Birds of India

Beginner's Section

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Birds
by Bikram Grewal

If you have entered our website, you are probably interested in birds. Your interest may be limited to trying to put a name to the bird you casually see from your window. Or you maybe are, or are about to be, one of the growing number of people who watch birds regularly. Would you like to become involved in an enjoyable and challenging outdoor pastime? It is inexpensive and can be done anywhere and at anytime. If all this sounds good to you, then welcome to
birdwatching, or "birding" as it is often called.
Getting stated is easy, and once started, it provides a lifetime of joy and fascination.

One of the best places to start birdwatching is your own garden or a nearby park. Often you will see people feeding the birds and you will be surprised to see how many turn up. You will soon want to see more and different birds. But identifying them can be difficult at first, so here are a few tips to help you along:

General Introduction

1. HABITAT: Knowing the habitat will help you understand the birds you see in them.
Try and visit as many different habitats that you can. Forests, farmland, scrub, lakes, reed-beds, rivers, coasts etc all have their own characteristic birds. The edges of fields, streams, rivers and roads are all excellent places to see birds. Certain types of habitats, like wetlands yield a greater variety of birds like waders and ducks.

Roughly, the habitat in our country can be divided into the following broad types:

Wetlands: Shallow lagoons, inland jheels and bheels, marshes and rivers are particularly rich habitats for birds. The region supports abundant wetlands of different types, including mountain lakes, freshwater and brackish marshes, water storage reservoirs, village ponds and flooded forests. Many are temporary, filling up with the monsoon rains, but drying before the next rain. These all provide fertile breeding and feeding grounds for resident birds, while migratory waterbirds congregate during the winter months. Several species like, bitterns, rails, and crakes, conceal themselves in the reed beds. Several birds of prey can be found near water, hunting this great concentration of potential prey.

Marine Environment
: The vast mangrove forests along our coastlines are under grave threat. Those in the Sundarbans of West Bengal and Bangladesh are amongst the most extensive in the world and are a good place to see some rare kingfishers and waders. Typical birds include the Reef Herons, seldom found inland. Several coastal kingfishers like the Collared and the Brown-winged, are now becoming rarer. Specialist birds found in the mangroves include the Mangrove Whistler and the Mangrove Pitta. There have been no recent records of the Masked Finfoot from the Indian Sundarbans, thought the Goliath Heron is occasional seen. Oceanic birds like petrels are usually seen on passage.

Scrub: Poor soil condition is the most import reason for scrub to develop, often in semi-desert or high altitude desert. This habitat also occurs along forest edges or where forests have been cleared. Areas around wetlands are often vegetated with scrub, as the soil is saline or waterlogged. While only a handful of birds are restricted to scrub, many more are found in scrub where it adjoins wetlands or forest edges. One of the most interesting scrub specialists is the rare Jerdon’s courser, known only from Andhra Pradesh. Another is the Stoliczka’s Bushchat, which inhabits desert scrub. Its nest has never found and its status and range still remain unclear.

Forests: India contains several different types of forests. Apart from the coastal mangroves, inland we have wet evergreen dry deciduous and desert thorn forests. Hill and mountain forests contain mixed broadleaf, moist oak, rhododendron and dry coniferous forests of pine, cedar and fir. Most forests are now declining. Forest birds are difficult to see, especially when they are concealed in dense canopy. They are best seen in clearings, flying from tree to tree or on the edge of forests. Frequently, assorted species form hunting groups or parties and move together through the forest searching for food. Finding and watching such groups is one of the best ways of seeing forest birds

Grasslands: The most important grasslands in our region are those occurring along the foothills of the Himalayas, the floodplains of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, the arid grasslands of the Thar Desert and those in peninsular India. These grasslands are under grave threat. The need for more farmland has meant that huge areas are being converted, drained and over-grazed. Birds like the Indian Bustard and the Swamp Francolin are highly threatened. The Bengal Florican, the Bristled Grassbird, the Rufous-vented Prinia and the Finn’s Baya are grassland birds that may soon become extinct.

Agriculture: Though less than 50% of the region is cultivated, the biggest threat to natural habitats is from the ever increasing need to bring more and more land under cultivation to meet the food needs of the people. Every day large tracts of forests and grassland are cleared and marshes drained. While some birds like pigeons, doves and francolins can thrive on cultivated lands, every day natural habitat declines - putting more pressure on an already fragile ecosystem.

