. Hang­ing up the phone and open­ing my lap­top, I con­sid­ered what it might be. I had sus­pi­cions—zhenkang County is close to Myan­mar, a place rich with open­bill storks—but I would have to wait a few more mo­ments to find out. I waited im­pa­tiently as the com­puter loaded, and fi­nally clicked on the at­tach­ment. The mo­ment it opened, I knew what it was: An Asian open­bill. They just kept fol­low­ing me.

Shortly af­ter­wards, the open­bill flood­gates opened: re­ports of openbills started to come in from places all through­out Yun­nan. Pu’er and Xishuang­banna in par­tic­u­lar be­came hot news items among both ama­teur bird­ers and pro­fes­sional or­nithol­o­gists, and the sight­ings be­gan to ex­plode. It soon be­came ob­vi­ous that th­ese were not rare, ac­ci­den­tal sight­ings of lone birds. In many in­stances there was a dozen, some­times dozens, of in­di­vid­u­als; the Asian open­bill had ar­rived, with vigor, to South China.

The range of any given species is nat­u­rally fluid. An­i­mals move, guided by the biota, to­pog­ra­phy, and cli­mate, and are other­wise un­ob­structed by in­vis­i­ble lines drawn on maps; the fact that the Asian openbills have “en­tered China” is in it­self noth­ing note­wor­thy. That they have moved into China, to novel ecosys­tems, in such num­bers and in such short times is, how­ever, eco­log­i­cally breath­tak­ing. What would nor­mally take gen­er­a­tions to ac­com­plish, the openbills have done in a prover­bial flash.

Ob­serv­ing th­ese new ar­rivals is rel­a­tively easy. Hav­ing a ten­dency to flock, Asian openbills are hard to not no­tice. Their im­pos­ing size makes it some­what eas­ier, too. Waders, th­ese birds also clus­ter to­gether on the water’s edge, their long legs plod­ding along the shal­lows as they peck their beaks through the still water search­ing for a meal. When they ar­rived to China, the wet­lands, rice pad­dies, and lakes ex­ploded with openbills. This is a bless­ing for bi­ol­o­gists. With the in­creased aware­ness of en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues cou­pled with an in­crease in wild species pro­tec­tion, eas­ily

ob­serv­able species—par­tic­u­larly novel species to an ecosys­tem—are im­por­tant and easy barom­e­ters of ecosys­tem health. How long will the birds stay? What is their im­pact on the aquatic ecosys­tem that sup­ports them? Are they push­ing out na­tive species?

We col­lected data on th­ese Asian openbills for al­most four years, be­tween 2010 and 2014. We un­der­took ex­ten­sive field­work, did in-depth re­views of sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture and lo­cal bird­ing re­ports, par­tic­i­pated in staff ex­changes with lo­cal agen­cies ex­pe­ri­enced with the openbills, and we col­lab­o­rated with a wide range of lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional wildlife pro­tec­tion agen­cies. It was a wide rang­ing and ex­haus­tive en­deavor, but from it we learned much. To an­swer the most press­ing ques­tion of “where?”, we fi­nally have a map: Asian open­bill storks are now found in 24 re­gions in Yun­nan Prov­ince, seven re­gions in Guizhou Prov­ince, three re­gions in Sichuan Prov­ince, and one lo­ca­tion in Guangxi Zhuang Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion. Com­bin­ing th­ese data, a roadmap of how this bird came to China is start­ing to be­come clearer, an­swer­ing the sec­ond ques­tion of “how?”

Be­gin­ning in the spring of 2010, Asian openbills ap­peared in great num­bers across south­ern and cen­tral Yun­nan. From there they spread north, un­til 2011 when there was an eerie si­lence: dur­ing the en­tire year there were no new re­ports. But as sud­denly as the re­ports stopped, they picked up again. Be­tween 2012 and 2014 re­ports came in from Yun­nan and then pro­gres­sively out­wards to Guizhou, Guangxi, Sichuan, and even­tu­ally Guang­dong. It was

a clear wave of im­mi­gra­tion, and Yun­nan was their win­dow into China.

