Wildlife & Biodiversity

National Birds Day: The various moods & colours of Indian city birds, through the eyes of an amateur ornithologist

Indian urban spaces are home to various birds; but some are vanishing at an alarming rate. Documentation such as this one brings hope and highlight the need for their conservation

By Gargi Mishra
Published: Friday 05 January 2024
The Indian white-eye. Photo: iStock

January 5 is observed as National Birds Day in some parts of the world. It is aimed at raising awareness for the conservation of avian species that have been adversely affected by habitat destruction, reducing food choices and climate change. 

To mark the day this year, India's Union Cabinet Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Bhupender Yadav, made a call for saving the wetlands to preserve bird populations in the country. The wetlands become home to various species of birds to fly thousands of kilometres to winter in India. They also sustain ecosystems that are vital to feed the local avian populations. 

Indian cities are teeming with wildlife and birds of all sizes can be spotted in urban neighbourhoods, perched on branches in neighbourhood parks or fluttering around balconies. Despite their dwindling numbers, avian enthusiasts regularly document sightings. 

We present to you some of India’s feathered residents in various colours, moods and their true splendour! Here is collection of columns by Gargi Mishra, an amateur ornithologist, published in Gobar Times during 2021-22. 

The Angry Bird: Jungle Babbler 

If there was ever a parliament of birds, then this avian would have delivered the most vociferous speeches. No doubt quirky artists caricatured it in their popular Angry Birds game. 

Recognised as the most argumentative bird, the Jungle Babbler couldn’t be named more aptly. Even its genus name ‘argya’ means to argue in Latin. Known as saath bhai (seven brothers) in Hindi, Odia, Bengali, Gujarati and many other Indian regional languages; the Jungle Babbler groups are called Seven Sisters in English. 

As some stealth army commandos, they help farmers combat all the notorious pests by feeding upon them — like gram pod borers, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets and their larvae. Hence, rather than being just babblers, when in action, these birds protect us from heavy crop losses. 

Further, not just their diet but their appearance also proves to be helpful for our agro-ecosystem. For instance, their dull brown-greyish plumage perfectly camouflages them with the soil where they pick up insects and grains. Both the male and female partners display this identical dress. 

Their yellow bill, pale-cream eyes, rounded wings, and long tail are other notable features which blend them with their terrestrial background. In fact, the babblers remain low-flight birds and prefer hopping because their flight is weak. That is also partly why they are nonmigratory; but are, however, found across the Indian Subcontinent. 

It is surprising why they are categorised as ‘jungle’ birds when they are well-adapted to our cities and villages. Interestingly, these socialites often fall prey to brood parasitism (laying one's eggs in another bird’s nest) by Common Hawk Cuckoo and Pied Crested Cuckoo. 

No wonder why these Jungle Blabbers remain our true angry birds! 

The versatile creature: Oriental Magpie-Robin

This bird is a master of vocabulary. It can mimic other birds and animals flawlessly. It is also as expressive and emotive as the late actor Irrfan Khan. It is vocal on emotions but expresses only when the need is unavoidable. 

The Oriental Magpie-Robin, also known as Asian Magpie or just Magpie Robin, was earlier a member of the 'thrush' family of birds but now belongs to Old World Flycatcher's. 

A resident of the Indian subcontinent, it doesn't visit any arid areas. In winters, it moves to lower elevations. Maybe this magpie has a special affiliation for humans; hence, it avoids forests or grasslands and lives near human settlements, even in our balconies. It builds its nest in tree hollows, wall gaps or even in the roofs of buildings. 

A neat looking fellow, it has glossy, blue-black head, breast and upperparts. The lady’s head is bluish-grey. Both have white wing bars that start from their shoulder, and run to the wing tip and glossy white underside. Slightly hooked black beak and black beady eyes add on to their glamour. 

Gentle by nature, the robin often bows to all and shivers its long tail out of respect. But holds it upright while picking up the tidbits and creepy-crawlies from the ground. Primarily omnivorous, it eats anything edible from grains to earthworms, flower nectar, berries, vegetables, and occasionally, geckos, centipedes, and fish. 

One can argue Magpie Robin is a fine Indian classical vocalist. The high octave notes of this seasoned singer — which he uses for territorial, distress, threat, begging, emergence and roosting calls — pour honey to the ears. The tenor in his voice often impresses his lady love. But when it comes to defending his territory, one can witness his vicious hissing and harsh churr or chhekh notes. 

