Our feathered friends in the backyard

Sohail Akbar | Updated on September 20, 2019

Neighbours: The white throated kingfisher can be found around human habitats   -  sohail akbar

Birdwatching is an immersive experience that promotes the conservation of natural habitats and an endless curiosity about avian life

In this time of aggressive urbanisation and environmental degradation, the disappearance of common birds such as the sparrow is a cause for lament.

As a child, I can only remember seeing crows, sparrows, pigeons and kite (cheel); the last one made for a particularly bad memory as it swooped onto my lunch box while I was eating at school. It has taken me over 30 years to realise that there is an abundance of avian population around us, if only we were receptive to their presence. Their plumage, chirps, song and behaviour can bring us such calm and joy.

Birdwatching has grown to be a hobby for many, from the serious full-timer who will travel the length and breadth of the country in search of a lifer (the first-ever sighting of a bird species for a birdwatcher), to the amateur who observes the birds in a park or backyard.

The best way to begin is to get hold of binoculars or a camera with a decent zoom lens and start observing the birds in any garden or forested area, classifying them into various groups such as doves, bulbuls, robins or barbets. Birds of prey, such as the shikra, the owl, or the honey buzzard, can also be observed.

Green bee-eater: A particular favourite is the green bee-eater, with its bright green plumage and call that sounds like ‘twirl, twirl’


The activity of insect-eating birds is heightened whenever it rains or when gardens bloom with flowers. A particular favourite is the green bee-eater, with its bright green plumage and call that sounds like ‘twirl, twirl’. The white-throated kingfisher has adapted to living around human habitats, and is commonly found near ponds and drains, looking for insects, frogs and small fish. The plumage of this bird has many shades — a violet back, brown head and wings, a red long beak and a white chest, making it a treat to the eyes.

A novice may find it difficult to identify birds with long beaks. When I first saw a brown-headed barbet gorging on the fruit of my guava tree, I thought it was a woodpecker. But woodpeckers do not eat fruits, I recalled. Barbets — with their thick beaks with mustachioed ends, referred to as ‘Barbs’ — are the birds whose call in summers is a familiar sound, though we may have not spotted it as its green plumage merges into the leaves. The other common bird is the petite and colourful coppersmith barbet, named so because its repeated call is much like the sounds coming from a coppersmith’s mill: ‘Phuk... Phuk’. Woodpeckers, on the other hand, make their presence felt by knocking hard on a tree bark. The knocking is not to build a nest, as is commonly believed, but to send a shock through the wood and draw out the insects from within.

Coppersmith barbet: Barbets — with their thick beaks with mustachioed ends, referred to as ‘Barbs’ — are the birds whose call in summers is a familiar sound



A good way of attracting birds to our backyards is by growing fruit trees and hanging bowls with grain and water. The birds come not just to quench their thirst but also frolic in the water.

As it grows on you, birdwatching becomes an immersive experience. Ith’s not just about seeing the birds, but also hearing them. An oriental magpie robin, common to gardens, has the most enchanting song. The same bird will have a different call when it is foraging for food or searching for a mate. You may at times hear the loud shrill of the Asian koel, but it can equally call out to its partner with a mellifluous ‘Kou...Kou’ sound. Ardent birdwatchers use recordings of birdcalls to draw birds out of their nests or bushes for a photograph. My favourite story is that of a keen photographer playing the call of a rare bird from his phone. The bird became so excited that it flew out and perched on the lens of the camera, making it impossible for the photographer to take a picture!

Lesser Goldenback is a woodpecker found widely in the Indian subcontinent


Photographing birds goes hand in hand with birdwatching. Though it’s an expensive hobby because of the need for a good lens that provides quality magnification, people have started taking bird photography seriously and social media platforms allow enthusiasts to share and discuss images of birds. The work of ornithologists who have catalogued bird species in the Indian subcontinent has led to the publication of several books, such as Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp. These are particularly helpful to birdwatchers.

The spotted owlet is found in tropical Asia from mainland India to Southeast Asia


In India, there are around 1,300 resident and migratory birds, many of which are endangered. Some such as the Great Indian Bustard are on the verge of extinction with just a few pairs surviving in the deserts of Rajasthan. From hunting to the loss of habitats due to tree-felling, humans have been at the centre of activities that have caused the fall in bird populations. No doubt the survival of birds is essential for maintaining an ecological balance, thereby impacting our own survival. What better way to ensure their wellbeing than by getting to know them better and introducing them to the younger generations through the many pleasures of birdwatching?

Sohail Akbar is is an amateur birder who teaches photography


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Published on September 20, 2019
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