Nature – Birds
The birds of India: being a natural history of all the birds known to inhabit continental India, with descriptions of the species, genera, families, tribes, and orders, and a brief notice of such families as are not found in India, making it a manual of ornithology specially adapted for India (1862).
There are birds around us everywhere, some living in parks and gardens near our homes and some even sharing space with us in the heart of the city. It just takes a little curiosity to identify and know a little more about these direct descendents of the dinosaurs and develop a green hobby that can give you a lifetime of pleasure for free!
Birds of India helps you come to grips with our feathered neighbors with this two part introduction to city dwelling birds of India.
Baya or Weaver Bird
The most amazing thing about the Baya or Weaver Bird is its tubular, pendant nest. Built by the male Baya with nothing but grass, it has chambers within chambers and hangs from Palm and Babul trees, shaped somewhat like the ‘been’ (snake charmer’s flute). It is strongly tied at the base and can withstand wind and rain. The males start building after the first rains and when it is half complete, the female arrives to inspect her future home. When a nest is selected that female pairs with the male who has built it. While the female lays eggs and incubates them, the male gets busy building another nest for another female to inspect. Thus during the season, the male has a harem of three to four hens!
The male Baya is colored a bright yellow with brown stripes during the mating season but after that it reverts to the female’s dull brown. Bayas eat seeds like millet but during the monsoon they eat insects too.
Also called Kotwal and Bhujanga, a jet-black bird, about the size of and as commonly found as a mynah, but with a long forked tail. It is totally fearless and when threatened, can attack much larger birds. The Drongo lives on insects which it catches in flight or on the ground. It has short legs and cannot hop or walk on the ground. The Drongo seldom harms smaller birds or mammals. Indeed weaker birds like doves and orioles build their nests close to the Drongo’s, which is a flimsy cup of woven roots positioned in the fork of a branch. It is completely open but Drongos themselves are known to be ferociously protective of their nests. The young are raised during the monsoon. Two other species of this bird are found in India: the Racket tailed and White bellied Drongos.
Black Or King Vulture
Called Rajgidh in Hindi, this huge black, turkey-like vulture has a deep scarlet head, neck and legs. Quite ungainly on the ground but graceful in flight, this scavenger is usually very timid and cowardly and snatches its meat where opportunity permits. Its large nest is built atop a tree, often close to human habitation.
Among the prettiest garden birds, the Bulbul has such a pleasing call that most people mistake it for a songbird. The commonest Bulbul is the Red vented, with a bright crimson patch below the root of its tail and a white rump, very noticeable in flight, and a crested black head. Bulbuls usually make their cup shaped nests in hedges but they also nest in bushes and trees.
The nest, made of rootlets is plastered outside with cobwebs. They eat insects, fruit, berries and vegetables like peas. Other varieties are the White cheeked, Red whiskered and White browed Bulbul.
Five species of Bustard are found in India of which two are migratory. The Great Indian Bustard is the largest. Breeding is slow as the birds do not mature till about three to five years and then lay a solitary egg. During breeding the male develops an air sac in the neck which when inflated emits a loud boom. Bustards are polygamous and rather shy birds with males, females and young forming separate groups. However, the Bengal Florican lays four to six eggs at a time. It is found mainly in the riverine forests of Assam. The Bustard is on the verge of extinction due to diminishing natural habitat.
The free-wheeling Swallow (Ababil in Hindi) is metallic blue on top and pale pink underneath. It is a common sight in most places, particularly where there is water. It catches insects in flight and from the ground, twisting and turning with its deep forked tail. Swallows roost in large congregations amongst reed beds standing in water. Their diet consists mostly of flies and midges. Swallows build nests of mud reinforced with grass against beams and rafters in or outside houses. Both parents share domestic duties.
These long legged birds are often seen feeding in marshes or croplands on vegetable or animal food. Of the total 14 to 15 existing species, six are seen in India: the Sarus, the Adjutant, the Common Crane, the Demoiselle (abundant winter visitors to south and central India) and the highly endangered Siberian Crane, seen only at the Keoladeo Ghana sanctuary at Bharatpur (only five were sighted in 1991). The Black- necked Crane which breeds in Ladakh and Tibet is also on the endangered list. Cranes are believed to mate for life, and their loyalty to each other is the source of their popular folklore.
There are 21 species of cuckoo varying in size from the sparrow-sized Violet Cuckoo to the 60 cm Large Greenbilled. Most cuckoos are rather dull-coloured and are more easily distinguished by their loud piercing call though some, like the Emerald and Violet Cuckoo have resplendent plumage. The outer toe of the cuckoo’s foot is reversible.
Some cuckoos are parasitic. Non-parasitic cuckoos are rather sluggish, clumsy birds, the most familiar of which is the Crow Pheasant (Kuka in Hindi) unique for its long straight claw on the hind toe. The birds build their own nests and are devoted parents though they do destroy other young and eggs. One of the species, the Red faced Malkoha is on the verge of extinction.