Not only did their ge­o­graph­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion blos­som in a short pe­riod, but so too did their num­bers: in 2010, the largest flock had only 90 birds; by 2012 and 2013 flock size had in­creased to al­most 500. Since 2013 their dis­tri­bu­tion has de­creased slightly, a sign that they may have met their ge­o­graph­i­cal lim­its and may not ven­ture any fur­ther into China. But, at the same time, their pop­u­la­tion has be­come more ro­bust, be­com­ing more con­cen­trated in the places they in­habit. To­day there are more than 100 large flocks dot­ted through­out South­west China.

In­ter­est­ingly, while their spread across China has been rather steady, their to­tal num­bers have been prone to sub­stan­tial and sur­pris­ing fluc­tu­a­tions. For ex­am­ple, in the spring of 2012, when the openbills ar­rived at Changqiao Lake in Yun­nan Prov­ince, their to­tal pop­u­la­tion barely reached 200. By the end of the study in 2014 there were more than 500, but by May of 2015 their num­bers had plum­meted to just 39. Through­out 2015 their num­bers again rose to al­most 1,000, only to crash once again by De­cem­ber. Th­ese pat­terns were re­ported else­where across their new­found range, too. I never could have imag­ined such dra­matic changes in a bird’s pop­u­la­tion over such a short pe­riod. It was as pe­cu­liar as their sud­den ap­pear­ance. Later, a fol­low-up re­port came out adding even more sur­prise to the Asian open­bill story: in April 2016, there were more than 1,300 wad­ing on Changqiao’s placid shores.

Why China?

Stud­ies ex­am­in­ing be­hav­iors of Asian openbills show that they are not sea­sonal mi­graters, choos­ing in­stead to re­main in a sin­gle area through­out the year. How­ever, they do re­spond to the whims of their en­vi­ron­ment—a change in food sup­ply or dra­matic cli­matic shifts—and it is not un­com­mon for them

to move based on their needs. Th­ese surges can be dra­matic: in West In­dia, for ex­am­ple, lo­cal Asian openbills were found 800 kilo­me­ters to the west of their na­tive range, while an­other group from Thai­land was found in Bangladesh, as­tound­ing 1,500 kilo­me­ters from their home. Th­ese new im­mi­grants to China seem to be fol­low­ing the same rou­tine as ex­hib­ited by th­ese dis­tant birds; how­ever, un­like th­ese in­stances of ma­jor range changes, where the birds even­tu­ally all re­turned home, this one seems to be per­ma­nent. De­spite their fluc­tu­at­ing num­bers and a tight­en­ing of the orig­i­nal range they had when they first ar­rived in China, the openbills are here to stay. With am­ple wet­lands and lakes, reser­voirs and rice pad­dies, fish ponds and ditches—per­fect habi­tat for the openbills, and their fa­vorite food—they seem to have stum­bled upon a new per­ma­nent home.

Though they fluc­tu­ate in num­bers, it seems that they have es­tab­lished a pat­tern. Our stud­ies in Yun­nan, for ex­am­ple, show that the Asian open­bill pop­u­la­tion in­creases quickly each year around February and March, fi­nally peak­ing around late April. Come au­tumn, their num­bers be­gin to drop, and by Oc­to­ber they are mostly gone. But never to­tally gone. In re­gions where the food is rich, and the habi­tat suit­able, they are more re­luc­tant to make their re­treat. In Dali, the uniquely large and shal­low Cao­hai Lake has at­tracted a small group of openbills for a whole year; in Mengla, a bustling county in Xishuang­banna, a group of openbills was mon­i­tored stayed in the re­gion for over 20 months straight, and count­ing.