This sounds obvious, but many birders spend the majority of their bird watching time and energy on poor locations. Some people have the advantage of looking out of their windows into the back yard to observe Nature's best. The rest of us need to get moving.

2. MIGRATION & BIRD MOVEMENT: Very few birds are completely sedentary. Birds wander accidentally and deliberately, and can turn up almost anywhere. Some move deliberately in search of favoured food, for instance when particular trees are fruiting or flowering or when wetland habitats dry up. But more often birds make regular seasonal movements in response to anticipated weather changes. Long distance migrants visit the region for our winter from central and Northern Asia, and even Eastern Europe. Some arrive as early as July and leave as late as May, but the main arrivals are in September-October, with departures in March-April. Prominent amongst them are ducks, geese and waders that throng the wetlands, accompanied by many migratory predators. Some of these long-distance migrants, mostly young birds, do not always move out and some may over-summer in the region. Other often return early if their breeding attempts in the north fail. Altitudinal migrants move to the adjoining foothills and plains before winter strikes and food runs low. A number of Kashmir and Ladakh species like Bar-headed Geese, Ruddy Shelduck and Citrine Wagtail move quite far south for the winter. Local migrants may change habitat after breeding or move north from more southerly wintering grounds to breed. The Indian Pitta, the Golden Oriole and the Asian Koel are characteristic of the latter.
There are also a number of species that may only be seen passing through a particular place. For instance you will not be able to see the Blyth’s Reed or a Greenish Warbler in Delhi in mid-winter though they are common in spring and autumn. Both species winter further south in the peninsula. Several are passage migrants en route to and from Africa, like the Pied Cuckoos that winter in Africa but return to India to breed during the monsoon.

3. BREEDING: Most species breed annually and many small birds raise more than one brood in a year. The timing is related to food supplies since the maximum amount of food needs to be available for the young to fledge successfully, this means that the climate is the main determinant. Since climate varies through the region, so do breeding seasons, although a few species breed throughout the year. Most birds breed immediately prior to the main monsoon, to take advantage to the increase in invertebrates that are the main source of food for the young. Even seedeaters like sparrows and weavers, feed their young on insects. Some reed-bed, sandbank and marshland ground nesting species also breed before the onset of the monsoon, to avoid getting flooded out. Most large water birds like cormorants, pelicans and herons breed during the and at the end of the monsoon, as more water means more food. Many raptors breed in the winter months, because of the abundance of migratory birds. Birds of the high altitude, breed only in the brief summer months. During the breeding season, some birds, mostly males, adorn a new brighter plumage to make them more attractive to the opposite sex.

4. NESTS & EGGS: Birds make all sots of nests, of all sorts of complexity and at all heights in vegetation and on the ground. The skilfully woven grass nests of the weaver birds is well known, while the tailorbird literally stitches two leaves together to make a hanging pouch, Many ground-nesting birds don’t build a nest, but scrape together a slight hollow or lay their eggs straight onto the ground. The cuckoos simply deposit their eggs in the nest of host-species and play no further role in their rearing their young. Woodpeckers, bee-eaters and sand martins excavate their own holes with considerable skill, while others utilize existing holes or even man-made next-boxes. Hornbills nest in holes in trees and are unique in imprisoning the females within the nest behind a mud wall, leaving only a gap just big enough for the male to pass food. Not all birds form pairs. Some babblers breed communally with different females laying eggs in the same nest. It is essential that you must not disturb the birds at their nests, as it can lead them to abandon it and sometimes even their young.
Eggs vary in size, colour and shape and number. Those, which require camouflage, are well-mottled, although most are pigmented. Cuckoos parasitic on others’ nests lay eggs, which resemble those of the host species. You must under no circumstance touch the eggs.

5. FEATHERS: A bird’s feathers serve a variety of functions. The most obvious of these have to do with flight. The primaries and secondaries on the wing provide much of the power need for flight while the coverts on the wings and the contour feathers on the body aid streamlining and provide an aerodynamic shape. Feathers also serve to provide the insulation needed to maintain the bird’s body temperature and are assisted in this by the underlying down feathers on the body. Lastly, the feathers are often coloured, the patterns produced providing camouflage in some species and colourful display in others.