There is also infamy associated with Magpies. They are known as thieves of shiny objects. But an inconclusive research by Exeter University on Eurasian Magpies shows that they suffer from 'neophobia — fear of new things'. However, Tony Shephard, lead researcher of the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, told BBC News: “Some birds do use eyecatching objects in the nest after mating, like Black Kites, to ward off potential predators. But we had already looked inside a dozen magpie nests and not seen any shiny objects. So, I was not expecting magpies to use objects for this purpose.” 

Aimed to amaze: Common Hoopoe 

Its crown extends with a fineness and style as some royal aristocratic headgear. But the cinnamon-coloured plumage induces earthiness to its attitude. As it humbly blends into the woods, its black-white stripes flash a regal reminder. 

And as it walks thoughtfully on the ground, ‘hoopoe’ is what we admire. The ‘hu-pu’ or ‘hu-po,’ as it is pronounced, is named exactly after the calls of this bird. It belongs to the family ‘Upupidae’ and species Upupa epops. 

Popular as Common Hoopoe or Eurasian Hoopoe, this resident bird of India, seasonally migrates across the subcontinent. During monsoon, for example, it flies from Western Ghats to regions downhill. 

Its fawn brown body conceals it against the surrounding soil, where it strides briskly with its short and slender legs. The prominent black and white bands on its wings and tail look like “a little zebra in our park!” That’s how my seven-year-old daughter summarised it years ago. 

With their long and slender beak, hoopoes probe and pick their food. Foraging alone, as if commanded to ‘earn your own food’, they deftly march through open fields and feed on insects, small reptiles and frogs. Plant matter, like seeds and berries, also comprise their diet. 

Instead of weaving a typical twig nest, this stately avian builds mansions on bare and lightly vegetated areas. They love to live near trees, cliffs, walls or abandoned burrows, where both the husband and wife aggressively guard their abodes. 

The gentleman doesn’t hesitate to discard all his chivalry if the house is in danger and through his fiery bill can stab or blind any intruder. 

The incubating and brooding lady also deploys a defense mechanism to save her nest and nestlings. Her uropygial glands produce a very foul liquid, which smells like rotting meat. This gland, present in a majority of birds, is commonly called the preen or oil gland. 

The mother hoopoe rubs this stinking fluid, which otherwise is an antibacterial agent, onto her brood to ward off any attackers or parasites. The hoopoe chicks too spray their droppings, make snake-like hissing sounds and use their bill and wings to fight invaders. 

Rolling with every punch: Indian Roller

“Why didn’t you spot the Tiha today, dear?” That’s what my mother used to remind me on New Year’s Eve, when I was a little child. The Indian Roller bird, or the Tiha in Odia, is a very good omen. Believed to be a harbinger of happiness, sighting it is considered auspicious, especially at the beginning of any major life event. In fact, such is the faith in its sanctity that its feathers are preserved as lucky charms. 

Do you know Odisha, Telangana, and Karnataka have also declared it as their state bird? Formerly known as ‘Blue Jay’, the Indian Roller is a member of the roller family. Widespread in the Indian subcontinent and, though non-migratory, it moves seasonally.

When perched, it appears significantly dull brown. But when in flight, its brilliant colouration — predominantly the blue shades — flare up, revealing its enchanting beauty. Being highly skillful, Rollers perform astounding aerobatics to impress their lady love, including a series of ‘rolls’. Hence, their name. 

The Rollers call is a harsh khak...kak...kak or a metallic boink. Easily attracted to fire and artificial lights, it often suffers from traffic collisions and electrocution. Beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, frogs, lizards and other such insects and vertebrates comprise its preferred diet.

As rollers feed upon many infectious agricultural pests, they clearly become a farmers’ favourite. At the peak of the plume trade in the early 1900s, the rollers were hunted widely. Nonetheless, they are sacred in Hindu mythology and are celebrated as Neelkanth, meaning 'blue throat' in Hindi. Associated with Lord Shiva — a Hindu God who drank poison resulting in blue throat — spotting Rollers on Maha-Shivratri is a popular practice. 

When beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder: Indian white-eye

Whenever that sweet tinkling sound traverses through my balcony, my entire mood rejuvenates. I crane my neck, investigating its source and scan my lushy green enclave for a soft jingling song. Tracing the tsee…tseer… notes, I rejoice with delight on spotting the chirpy, cute, bundle of joy —  the Indian White-Eye. Do you think the White-Eye is called so because it wears white spectacles? If yes, then you are absolutely correct! 

A ring of white feathers around its eyes has earned this birdie its English title. In fact, it was originally named the ‘Oriental White Eye’ but later termed the ‘Indian White-eye,’ for geographical specificity. 