There is a be­lief among many, called the “rare bird hy­poth­e­sis”, which goes: “The pres­ence of rare birds means the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment is get­ting bet­ter”. Put an­other way, if you can spot a rare bird there is noth­ing to worry about—the ecosys­tem is strong. Peo­ple have tried to use this to ex­plain the con­nec­tion be­tween China’s ecosys­tems and the pres­ence of openbills. There are, how­ever, two strik­ing er­rors in this line of thought: first, Asian openbills are not rare, and not en­dan­gered; sec­ond, the nat­u­ral causes of bird move­ment are many and in no di­rect way re­flect the minu­tia of a given ecosys­tem. While they are not com­monly found in all of China, th­ese birds are def­i­nitely plen­ti­ful in their na­tive range. And this range bor­ders China, and shares a rel­a­tively sim­i­lar “South Asian trop­i­cal” ecosys­tem. More­over, the move­ment of birds across their range and into new area is com­pletely nat­u­ral and nor­mal. Some­times the ecosys­tem they once in­hab­ited be­comes in­hos­pitable—cli­mate change, loss of a key food source, or in­creased com­pe­ti­tion, for ex­am­ple—and some­times, just by raw num­bers, the pop­u­la­tion grows to a point where the species needs to cover a greater area to ac­com­mo­date its pop­u­la­tion. When they spread out, for what­ever rea­son pushed them out of their old range or pulled them into their new one, they set­tle. Their range ex­pands, and maps are re­drawn. It’s nat­u­ral.

Thai­land, In­dia, and other places through­out Asia’s south­ern realm have a large and strong pop­u­la­tion of Asian openbills. Their abil­ity to adapt

to new habi­tats is known, and ev­i­denced by their rel­a­tively sat­u­rated dis­tri­bu­tion through­out their range. To un­der­stand their pro­lif­er­a­tion in China, it is nec­es­sary to know more than just where they are; we need to know if their pop­u­la­tion in their na­tive range has it­self changed over time. In search of th­ese an­swers, I spoke with Chen Chengyan, a re­searcher with Bird Life In­ter­na­tional. He told me by email that “thou­sands of Asian openbills were found in the Kuala Gula wet­lands in Malaysia in Jan­uary 2013”. In Viet­nam, he wrote, “more than 100 openbills were ob­served in the north­ern re­gion”. Both of th­ese ar­eas, he re­minded me, are not tra­di­tion­ally known as open­bill ter­ri­tory. To Viet­nam and Malaysia, just like in China, openbills are spread­ing out to new places all across their range.

I con­tacted or­nithol­o­gists from Thai­land, hop­ing to clar­ify the spe­cific range and move­ment of openbills within Thai­land. Orig­i­nally con­fined to the south­ern part of the Chao Phraya River, the warmer and more trop­i­cal re­gions near the Gulf of Thai­land, in the year 2000 they were ob­served in large num­bers in the rivers north­ern reaches. This was a large shift in their range, and like their move­ment into China years later, it was fast— many birds ar­rived all at once, and called it home for good. Their ex­pan­sion along a sin­gle river sys­tem is un­der­stand­able, fol­low­ing a sin­gle thread of suit­able habi­tat north. But their east­west move­ment has also been ob­served, spread­ing out to the far away Laos bor­der. Some­thing strange has taken place dur­ing this time: as this pop­u­la­tion moves and ex­pands, they tell me, their orig­i­nal ter­ri­tory is be­com­ing de­pleted in openbills. It seems that in this case it is not just that the birds are “ex­pand­ing” their range, but that their range is in­stead “shift­ing”.

This is an im­por­tant eco­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tion, and the Chao Phraya River in Thai­land is a good case study of this phe­nom­e­non. In 1969 there were 20,000 openbills, and nearly 100,000 by 1991, an in­crease that was rather con­stant through­out the in­ter­ven­ing years. By 2007, an as­tound­ing 470,000 birds called the river home. How­ever, as their pop­u­la­tion was in­creas­ing, and ex­pand­ing out­wards across Thai­land, the orig­i­nal Chao Phraya pop­u­la­tion be­gan to

pre­cip­i­tously drop. By 2008, there were only about 150,000 openbills on its banks. The ex­plo­sive growth of th­ese birds in other places seems to be per­fectly mir­rored by their equally im­pres­sive loss from the Chao Phraya.