6. FAMILY & GENUS: At first you find it difficult to remember even the common name or the local names, but as you get more and more interested you will find that birds have a classification of their own. Do not get nervous about these classifications. You will soon see that they are not that complicated at all. Each bird belongs to a Family, which is a group of birds that are believed to be related through common origins. Each family has a scientific name (based on Latin), which ends with –idae. However most experienced birders do not use formal scientific term, preferring to talk in terms of, for example, chats, terns, thrushes etc.
Within families one or more genus are even more closely related. There is no consistent ending to a scientific name of a genus. Sometimes if the genus are grouped into a sub-family, the scientific name ends in –ini or –inae.
The first of the words in the scientific name is the genus. The second word is the species name and the third is the sub-species name. Sub-species are often referred to as forms or races. If the third word is the same as the second, then that was the first sub-species to be named. It is called the nominate sub-species.
If you see a final word or abbreviation (often in brackets) at the end of the name, this refers to the person who first published the scientific name being used. The most frequent is Linn (or Lynn), which stands for Linneaus, the great 18th centaury Swedish biologist who invented modern systematics.
Families are joined together in an even larger grouping called Orders (the scientific name always ends in –formes) and the orders together constitute the kingdom of the birds. Thus an Indian Robin in Delhi is scientifically called Saxicoloides fulicata cambaiensis and the one in Chennai is Saxicoloides fulicata fulicata, because it is different sub-species, and the first to be named. It belongs to the genus Saxicolides and is popularly known as one of the chats. This genus is currently placed in the sub-family Saxicolini (which includes all the chats and wheatears), which in turn is part of the family Muscicapidae which include thrushes and flycatchers. This family is in the order Passeriformes, which include most of the smaller bird species popularly known as Song or Perching Birds.

For example:
Indian Robin I Saxicoloides fulicata I cambaiensis I (Latham, 1790)
Common name I Species name I Sub-species I 1st Publisher in 1790

If you have not understood a word of this, do not worry. No one does in the beginning!

7. SEASON: Birding can and should be done throughout the year. Birds in India can be broadly dived into two types. First the residents who stay put in their localities throughout the year. The second is those who visit India for the winter, arriving starting around September and leave around March. You should make an effort to observe birds throughout the year, so you do not miss any species.

Spring: The migrants have started returning and by April most have gone. The mating season is about to begin. Males start calling in order to woo their prospective mates. Some birds, like rollers, indulge in spectacular aerial displays. Birds like the Purple Sunbird, don their breeding plumage.

Summer: A good time to observe, mating and breeding behaviour. Storks, cormorants and other waterbirds nest communally in what are called "heronries". Summer migrants like the Pied Cuckoo have arrived from Africa. The Blue Rock Thrush, Golden Oriole, Drongo Cuckoo etc have moved north to breed.

Autumn: The early migrants have stated to return and by September/October the water-bodies will be full of ducks and waders. Other migrants too have returned.

Winter: This is the best time to bird-watch as both the residents and the migrants are here.

8. TIME OF DAY: The best time to see birds is at sunrise to early morning and then again in the mid and late afternoons. Birds tend to rest during the day. In places like lakes, you can observe birds through the day. While it is possible to watch birds any time and any place it is helpful to know when and where to look. You are more likely to see specific birds at certain times of the day. For example songbirds are easier to see two to three hours after dawn or just before sunset. This is when they are most active. Many small birds will be silent or even hidden during the rest of the day. When the sun is up, it is the best time to see eagles, hawks and other raptors. Visibility is best for hunting at this time and they can soar on the thermal currents from the warmed air. Birds like owls and nightjars are more likely to be seen after dusk. Many shorebirds and waders rest at high tide and feed when the water recedes.

What To Notice About A Bird
Identifying birds can sometimes be a rather frustrating experience, especially for the beginner. Reassuringly, your ability will, without doubt improve over the years and you should be comforted by the knowledge that, however experienced the birdwatcher, there will always be some sightings that defy identification. Your skills as a birdwatcher will improve with time and experience. There is no shortcut to this.

The following characteristics of a bird’s appearance and behaviour will help you to identify it. For some birds, you may need all of the clues for identification, while for some others one characteristic may give it away. The order in which these features are noted is not important, but try to remember the combination of features each bird displays.

