Birding (or, as it’s more commonly known, birdwatching) is the observation of birds as recreation. It is a pastime, as opposed to ornithology, the study of birds and their habitats which employs a more scientific approach. Birding is an inexpensive and delightful way to learn about nature’s winged wonders – and the perfect to while away the time outdoors.
Birding is usually done with the naked eye (or via binoculars) but also by ear. In fact, most species of birds are identified by listening out for their unique cheeps and tweets. Birds can be spotted from their habitat, behaviour, movement, colour and markings, plumage, silhouette (shape and size), beak shapes and calls (or songs). (As for the nomenclature, in ‘birdwatching’ the emphasis is more on the visual, while the term ‘birding’ carries both auditory and ocular associations, thus more accurately reflecting the activity.) Beyond spotting different species of birds (common and rare), many birders soon become interested in studying birds, and birdlife, in more detail – their habitats, and their patterns of migration, roosting and breeding, etc.
History of Birding
It was, apparently, Shakespeare who first used the term ‘birding’ (‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’: “Her husband goes this morning a-birding.”). But the idea of observing birds for their beauty (rather than creatures as part of the food chain) dates back to late 18 th- century Britain, when the work of writers detailed – and gloried in – the isles’ rich and varied avifauna (Gilbert White was one of those naturalists-authors). Later, in Victorian England, birding became a popular hobby (alongside an interest in natural history) among the leisured classes. The first time the term ‘birdwatching’ was used was in the title of a book (‘Bird Watching’, Edmund Selous, 1901). Through the 20th century, interest in the activity continued to grow, helped by the introduction of field guides and visual enhancers like binoculars, as well as the coming of the motorcar. Air travel widened horizons for birders and birdwatchers (and ornithologists too). And the activity has expanded beyond the USA and the UK, becoming very popular internationally.
Birding in India
The work of Salim Ali (1896-1987), the legendary Indian ornithologist, went a long way towards sparking an interest in birding amongst Indians (though the number of birders in India still pales in comparison to the birding populations of the USA and the UK). The passionate endeavours of the ‘Birdman of India’ helped promote birding into a serious hobby where previously it was more a fun activity. Ali’s ‘Book of Indian Birds’ has become a bible for budding birders and ornithologists. India is home to a dazzling cornucopia of birdlife, in large part due to the diverse ecosystems that exist in the country. It has been estimated that there are 1250 species (approx.) in the country (around 13 percent of the total number of species in the world), both resident and migratory. Out of the 1250, more than 100 are endemic to India (77 are endangered). For the purposes of avifauna classification, India is divided into 13 bio-geographical zones: Trans Himalayan, Western Himalayas, Eastern Himalayas, Desert, Semi-arid, Gangetic Plain, Central India, Deccan Plateau, Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats, North East, Coasts, Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Binoculars, telescope/spotting scope (with tripod), field guides, notebook, recording device (optional), camera/video camera (camera with zoom lens)
Best season in India
As a rule, the winter months (October/November to February/March) are ideal for birdwatching – not only is the weather more clement, this is also the time of year when the migratory birds come calling. If you want to catch sight of the Sarus crane at Keoladeo (and other aquatic birds), head there just as the monsoon arrives. But even in summer, the dedicated birding enthusiast will find species aplenty, both in the north and in the south of the country (as long as he or she doesn’t mind the heat!).
Birding sites in India
Besides the national parks, India has many bird sanctuaries. In the game parks and bird sanctuaries, you can get to observe the local birdlife by climbing machans (watch towers).
Haryana: Sultanpur, Bhindawas (Jhajjar)
Punjab: Harike Wetland Wildlife Sanctuary
Uttarakhand: Pangot, Corbett National Park
Kerala: Thattekad, Kumarakom (Vembanad)
Odisha: Chilika Lake
West Bengal: Singalila (Darjeeling), Lava and Neora Valley
Arunachal Pradesh: Mishmi Hills, Changlang, Eaglenest Sanctuary,
Assam: Kaziranga National Park
Gujarat: Khijadia (Jamnagar), Nal Sarovar (Ahmedabad), Rann of Kutch
Rajasthan: Keoladeo Ghana National Park (‘Bharatpur’)
Keep the wellbeing of birds and their habitat in mind when you go birding. Birds are easily put off by, and also sensitive to, noise and an excess of human movement. So, maintain your distance – and do not disturb!
Here are some important points to keep in mind:
1. Be as quiet as possible when in the birds’ habitat (switch off your mobile phone)
2. Be particularly mindful of creating any distraction during breeding season (playback and recordings should be strictly avoided in this season)
3. Unless you’re researching, avoid bird calls, recordings or any other mode of attracting birds
4. Keep to marked trails all the time; don’t go too close to nests, nesting colonies, roosts and feeding areas
5. Follow the local rules of the national park/bird sanctuary
6. Try and limit the use of your camera, video camera, sound recorder and other devices – too much photography (or playback) can leave the birds stressed
7. Avoid flash photography
8. Protect yourself from the sun by wearing sunglasses and applying sunscreen
9. Make sure you stay hydrated
10. If you come across an injured bird, do not touch
11. Do not litter the birds’ habitat
12. Come equipped with plenty of patience!
Birding makes for fantastic exercise for people of all ages and every fitness level.
Hours spent out in the open, breathing in the fresh air (and listening to birdsong), is a wonderful tonic for the soul (and also the ideal stress-buster). And a little bit of upland hiking won’t do anyone any harm!
As long as you’re not disturbing the habitat of the birds, birding is an environmentally friendly activity. Birding in numbers – where individuals participate in censuses or monitor migration patterns – also helps in detecting any dangers to certain species, while also aiding in the survival of endangered species. Overall, the study and observation of birds is a great way to become familiar with issues of ecology, and also to learn about different ecosystems, and how best to protect them.