How does this re­flect on the phe­nom­e­non tak­ing place within China? What we know of the open­bill pop­u­la­tion and ar­rival into China is this: Asian open­bill came to China as a re­sult of an ex­pand­ing pop­u­la­tion. Their num­bers seem to be grow­ing, and their need for new space drove them north to China. Dur­ing the early pe­riod of their ar­rival, when re­ports were just start­ing to trickle in, there was a to­tal of 892 birds re­ported at 22 dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions across Yun­nan. Most of th­ese re­ports in­cluded a vi­tally im­por­tant de­tail, sup­port­ing the “pop­u­la­tion ex­pan­sion” hy­poth­e­sis: the birds mov­ing into China were all young or sub-adults, new off­spring mov­ing out­ward to new lands. It seems that th­ese Chi­nese im­mi­grants were not here for the same rea­son of those in Laos, Viet­nam, and Malaysia; the openbills in China are a spillover from their na­tive range—still thick with openbills—while those mov­ing to other parts of South­east Asia are ap­pear­ing to be refugees or ex­plor­ers, mostly adult birds leav­ing their home range. In China, the pop­u­la­tion was ex­pand­ing. In South­east Asia, the pop­u­la­tion was shift­ing.

There have also been con­nec­tions made be­tween global warm­ing and the move­ment and dis­tri­bu­tion of cer­tain species of birds. Does the Asian open­bill add an­other data point to this pat­tern? Are they ex­pand­ing north­ward only as a re­sult of an in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion, or is there a cli­mate con­nec­tion? We just don’t know enough yet.

In­ter­est­ingly, it could be twist on the cli­mate-re­lated con­nec­tion that al­lows them to thrive in China: they seem to be trop­i­cal birds who love the cold. The win­ter­time tem­per­a­tures in their new Chi­nese range are of­ten­times frigid, tem­per­a­tures un­seen in their na­tive range, yet they stay and they sur­vive. Cao­hai Lake, for ex­am­ple, drops be­low freezing for much of the win­ter but the openbills that have come to live on the lake are al­most all year-round res­i­dents. This sug­gests a strong cold tol­er­ance, and as the shal­low-lake pro­vides a wide range of their key food items, par­tic­u­larly the chan­neled ap­ples nail( Po­macea­canalic­u­lata ), a fresh­wa­ters nail and open bill’ s del­i­cacy. To­gether, the ex­pand­ing pop­u­la­tion, driven per­haps by cli­mate change, and their tol­er­ance to cold and the bounty of food in their new home all pro­vide their own piece of the puz­zle in ex­plain­ing why the Asian open­bill is now, of­fi­cially, a Chi­nese bird.

How­ever, if it were not for one snail, the openbills would never pre­vail.

The Main At­trac­tion: The In­va­sive Ap­ple Snail

In Thai­land, the chan­neled ap­ple snail is the Asian open­bill’s fa­vorite, and most im­por­tant, food. They ba­si­cally live off the snails. Leav­ing Thai­land and mov­ing hun­dreds of kilo­me­ters north to China would nor­mally mean a change in diet, but our stud­ies show that their menu did not change. And this may be an­other clue as to why they have done so well there. In Yun­nan’s Changqiao Lake, we con­ducted a sys­tem­atic ob­ser­va­tion of Asian open­bill feed­ing. De­spite be­ing in­va­sive—orig­i­nally from South Amer­ica—here in China, just like in Thai­land, the chan­neled ap­ple snail com­prises al­most 90% of their diet, the rest filled in by var­i­ous other snails, frogs, mus­sels, and crabs.

