I was writing my class 12th Chemistry board exam when a student in the classroom complained about the persistent sound of labourers outside, hammering away. I smiled and looked out the window, as I had done multiple times during the exam, hoping to catch a glimpse of the culprit. The Coppersmith Barbet, aptly-named for the sound it makes, is a bird regularly encountered in areas with gardens, groves and wooded patches of our cities and towns across the country.
Coppersmith Barbets feeds on figs, flowers and fruits. I have often seen them catch insects as well, especially when they are feeding their young – which hide away in nests inside holes and cavities made by the adults on tree branches. When not being used as a nest, these birds use these holes for roosting.
Coppersmith Barbet (Megalaima haemacephala)
Not all these holes may belong to the same bird though, and the White-cheeked Barbet – a larger relative of the Coppersmith Barbet – also follows a similar ritual. The large size, however, allows it to be more aggressive and it often eats the choicest figs and animal matter. Although barbets are mostly found singly or in pairs, sometimes a large number gather on fruiting trees, especially outside the breeding season.
White-cheeked Barbet (Megalaima viridis)
If the loud calls of the barbets are a sign of healthy trees in the vicinity, the mellow “oop-oop” of the Common Hoopoe is a reminder of the open spaces that exist in the clutter of our towns and cities. The Hoopoe was the one of the first birds I learnt to positively identify – I remembering noting it when I was 10 as it foraged on my school’s football ground. Its flamboyant crest, erect when it is alarmed or excited, and attractive colours makes it unmistakable. The Hoopoe also uses tree holes for nesting but may also use holes and cavities in walls and buildings. The long beak helps it probe for invertebrates in the ground.
Hoopoe (Upupa epops)
In the same open spaces, if you see green paper planes picking out insects from the sky – then you must be looking at the Green Bee-eaters. Graceful fliers and efficient hunters, their pretty plumage and soft trilling calls may hide the ruthlessness with which they beat their prey on branches or wires to get rid of the exoskeleton. These birds nest in colonies with their young hidden inside long tunnels excavated in sand banks or in the ground.
Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis)
During a walk in grassy areas or in abandoned or overgrown backyards and gardens, you might run into the tiny Scaly-breasted Munia. Beautiful little birds, they are primarily seed and grain eaters. They build tidy, rotund nests that are much larger than the bird itself. Though they normally nest in bushes and short trees, I was once fortunate to have a pair raise a family in a nest built between the AC vent and the wall of my fourth floor apartment in Manipal. They usually nest in the monsoons and it is not unusual to see the multiple young ones harassing the often-overworked parents for more food!
Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata)
One of the problems cities and towns face is the lack of clean water bodies. One way to assess the health of a wetland ecosystem in a city is to check for the presence of the iconic kingfisher. The Common Kingfisher’s preference for fish and small aquatic animals means that it needs relatively cleaner water bodies to survive. It nests in tunnels along the banks of a river or a lake. In spite of the beautiful plumage of this tiny kingfisher, it can be difficult to spot as it sits still on a perch above the waterbody while waiting for fish to come within striking distance.
Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)
Some birds just need a hint of space and vegetation to capitalise upon. Jungle Babblers colonise parks, gardens, even shrubbery running along the edges of apartments, as they move in groups and pick out insects and small animals from the plants and the ground. The noisy flocks of 5-10 birds are noted for their “chatter” and thus given the alternate name ‘Seven Sisters’.
Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striata)
Each morning, even the Jungle Babblers must be running into the very vocal Common Tailorbird. For its tiny size, the tailorbird is ridiculously loud and its calls fill the air in the mornings and evenings. Best found in low vegetation in parks and gardens, I have even seen these birds take up residence amongst a few pots of plants in a balcony. They are bold birds as such, but may remain unseen as they move though dense bushes with their tail swaying from side to side. As the name suggests, the tailorbird stitches two or more leaves together intricately within which it makes a nest.
Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius)
Some of our city birds are migratory, and one such bird is the beautiful Pied Cuckoo or the Jacobin Cuckoo. It is known as the harbinger of rains since it travels from the eastern coast of Africa to India using the monsoon winds to carry itself. When in India, it frequents a wide variety of habitats, from forests to scrub to city parks and gardens. The Pied Cuckoo, like any other cuckoo, parasitises on the nests of other birds. This means that it lays its eggs in the nest of a host bird which, fuelled by its natural motherly instincts, raises the cuckoo chick till it is able to fend for itself.
Jacobin Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus)
Growing up in Delhi, one of the major reasons I was attracted to birds more than other forms of wildlife was that I didn’t have to go beyond my balcony or local park to find them. Birds are an accessible and easy-to-observe ecological component of urban landscapes. Several bird species have adapted to the man-made changes around them and thrive in urban spaces, while many struggle or eventually move away. Urban landscapes that make room for breathing spaces such as gardens and parks generally exhibit a higher diversity and abundance in birdlife than those that don’t.
Birds act as reliable indicators of the health of our urban ecosystems. Listed here are only a few of the species that would appear to do well in even the most populated cities and towns. However, monitoring their numbers is as essential as ever – for the well-being of their population as well as for the well-being of our environment. These birds play important roles in the ecological make-up of cities and changes in their populations must not be taken for granted. Some species act as excellent pest control agents while others help with pollination. Some species have larger impacts on the ecosystem and just their survival may be a sign of how well the environment is doing.