You don’t have to travel far to watch birds. They can be invited to your neighbourhood or even your backyard.
Birders are viewed as an alien species — as people who forgo a Sunday lie-in, travel long, wade through slush or trek through woods, to watch and listen to, sometimes, just one bird. Birders of this stripe, known as twitchers, do exist. But they hardly represent the entire tribe. Some birders don’t look beyond their neighbourhood; some others, not even beyond their backyard.
Investing in garden implements is one step towards increasing bird traffic to one’s doorstep. Naturalist and conservationist V. Arun, who devotes a lot of time to studying the ecological impact of specific trees and plants, warns against the notion that trees alone draw birds. “Even small flowering plants do,” says Arun. “Hibiscus, parijatham and tacoma attract nectar-drinking birds such as sunbirds.”
But obviously, anyone with the luxury of space can ‘invite’ greater avian adventures. Fig varieties top the list of trees that attract birds. Another hot favourite is the Indian coral tree.
“The Indian coral tree, with its bright red flowers, is an awesome sight. Its ability to draw birds is unfathomable. During a visit to Kerala, I noticed 25 bird species on a coral tree. And in Mumbai, I counted over 400 rosy pastors on another. Mynahs roost in Mast trees (known as Ashoka trees),” says Arun.
Won’t any big tree or bushy plant draw birds? “Not necessarily,” says Arun. “Exotic trees don’t make the cut. Birds gravitate towards greenery that they are familiar with, and indigenous plant and tree species are the best bet to draw them in great numbers. Naturalised species can serve as an alternative.”
Among naturalised species, K.V.R.K Thirunaranan of The Nature Trust rates the rain tree high. “The bark of a rain tree teems with insects, beckoning birds,” he says. “Birds flock to trees for feeding, roosting and nesting, and the trick lies in understanding which trees meet these needs adequately. Mango trees draw golden orioles, and cherry trees, koels.”
Naturalist T. Murugavel of Environment Monitoring and Action Initiating adds another essential to the list — undergrowth and leaf litter. “In an attempt to have a clean garden, people remove the undergrowth and bushes. This exercise only results in keeping out a number of beautiful birds, including babblers and robins. Birds find insects in leaf litter. By sweeping a garden clean, a food source is blocked out.”
Other obvious elements to consider in a bird-friendly garden are bird feeders and baths. With a green cover, bird feeders and baths in place, the next step is to attune one’s ears to bird calls. “With me, it is a trained instinct,” says wildlife photographer P. Ramanan, whose house in Shastri Nagar is surrounded by dense greenery. “Effective birding is much about an ear tuned to bird calls. Even alarms raised by squirrels should perk your ears up. Every time I hear a commotion in my garden, I rush to the window. Once, from my window, I noticed a shikra kite eating a gecko.'
Musician A.J. Mithra, who conducts experiments in zoomusicology (loosely, ‘a study of sound communication among animals’), believes bird calls can be the beginning of a romance with birds. “By looking in the direction of a bird call, you watch the bird. Jot down the features of the bird in a notebook. Refer to a field guide or the Internet and identify the bird. Once the bird is identified, you can listen closely to its call, available on a number of websites, and get attuned to it. Through this rigour, you will master the twin aspects of serious birding — vocal and visual recognition of birds.” That too, without stirring from your garden.