Th­ese in­va­sive snails have be­come im­pres­sively im­por­tant to the sur­vival, and growth of the openbills. In the 1970s and 1980s they were in­tro­duced to

China as a food for hu­mans. How­ever, many of them went un­sold and, in­evitably, were dis­carded in lakes and rivers and road­side ditches. No­body at the time thought that they would be­come a sta­ple in Chi­nese aquatic ecosys­tems—no­body an­tic­i­pated that they would be able to sur­vive. But sur­vive they did: im­pres­sively adapt­able, they spread rapidly and found a per­fect home in the al­most con­stantly wet land­scape of lakes, wet­lands…and rice pad­dies. Those rice pad­dies, while pro­vid­ing China’s most im­por­tant sta­ple crop, were also re­spon­si­ble for giv­ing th­ese in­va­sive snails a chance to take over. Once their harm was re­al­ized, ecol­o­gists and farm­ers to­gether tried to come up with ways to re­move them, but to lit­tle ef­fect. The snails be­came a part of China, and left a great trail of eco­log­i­cal de­struc­tion in their wake.

The Asian open­bill, a vo­ra­cious snail eater, un­ex­pect­edly be­came part of their so­lu­tion. With their ar­rival, and skill­ful and ded­i­cated pre­da­tion on th­ese un­wanted snails, their pop­u­la­tion fi­nally seemed to be in check. And, their preva­lence meant that the openbills had an al­most end­less sup­ply of food.

Watch­ing them feed is a treat, too. The wad­ing openbills will wan­der the shal­low water’s edge and fur­rows of rice pad­dies, gen­tly dip­ping their beak into the water to ex­plore. Once they spot a snail, it will vi­o­lently grasp it in its beak and rip it from the muddy bed be­low. It will walk to the shore where it can rest the snail on the ground, and be­ing shak­ing its beak deep into it the snail shell. Fi­nally ex­tract­ing it from its shell, it will gulp down the now shell-less gas­tro­pod, and re­turn to the shal­lows in search of more. The whole in­tri­cate process takes no more than five sec­onds. As the Asian openbills line up along the shal­lows eat­ing their daily dose of in­va­sive snails, a sea of empty snail shells lines the shore. We

note one in­ter­est­ing thing about their feed­ing—they never eat the snail eggs. Large clumps of bright pink eggs are strewn around the lake, some still at­tached to the snails them­selves. Th­ese are never touched.

Adult and chicks com­pete for the same snails, but their skills are def­i­nitely not equal. In the time it takes a young bird to con­sume one snail, an adult will have con­sumed three. Clumsy and slow, the young chicks seem less to be tak­ing their time, and more just fig­ur­ing out how to deal with their unique beak.

While the adult feed­ing is quick and con­cise, they don’t ap­pear rushed. As the adults fin­ish feed­ing on a snail they of­ten look up and pause, scan­ning the lake for po­ten­tial preda­tors or pos­si­bly tak­ing in their new scenery, and we get a per­fect look at those unique beaks. More than unique, their beaks are ec­cen­tric, re­sem­bling pli­ers more than a beak; they are, how­ever, per­fect weapons for their shelled prey and a mes- mer­iz­ing tes­ta­ment to the per­va­sive creativ­ity of evo­lu­tion. Watch­ing the openbills eat, I no­ticed an­other pe­cu­liar­ity. Walk­ing along with the openbills are two other species, west­ern swamp hens( Por­phyri­o­por­phyrio ) and lit­tle egrets( Egret­ta­garzetta ), and I no­tice the swamphens pur­posely walk­ing be­hind and pick­ing up snails missed by the openbills. Nor­mally strict veg­e­tar­i­ans, feast­ing on the young shoots of aquatic grasses that grow along the lake’s edge, this is the first time I have ever seen swamphens eat­ing meat. Have th­ese in­va­sive snails turned them into car­ni­vores? Are they mim­ick­ing the storks, notic­ing the bounty of food avail­able just a few wad­ing steps into the lake? Un­for­tu­nately, our sur­vey only lasted 12 months, and we did not get a chance to mon­i­tor the long term feed­ing habits of th­ese veg­e­tar­i­ans-turned-car­ni­vores. Other­wise, I am cer­tain that we would have un­cov­ered even more in­ter­est­ing be­hav­iors.

