Every year, bird-lovers in several cities engage in a day-long ‘race' to spot the maximum number of species. This high-profile event, a regular feature in several countries, yields a rough index of urban bird diversity. What amazes many is that even in a human-dominated city such as Mumbai, it is possible to see some 145 species of birds. The story is not very different in other cities. Remarkably, birds seem to persist in the smallest of spaces, and in a densely built-up environment.
Yet, for most people going about their frenetic lives in cities and towns, pausing to notice the birds around them is nothing short of a luxury. Fewer still are those who have the time to study the curious and intelligent behaviour of these fascinating creatures. Not so the authors of this delightful book.
They have devoted themselves diligently to the task, researching the habitat, breeding, nesting, and fledging of some of the common birds and the not-so-common ones. The sum of their endeavours is a record of the nesting behaviour of 51 species.
Labour of love
It has been a labour of love for both Chinna Sathan, who scoured the scrub landscape around his home in Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) for birds and nests, and for his more experienced partner Bal Pandi, who devoted himself to intensive studies in Koonthakulam, a lakeside birding area near Tirunelveli.
Their Diary on the Nesting Behaviour of Indian Birds serves as a useful companion to the well-known bird-watching field guides for the subcontinent. Most guides identify the species, and provide the range, distribution, and also basic information on the habitat. The nesting characteristics and behaviour of birds are not often highlighted, a deficiency the authors have worked to correct. They have also set themselves the lofty task of kick-starting the much-needed research to aid science.
Among the interesting observations they make on the behavioural peculiarities of birds are: water birds like darters and cormorants tuck their bills under a wing during the resting phase; crows, raptors, and babblers clean up nests; crows pursue their daily routine aggressively; and tailorbirds watch themselves on mirror-like reflective surfaces.
Most people can be sure that many of the birds that find a place in the book can be spotted in their city or town, if not in their immediate neighbourhood. A bird-watching enthusiast would thus find the bulbuls, herons, egrets, coppersmith barbet, Indian roller, tailorbird, woodpeckers, parakeets, hoopoe, black drongo, mynas, and kingfishers sharing even urban spaces or suburban sites, while the more widely dispersed water-birds, bee-eaters and so on are to be found some distance away.
The book is the result of the lead author's worship of nature as a supreme force and the inspiration provided by the writings of the legendary Salim Ali. In his autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow, Salim Ali recalls how he got interested in birds, and made his first note on the behaviour of sparrows when he was nine or ten years old.
Chinna Sathan points out that Ali was sad there were wide gaps in knowledge about the breeding biology and behaviour of birds, in such areas as the share of the sexes in nest-building, incubation, care of the young; incubation periods; nature and quantity of food given to the young; and the interaction between the parents and the young.
Keen to make a difference, Chinna Sathan started his work in the largely parched scrublands of Coimbatore around his home, and along the banks of the Noyyal river, which has endured much pollution over the years. His enthusiasm is palpable, and the sustained work of his collaborator in southern Tamil Nadu has helped in collecting a lot of detail.
What the book needs for future editions is the assistance of a good designer, and thorough cleaning up of the text. The many photographs in this volume do help identify the birds, and some of the line drawings relieve the monotony.
The work is a valuable addition to the observational literature on birds and their habitat. If more amateur bird watchers come forward to make similar behavioural studies and systematically record their observations, there can be many more original bird books from India.