So quintessential is this chalky-white circle that even the species’ scientific name refers to this identification mark. Zosterops palpebrosus: Where ‘Zosterops’ means ‘girdle eyes’ in Greek and ‘palpebrosus’ means ‘prominent eyelids’ in Latin. This sober acrobat displays a yellowish olive-green upper body and greyish-white undersides.

This contrasts with its bright yellow throat and vent, and its black curved bill. With short wings and squarish tail, it slenderly migrates in local areas — forests, orchards and groves. Diligently sucking the flower nectar and gulping down the pulpy berries, the White-Eyes are crucial pollinators. 

No wonder they celebrate a flower feast in my garden, not just in ones or twos but in whole large groups! Primarily insectivorous, these white eyes are very sociable and enjoy living collectively. Their husband-wife pair are also alike. 

One day, my daughter spotted a white eye couple in our neighbourhood. The duet was busy gathering some nesting materials. By the time we traced their construction site, the pair had already weaved a beautiful cup-nest using cobwebs, cotton, soft feathers and plant fibers. 

After a few days, we noticed three beautiful pale-blue eggs resting inside this new abode. We observed a parent ferrying food for the chicks, so we remained aloof to avoid any disturbance.

In fact, a greater threat to them is habitat degradation, declining fruit trees and rise in predators and robust species, such as those who are more adapted to their environment. 

Hold no bars: Brown-headed barbet

If there is ever a bird that can rival even a hulk in roaring aloud, then that bird has to be the brown-headed barbet. This little creature’s blaring decibels can screech through the morning silence. Its challenging, almost enticing, avian call proceeds like: tur-r-r-r kutrookkutrook-kutrook. 

But barely a glance at this handsome can assure you that its personality is even more influential. The ‘barbet’ has earned its family name from the barb-like whiskers around the base of its beak. This peachy-pink bill is heavy in structure. It contrasts with the Barbet's grassgreen body. 

Surprisingly, the barbet can change the colour around its eye from a bright lemon-yellow to dark orange within seconds. Further, there are white streaks spread over its brown head, neck, breast and upper back. These white streaks discontinue towards its shoulders, belly and flanks (sides of lower belly). 

They often migrate seasonally to lower elevated areas, and even nest in urban spaces and gardens. In fact, they are highly territorial in nature and guard their nests aggressively.

Frugivorous in diet, they feed upon wild ficus figs, such as banyan and peepal, along with a few other drupes, berries, flower petals and nectar. At times, they also consume insects to fulfill their protein requirements. 

Though the brown and green cover of the barbets perfectly blends them with the woods, it still cannot protect them from the lustful eyes of preying hunters. 

Apart from the glaring habitat degradation, capturing them for pet trade is threatening their population. 

House of sparrows

We often ignore our immediate periphery in our quest for finding excitement. Just think of the house sparrows! As a kid, out of sheer ignorance, I recall embarrassingly how I plundered their nests. But now, I compensate by feeding their chicks, watering them and sheltering them in their cushy abodes.

In all this while, these humble birds never ever deserted their homes nor me. We often take them for granted because we grow up with them in our surroundings — they are a part of our natural world.

But, of late, I feel that we are also a part of their natural world. They are well acquainted with our presence, our smell and sight. This is particularly so where people live under traditional thatched roofs. 

Diligent little sparrows still build nests near my house and frequently visit my balcony. They are here in large numbers because they enjoy the fig trees, food, water bath and dust bath that is available. 

It is believed that house sparrows have been living with humans since the Stone Age. They originated from the Middle East and as humans expanded agriculture and sailed across the seas, sparrows too flew alongside. Thus, the 'spearwa' of old Greek times became the 'sparrow' as we know it today.

Sparrows adapted themselves to a broad climate range, including dry and saline areas. They evolved to survive on less water and developed an omnivorous diet, mainly comprising berries. 

They can even swim short distances underwater to evade predators in spite of not being waterbirds. This is how they adapted to their immediate environment. Such few secrets enabled these tiny fliers to disperse throughout the planet.

Today, sparrows are widely distributed across India and the world. They are strictly nonmigratory. They avoid deserts, grasslands, and woodlands. 

Rather, they are adapted to live with humans, both in rural and urban areas, though they have a new set of predators here. Cats, dogs, birds of prey, squirrels, snakes plus humans are the main reasons behind their declining numbers. Heavy use of agrochemicals also drastically dipped their population. Even more horrifying is the ‘Sparrow pie,’ a pudding made of sparrow meat, for which they were hunted rampantly until the most of 1950s.

So, let’s get together and build a safe house for sparrows.

All the photographs were provided by the author who is an amateur ornithologist and closely follows the avian world. The columns were first published in various editions of Centre for Science and Environment's monthly publication Gobar Times.

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