Kochi is home to hundreds of bird species. To spot them, all you need to do is stop and observe. Esther Elias catches up with a few birders in the city, who do all they can to encourage birdlife around them
The heliconia flowers at George Justin’s home in Kadavanthra host a small visitor at 8.30 every morning — a gorgeous purple-rumped sunbird. It alights gently on a pink tendril, sucks in the day’s nectar and flies away, to return the next day. At Rajshree Bhatter’s house in Panampilly Nagar, the day’s frequenters are munias. Seated on the seeders or perched on the water bowls, there’s the brown scaly-breasted munia sometimes, or the white-rumped munia otherwise. In Kochi, you don’t need to venture far for some avian company, say birders in the city. If we’d care to stop and look, they’re right in our backyards.
There are over a hundred species within Ernakulam alone, says Bijoi K.I., a seasoned birder. On bird races across Kochi, teams have spotted close to 200 species within a dawn-to-dusk time frame, adds Rajshree. “Common city birds are coucals, magpie robins, drongos, sunbirds, white-cheeked barbets, bulbuls, common mynahs and crows, and house sparrows,” says K. Vishnupriyan Kartha, secretary of the Cochin Natural History Society (CNHS). Close observation can find you unusual species too, he says, citing the yellow-footed green pigeon he has noticed for the last four months around his Aluva home. While the days have their share of excitement, the nights too can be quite lively, says Bijoi, who has spotted three different species of owls in Thiruvankulam. “By their hoots, I’ve found the brown hawk owl and even a little jungle owlet,” he says.
As expected, the birdlife in your locality depends on the fauna around. Trees with small berries and flowering plants with nectar entice many species. “Birders also place water bowls on their verandas for birds to bathe in and drink. While this does attract birds, it’s important to do so even more because open water sources are rare, especially in summer,” says Bijoi. Another option is to install seeders with grains in them. “Nation-wide, people have noticed the sparrow population falling and that’s because sparrows don’t find loose grains to feed on since we’ve shifted to packeted goods mostly,” says George. “It took three weeks for the first sparrow to visit my seeder. But there are so many birds now, besides the sparrows, that we go through 2 kg of rice in one week,” says Beena Menon, who lives in Thammanam.
Birding is a great hobby for urban dwellers because birds adapt to human presence quite well, and so they’re easily spotted, says George. Obvious signs are in nesting patterns. “Crows and magpie robins make their nests now of metal wires along with twigs,” observes Vishnupriyan. Munias, tailorbirds and bulbuls nest on electricity meter boxes and sunshades. “We’ve even noticed kites nesting atop mobile towers,” says George. Thus, providing home spots for birds is one way to welcome them. “Just hanging up empty containers will do,” says Beena.
While birdlife within the city is rich, its outskirts are even more bountiful, say birders. “On weekends or holidays, we get together in small groups and take a few kilometres’ ride outside the city on bird-watching trips,” says Vishnupriyan. Besides Mangalavanam in the heart of Kochi, frequented spots further away include the HMT estates and surrounding areas in Kalamassery, Puthuvypeen beach, Kalathara in Palluruthy, Kundanoor, the mangroves around Willingdon Island, Vallarpadam and the all-time favourite: Kadamakudi. In Kalamassery, for instance, CNHS has spotted kites and eagles often, including the booted eagle, crested serpent eagle and the crested hawk eagle. “Kadamakudi though, is the real birder’s paradise,” says Rajshree. “On a good day, you can spot up to 50 different species there — right from brahminy kites to kingfishers, bitterns, hornbills and sandpipers. During the rains, the numbers are smaller but between September and April — the in-migratory season — there’s an abundance,” says Bijoi.
The wetlands around the city are also prime spots for water birds. Egrets, herons, water-hens and purple moorhens are often found in the marshlands and mangroves. But increased human habitation is slowly changing the landscape. “Around the marshes in Palluruthy for instance, we used to see birds of prey such as osprey which would dive into the waters for fish, more frequently before,” says George. “Around Vallarpadam too, once vehicles became common in the area, we have noticed fewer species but even then, in low tide, there’s a wide variety to spot,” says Beena. She adds, “All it takes is for us to forget ourselves for a few hours, stay silent and watch the bird world around us, which otherwise we’d have never seen.”