Colour and Markings: Most people notice the colour of a bird first and, for a few birds, such as the bright yellow of the Golden Oriole, this may be all you will need. But many birds share the same colour. For instance, many warblers, finches and sparrows are streaked brown. More than colour alone is needed to distinguish these birds. When identifying a new bird, make careful observations of the patterns and colours of plumage.
It should be borne in mind that a bird’s plumage can vary according to the time of the year and the sex of the individual. So you need to establish whether you are looking at a bird in breeding plumage or a non-breeding bird in winter plumage. Juveniles, which often have cleaner looking feathering in the autumn than adults, are often different in plumage than their parents.
Field marks are the physical marking that should be visible on a bird during its normal activities. These include features such as body and bill shape, wing and rump patches, tail bands, eye rings (circles around the eyes), wing bars (thin lines along the wings), and other eye catching patches of colour. Some families of birds can be broken into even smaller groups based on one or two simple field marks. For example, warblers are fairly evenly divided between those that have wingbars and those that do not. So if you see a warbler-like bird, look quickly to see if it has wingbars.

Shape/ Silhouette: Birds of particular family groups often share distinctive shapes. For example; herons and egrets are, by and large, long-legged and long-necked birds while plovers have short, stubby bills, dumpy bodies and longish legs. The overall shape of the body and relative size of the head, bills and legs are obviously important. The bird’s stance and posture should, however, also be noted. Some birds sit upright while others adopt a more horizontal posture. Non-perching birds also have a range of postures and stances and it should not be forgotten that these could vary according to the behaviour of the bird. Identifying birds and bird families is often done from a distance by observing the shape or silhouette. While you may not be able to do exact identification, shapes may help you identify a bird or at least its family.

Size: Comparing the size of the bird you are looking at to the size of a bird you are familiar with may aid in identifying it. Is it smaller than a crow? More slender than a parakeet? While not always the case size can be a good indicator of the species of the bird you are watching or trying to identify. Learn the general size of common bird types to help you with identification. As an example most song birds such as robins, chats, or bulbuls fit into a certain size group. Raptors or birds of prey like eagles, hawks, and owls will usually be larger. Birds like ducks, herons, geese or other waterfowl will fit another size. Although this is very general it can help you pick out a single bird that is a different size than the others in a group or flock.

Beak shapes: Look at the shape of a bird's bill in low light. Finches, and sparrows have short conical bills. Woodpeckers have rigid powerful bills to chip away at wood. Hawks, eagles, and owls have sharp, hooked bills for tearing meat. Shorebirds have slender bills of all lengths for probing at different depths into the sand. Birds such as ducks have flat bills useful for filtering. Everyone is familiar with the long thin beak of a sunbird.

Calls and Songs: Ornithologists recognize two kinds of bird vocalisations - calls and songs. Calls are generally brief sounds of only one or two notes, while a song is usually a rhythmic series of notes uttered in a recognizable pattern. Many birds have very distinctive songs and identification is possible without ever actually seeing them. Learn to recognise birds by sound as well as sight. Some birds are far easier to hear than to see, while many others first draw attention to themselves by their songs and calls. Records and tapes of calls and songs are available and can also be downloaded from the net.

Habits and Behavior: Observing how and where a bird interacts with its surroundings is a valuable identification tool. Does it eat insects or seeds? Does it feed in a tree or from the ground? Does it hover like a sunbird or soar like a vulture? Answering questions such as these also provides enjoyable lessons in natural history. A bird's behaviour - how it flies, forages, or generally comports itself - is one of the best clues to its identity. Hawks have a "serious" demeanour; crows and jays are "gregarious". Woodpeckers (and tree creepers, not to mention nuthatches) climb up the sides of tree trunks searching for grubs like a lineman scaling a telephone pole. Flycatchers, on the other hand, wouldn't climb a tree trunk if their lives depended on it. They spend most of their time sitting upright on an exposed perch. When they see a bug cruising into range they quickly dart from their perch, snag the meal, and then return to the same perch or another one nearby. Finches spend a lot of their time on the ground in search of fallen seeds, as do certain babblers and laughing-thrushes. Some wading birds, such as egrets and herons, are very active foragers and chase their prey around in shallow waters. Other wading birds are less impetuous and hunt slowly with great patience and stealth. Even the way a bird props its tail gives some clues as to which species or family it might be. Wagtails and Black Redstarts bounce their tails and rumps rapidly up and down as if doing a stylish dance step. Some thrushes and flycatchers, on the other hand, move their tails frequently but slowly, with a wave-like motion. You can even identify some birds just by the way that they fly. Most finches and woodpeckers move through the air with an undulating flight pattern, flapping their wings for short bursts and then tucking them under for a short rest. One group of raptors, the buzzards and vultures, circle the sky suspended on outstretched wings. Most falcons, another group of raptors, fly with strong wing-beats and rarely hover. Yet another group, the accipiters, usually fly in a straight line with alternating periods of flapping and floating.