They eat caterpillars and some prefer the hairy ones. Though cuckoos usually choose a crow’s nest to lay their eggs, they are not averse to choosing the nest of a smaller bird. The foster parents thus spend an exhausting period trying to raise a fledgling many times their size.
A bright golden yellow with black wings and tail and a conspicuous streak through its eyes, the Golden Oriole (Peelak in Hindi) is found practically all over the country – even in the Himalayas upto a height of 1,500 m -except in Assam. It lives in open but lightly wooded areas and is partial to large groves around villages and gardens and even along roadsides. Its nest is a beautifully woven deep cup of grass and fibers, bound with cobweb and suspended hammock-like in the hidden fork of a leafy tree. Both parents raise the young.
With its gold and black plumage this woodpecker, called Katphora in Hindi, is found throughout the country. It lives in open but slightly wooded areas and favors mango groves and coconut plantations. It chisels away at rotten wood for beetles and other insects. It forages for black ants on the ground and also feeds on fruit and nectar. Its nest is an unlined, self-created hollow in a tree stem or branch. Both parents look after their young.
Great Indian Horned Owl
A large brown owl (Ghughu in Hindi) with large, yellow, forward looking eyes and unique feathered legs. It lives in well-wooded but open country and is rarely found in a thick forest. Favorite haunts include rocky hillocks and ravines and steep, pitted banks of rivers and streams. It has a distinct, penetrating bubo call. It eats small mammals, birds, reptiles and some large insects, fish and crabs. Cherished by farmers for the number of mice it eats, this owl does not nest but lays its eggs on bare soil in a natural recess in an earth bank, on a ledge or cliff or under a bush.
The sprightly Indian Robin (Kalchuri in Hindi) is a small black bird with a white patch on its wing and a rusty red patch under its tail. Found throughout the country, it is a familiar bird in gardens and scrubland around towns and villages. It bobs its tail cheekily as it hops about in search of insects. It locates its nest, made of rootlets and rubbish and lined with feathers and hair, under a stone, in a broken pot, a hole in a tree stupor in the earth.
An extremely noisy bird, hopping in flocks, about the ground or in the trees. A common sight in most gardens, Jungle Babblers (Saat Bhai) chatter incessantly when searching for food which could be spiders, cockroaches and other insects. They also eat wild figs, berries and grain. There is no special nesting season.
The Common, Slaty headed, Scimitar, Rufous bellied, Yellow eyed, Spotted and Quaker Babblers are the other varieties commonly seen in India.
Found in many sizes and colors, the smallest is the Three toed Forest Kingfisher and the largest, nearly as large as a pigeon, is the Storkbilled Kingfisher. Their colors range from black and white to brilliant blues and purples. Kingfishers are fantastic divers and often come up with fish almost as large as themselves! They live by freshwater streams, lakes, lagoons and mangrove swamps.
Of all kingfishers are fish-eaters. Some, like the White breasted Kingfisher live mainly on insects. Kingfishers live in tunnels along the banks of a lake or in termite mounds and abandoned tree nests.
Malabar Pied Hornbill
A heavy, ungainly bird with a large casque and ponderous wax-yellow and black hornshaped bill. Plentiful at one time, these birds (Dhanchuri, Suleiman murghi in Hindi) are noisy and favor fruit laden trees in lightly wooded areas. They also eat insects, lizards, mice and baby birds. Hornbills nest in tree hollows. When it is time for the female to lay eggs and incubate them, she is walled up inside the hole with bird droppings. Only a small slit is left through which the male feeds her during the entire incubation. Once the young are born, the wall is broken down and both parents share in the raising of the young.
Malabar Whistling Thrush
A hill bird, the Malabar Whistling Thrush (Kastura in Hindi) is a shimmering blue- black with a glistening cobalt blue patch on its forehead, black bill and legs. Its call, particularly during the mating season sounds human. It whistles a series of high and low notes at random, for which it is nicknamed the Idle Schoolboy. It eats mostly water insects, shelling them on the rocks. It builds a nest of roots, grass and mud on high ledges and precipices.
A common sight in most gardens, the Myna always lives near people. A perky, dark brown bird with white marked wings and a yellow patch around the eye, this omnivore eats anything from insects and fruit to left-over kitchen scraps. It follows the plough to devour insects thrown up by the movement. Its nest, an untidy clutter of twigs, paper and any rubbish it can find, is usually built on a tree or a wall. In cities, mynas build their nests on telegraph poles and electric wires.
They are seen in flocks wherever food is available. They eat seed and fruit, especially figs and guavas. Parrots are wasteful feeders, discarding virtually the entire fruit after a few bites. Males have a blushing pink and black collar round their necks while the female is uniformly green. Parrots feature in many Indian legends and stories. They make wonderful pets and become attached to their owners. They even learn to mimic human speech.