It now ap­pears that the chan­neled ap­ple snail is in Yun­nan to stay; de­spite the valiant ef­forts of ecol­o­gists and farm­ers, and the vo­ra­cious ap­petite of the Asian openbills— and the now meat-eat­ing swamphens— the snails pre­vail. So too have the Asian openbills be­come part of China’s fauna. A large area, rich with snail-filled wa­tery rice fields, lakes, wet­lands has be­come—de­spite the some­times frigid tem­per­a­tures—a new oa­sis for th­ese birds.

New Cri­sis for New Im­mi­grants

For th­ese new ar­rivals to China, life is not per­fect. Like the abun­dance of rich re­sources and suit­able habi­tat, so too are the crises abun­dant. Lo­cal agri­cul­ture has cer­tainly ben­e­fited from their pres­ence— help­ing con­trol a wildly im­pos­ing in­va­sive snail— but hu­mans, as al­ways, have made their mark in other ways. Dur­ing the open­bill study, we found sev­eral car­casses of what seem to be healthy in­di­vid­u­als in sev­eral lo­ca­tions.

In 2010, the year when the Asian open­bill stork be­gan to en­ter Yun­nan, par­tic­u­larly in the Lu­o­suo River re­gion of Mengla County, lo­cal vil­lagers be­gan to hunt them for their meat. For­tu­nately for

the birds, word quickly got out that their meat was nei­ther plen­ti­ful nor palat­able; be­fore hunt­ing could take its toll on its pop­u­la­tion, peo­ple knew it was not worth their worry and no sus­tained hunt­ing ever took root in the com­mu­nity. In this case, the bird’s lack­lus­ter meat saved its hide.

But in the spring of 2012, ev­i­dence of a re­newed hunt­ing cri­sis emerged. In Jing­dong Yi Au­ton­o­mous County of Yun­nan, where a pop­u­la­tion of 60 Asian openbills was ob­served, the lo­cal govern­ment tried to stem any po­ten­tial hunt­ing— poach­ing, re­ally, as is il­le­gal to hunt them—by post­ing no­tices and hand­ing out ed­u­ca­tional fliers warn­ing the pub­lic not to hunt, while also try­ing to raise aware­ness that the pop­u­la­tion was im­por­tant. Re­gard­less, only a few days af­ter the word got around that th­ese large and uniquely-beaked birds had ar­rived, only eight re­mained. A sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion has also de­vel­oped in the Changqiao Lake re­gion, where hunt­ing has be­come per­va­sive in th­ese re­gions for some­thing other than their meat. Liu Qiang, an or­nithol­o­gist of the South­west Forestry Univer­sity, fit­ted three Changqiao Lake openbills with satel­lite ra­dio track­ing de­vices. To at­tempt to track them in both time and space— where do they go, and when do they go there—he at­tempted to fol­low th­ese birds in a long-term, multi-

year study. How­ever, not long af­ter fit­ting the birds with the track­ers he found two dead, killed by poach­ers. He was left with no data, and no birds.

For th­ese new im­mi­grants to China, even though they seem to have found their niche and have found a way to fit in, life is not easy. While they have seemed to be cop­ing mas­ter­fully with na­ture, it is the new cri­sis—hu­mans—that will pose the great­est threat in the years to come.

WILDLIFE

Strange Bills The most dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of the open­bill is its odd-look­ing bill. The up­per bill of the adult is al­most straight, yet the lower one is ob­vi­ously bend­ing, mean­ing that this bird can never close its long, strong bill.

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