Movement: Look for movement. Our eyes are attracted to moving objects. A moving bird is easier to find than one sitting still. Look up and scan the sky and the treetops for birds. Look in the undergrowth at your height. Different species of birds use different levels in the undergrowth. Look at the forest or scrub floor. Many species of bird live or feed on the ground and in the small plants and leaf litter found there. Don’t always stare at the one spot. Scan different levels and different distances. Use your peripheral vision to pick up movement.

Jizz: The ‘jizz’ of a bird is a combination of all the features and aspects discussed above and others, seen through the on an experienced birdwatcher. Given years of observation, some people can identify birds even in poor light and at a considerable range. Clues used might be the flight pattern of a speck on the horizon or the feeding pattern of a distant wader far out on the mud flat. At least part of the skill derives from having the background knowledge to make a ‘best guess’ at the most likely species in a particular habitat at a certain time of year.

Other tips
Field Guide: Try and get a good affordable field identification guide and this will be your best and most valuable piece of equipment. For more details see the Field Guide section.

Binoculars: While these are highly desirable, they are by no means essential. So do not wait to get a pair before you start birding. You can learn a huge amount without them, though it is sometimes difficult to identify far off birds without them. Many beginners lose track of birds between spotting them and bringing the binoculars to their eyes. To improve this transition, practice focusing on a stationary object and smoothly bringing the binoculars up without moving your eyes. For more details see our Binocular section.

Manners: Especially at popular birding spots, be respectful of serious birders (and the birds themselves). Speak quietly, move slowly, leave your dog at home, and be aware of other birders so as not to scare off birds they’re viewing. Slamming the car door is the classic example. Birds are likely to be alarmed by noise or sudden movement so move slowly and quietly. Watch for signs of alarm in birds: a freeze in posture, a cocked head, or half raised wings. These tell you to stop moving until the bird calms down or to back away if necessary. Study an unfamiliar bird thoroughly before consulting your field guide.
Whatever you bring into the area you are birding, make sure that it comes back out with you. Sandwich wrappers, cigarette butts, beverage containers, etc., will not only make the area look nasty, it is a direct hit on an already frail environment. Read more about birding ethics

Clothing and accessories: You are best off wearing clothes with dull colors that blend into the background. Muted greens, browns, and grays are good. Avoid fabrics that squeak, rustle, or snag easily. Depending on the birds you are watching you may want to get rain gear, rubber boots and warm clothing. For birds such as owls that you might look for in the evening a strong flashlight is also handy.

Notebook and Birdlist: Carry a notebook and pencil to record the birds you have seen and any markings or unusual behavior. You can then use your notes to confirm your identification. It is also important to note the date of your observations, so you can compare your sightings year after year. Noting down what you see not only becomes a personal record, but might also be a useful contribution to science. It is essential if you cannot identify the bird immediately. It is risky to keep what you see in your head and then try and remember it as you consult your book or expert friends. It is too easy to distort your memory. It is therefore much easier to note down, or even sketch, your observations at the time you make them. Checklists of the birds of major areas are now easily available on the net.

Bird-clubs: If you can go with an experienced birdwatcher, it can be a great help, but do not hold yourself back if there is no such person around. Major cities have their own bird-clubs and most of them hold regular bird-walks.

The only way to become proficient at birding is to practice. Birding may seem difficult at first, but with a little study you will be able to identify many birds with just a quick look or a brief listen to their song. Start by learning the easy ones like mynas and common birds like bulbuls and doves. Then move on gradually to the more difficult species and soon you'll be surprised to realise that you know most of the birds in your area. Get out every month. Thanks to migration there are different birds to see in each season. But also the resident birds are easier to see in some months than others. Have patience and keep trying. Birding requires skill and, like any other skilful activity, learning it takes time. Don't despair - even experienced birders often have difficulty identifying similar types of waders, warblers or gulls. Any birdwatcher who tells you that he can identify every bird correctly is not being honest!moments!


Compiled and created by Sumit K Sen I All rights reserved I Copyright © 2001 - 2017.
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