Called Mayuram in Sanskrit and Mor in Hindi. The male of the species has a crest of plumes and a magnificent tail with brightly colored spots. It is found throughout the country and is also the National Bird and a protected species. Indian songs and folklore celebrate the peacock’s grandeur when it displays its tail before rain or storm. At one time the peacock was a common sight in almost all parts of India but today, it is found mostly in dry, scrub and semi-arid land. It is also common around villages, particularly where there are rivers and streams.
A peacock has four or five hens. A shy and alert bird, it feeds on grain, vegetable shoots, insects, rats, lizards, snakes and other small prey and is valued by farmers for keeping the snake population in check. The mating display of the peacock is a spectacular sight as it dances with its outspread tail, bowing and scraping before the female. The nest is a shallow scrape in the ground, lined with sticks and leaves.
There are 29 species of owl in India, varying in size from the Eagle Owl, which is larger than a kite, to the Pygmy Owlet which is about the size of a sparrow. They are mostly nocturnal. Owls swallow their food whole and cast up the indigestible parts (bones, feathers and so on) in the form of pellets.
Owls are swift and silent hunters, helped by their keen hearing and vision. They relentlessly hunt rodents, the worst agricultural menace today. Uluka or Pechaka in Hindi, the Owl is the vahana (vehicle) of Lakshmi the goddess of wealth and prosperity and is revered as a symbol of wisdom.
One of the most spectacular birds of the Indian subcontinent, the Paradise Flycatcher (Shah Bulbul or Dudhraj in Hindi) is a silvery white bird with a metallic black crested head and a long sweeping tail with ribbon like feathers. It frequents shady groves and gardens and lightly forested areas and is quite used to the presence of human beings. The male bird is a swift and spectacular aerobat. The Flycatcher makes a nest offline grass and fibers plastered with cobweb, in the crook of a branch. The female does more than the male to raise the young.
The Green Parrot (Tota in Hindi) is one of the commonest birds in India. The peacock figures as a motif on some late Harappan grave pottery where it is seen with a recumbent figure within its stomach. In Hindu mythology, it is the vehicle of Kartikeya, the god of war. This may be the reason why peacock feathers, if kept in the house are thought to be unlucky. Kama the god of love is also occasionally seen riding with his wife Rati (desire) on the back of a peacock rather than on his usual parrot.
The peacock is a favoured motif in art and inspired Shah jehan’s famous Peacock throne. It was an element of the courtly ethos depicted in Mughal miniature paintings and in Raagmala paintings.
A tiny, brilliant metallic blue bird with a curved, pointed beak, the purple sunbird (Shakarkhora in Hindi) is a common sight in most gardens. The male assumes this colour during the breeding season but is otherwise a nondescript brown or olive brown like the female. Its tiny wings beat at an incredible rate and help it to hover like a helicopter over a flower, from which it sucks nectar.
Sunbirds build exquisite pendant nests of soft grass, rubbish and cobwebs, covered with bark and secured with cater- pillar droppings. A projection above the nest conceals the entrance. The female builds the nest alone and incubates the eggs but the male pitches in when it is time to rear the young. The call of the sunbird is quite out of proportion to its size, a high-pitched, lilting melody.
A pretty black bird with chestnut under-parts and a long tail, it could be called the cousin of the Bulbul and is found in forest, foothills and in shady ravines. It’s shy and retiring and avoids human settlements. Its melodious, rich, thrush like song makes it a prized cage bird. It nests in tree hollows or in the tangled base of a bamboo dump. The Shama’s song features in Indian literature.
The Shikra is a lightly built hawk, ashy blue-grey on top with a white and rusty-brown underside. There are three species of Shikra, found throughout the country upto a height of 1,500 m. It avoids dense forests and prefers open, lightly wooded country. A swift hunter, it swoops down on its prey even before the victim realizes the danger. It builds an untidy nest of twigs much like a crow’s, high up in trees, a favorite nesting place being the mango tree. Both parents raise the young but only the female incubates.
Elegant ‘snake-necked’ water bird, a solitary fish eater found in ponds and jheels (marshes) across India. Can be spotted in shallow water, absolutely still for long periods of time, waiting to dart its long neck out to catch fish, or spreading out its wings to dry in the sun.
A small olive green bird with whitish underparts and a perky tail that keeps bobbing up and down, it frequents gardens, scrub jungle and even verandahs where plants are kept. It has a happy, loud call. Called Darzi or Phutki in Hindi, it makes a nest of pliant leaves, sewn together in a cup with soft fibres, cotton-wool and vegetable down. Both sexes share parental duties but only the female incubates.
Giddh in Hind. A large bird with a naked head and dark plumage, it is found in the tropical and temperate parts of the country. A carrion eater, it plays an important part in maintaining the ecological balance. It does not steer by a sense of smell but has extremely acute eyesight. When one bird spies a carcass and swoops down, other birds follow. The vulture population has greatly diminished in recent years because of the high content of pesticide in the bodies of dead animals.