How I started my Bird Watching Journey


Bird Watching is something that I developed a taste for over the years. I have travelled to known as well as unknown destinations to sight birds now. From the famous Bharatpur Sanctuary to the back alleys of Kerala.

I remember being fascinated by birds even as a kid. There have been things that I have always wanted to know about birds. Where do they go in the night? How do they get up on time with sunrise? Are birds scared of big animals? Why do they abandon their young ones that have been touched by humans? Who taught them the science of forming an A-shape during migration?

Just that, when out for jungle safaris, I would never bother myself with kingfishers or barbets or darters for that matter. It was only towards the end of the safari, while on the way back to the rest house, that my guide would draw my attention to a bird of two.

Guess, it has more to do with our fascination with the big cats more than the habitat in which they live. Also, with so many species of birds around, it becomes really difficult for one to even identify them.

You wouldn’t believe me, but the first ever bird that I started noticing was the sparrow! One day I read somewhere that sparrows are vanishing from cities since owing to mobile network, which is when I started cautiously looking out for sparrows in day-to-day life. That led me to more birds -- crows, pigeons and parrots in my backyard.

In fact, the first bird that I started identifying in the wild was the kingfisher (thanks to one so-called king of good times!). Even today, my eyes keep looking for kingfishers and my joy at sighting them is beyond words. One bird led to the discovery of another.

Do you remember that “One for Joy, Two for Sorrow”? That has got to do with some old superstition about determining your luck on that day depending upon the number of birds one sees on that given day. One day, my husband pointed out towards the balcony and said, see, that is your “joy and sorrow bird”. I was ecstatic! These are magpies!

Oh yes, I have to share this with you. So, I lost my way back home and all I remembered was a huge garbage hill that I had crossed sometime back. With my GPS not working, I got down from the car to have a better sense of direction. That is when I saw a lease of hawks and falcons in the sky. Since these are predatory birds, they would have been over the garbage hill! I just followed the route to reach those birds and I was back on the right path!

All these incidents led me to start taking interest in observing birds and their activities. I started reading more about birds. There are over 10,000 species of birds known to mankind! I read more and more to know about the world of birds. We all know that the biggest bird living today is the Ostrich, however, Moas that were extirpated within historical times were much bigger. Interestingly, the smallest ever bird known to mankind is the Bee Hummingbird.

In fact, the Great Bustard is the heaviest of birds at almost 6.8 kgs!  Here is one more question that I found an answer to. Ever wondered why most bird droppings are white in colour?  Because, most birds face problems with excretion and build-up of toxins in the blood from protein synthesis and digestion. For amphibians that stay in freshwater (Say fish), the easiest solution is to excrete highly toxic ammonia directly into the water. On land, since water supplies are limited, birds convert the ammonia to the less toxic insoluble uric acid (white colour).

So, the white colour in bird droppings is actually the equivalent of a human urine and the dark stuff if equivalent of the human solid excreta.

Well, I could go on and on. Probably, some of it you already know. But to each one of us, it is a discovery in itself to learn more about birds and their lives. This hobby of observing birds and recording their behavior is called bird watching whereas, as the name suggests, bird photography involves documenting through your camera and lens set up. Of course, the more serious stream of activity is called Ornithology, the science of studying birds and their habitats.

But, do you know how and when birding began? Some say that it started in Britain, whereas, others say that it started in the United States. These are inferences drawn from literature and history books. The earliest interest in observing words has been elaborated in the works of Gilbert White, Thomas Bewick, George Montagu and John Clare. Looking at the timeline for Britain, birding started developing as an activity during the Victorian Era.

However, the idea of observing birds dates back to late 18th century with Gilbert White emerging as one of the naturalists-authors. And then, we have much more information about birding and bird watching during the Victorian England era. Birding became a popular hobby among the leisured classes and the rich. It was in fashion to say that one is going to watch birds. Interestingly, the first time the term ‘birdwatching’ was used was in the title of a book (‘Bird Watching’, Edmund Selous, 1901).

People with the luxury of leisure time would often collect eggs as well as skins as artifacts. The Victorian era also saw wealth being shown off in the form of birds being collected from across the globe. You would be surprised to know that birding at that time meant killing of the bird as well. It was during this time that the Audubon Society was started to protect birds from the growing trade in feathers in the United States while the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds began in Britain. In North America, studying of birds took form of killing them and examining the carcasses. 

Primarily, it developed to the current day form only in the 20th century with people started observing and studying birds in their natural habitat. In the 19th century, students would study birds only after gunning them down, with the corpse in their hands.

Owing to optical aids such as binoculars, it has become easier to study birds in the wild without harming them.  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.

With the advent of optics and optical instruments such as binoculars, organisations such as Audubon and the American Ornithologists’ Union emerged. These were networks of those birders who were against killing of birds.

Initially, bird watching was a hobby undertaken in developed countries such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, since the second half of the 20th century an increasing number of people in developing countries have engaged in this activity. Transnational birding has played an important role in this, as birders in developing countries usually take up the pastime under the influence of foreign cultures with a history of birding.

Not surprisingly, India, home to a rich ecosystem throughout the length and breadth of the country, it has a growing community of bird enthusiasts. In fact, bird watching in India can be attributed to Salim Ali, a pioneering ornithologist and conservationist. Named as the ‘Bird man of India’, he penned down ‘Book on Indian Birds’ that remains the best resource for birding enthusiasts in the country.

My first outing with a bird guide was in Bharatpur. He showed me how to identify birds and how to record the time and date of sighting. In fact, I discovered through him that one needs to come at a different time for resident birds and migratory birds (I know, it is so logical now!).

I was actually surprised to discover that Goa is a haven for birds! You can to see water birds and migratory birds as well in Goa. Another discovery for birding was Hampi in Karnataka. Kutch has been my all-time favourite given the beautiful sand of Little Rann of Kutch. In fact, one regret would be to have not taken my camera to Jaipur’s Man Sagar Lake.

But all of that in the next post. Each destination of India deserves a special mention. Till then, hope to know more about your stories from the world of birds.

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