Passion takes wing

For Mahathi Narayanaswamy, bird-watching is not just a hobby, but a serious study of ornithology and ecology

It is possible that Mahathi Narayanaswamy’s first baby cry sounded like a bird call. “My journey as a birder began in my pram days when my mom wheeled me around the campus and showed me the blackbuck and the egrets,” says the Class XI student, opening her laptop to show me her bird-work.

The “campus” is IIT-Madras where her dad works. When she turned four, she began attending Prof. Susy Verughese’s annual summer birding camp for children. At age seven, she saw a large, colourful parrot on a mango tree outside her window and was hooked to the bird-world. After a brief pause over problem with eyesight, at age nine, she began summer birding, and at 12, went birding in winter. “I was rewarded with the sight of a brown-breasted flycatcher that migrated over Chennai. There has been no looking back since!” she says.

Through high school, she bird-watched in the campus with classmate Tanmay Jain. At home, she would read Salim Ali’s Indian Birds volumes 2 and 11 — “my primers for bird-watching. These are mom’s; she is a birdwatcher too.”

Local surveys

In the last four years, she has recorded 122 species of birds in the campus, and along with Tanmay, she has surveyed and analysed the vegetation and bird species in the Guindy National Park and the IIT campus. She flips the pages of the neat, hand-written report that they submitted to the National Children’s Science Congress before giving me a gist of what they found: “The forests are similar, being dry-deciduous, except IIT has marshes and scrub as well. We identified 42 different bird species.”

Annual family outings are built around the bird theme. “We trek in the Himalayas every year in May-June, along with a few families here.” Her observations include the rise in house-sparrow numbers in the lower Himalayan villages — three to four species new to the western Himalayan region. “The steep high-altitude (2000-3000 feet) elevation makes treks tough, so sightings here are not well-documented,” she says.

Mahathi logs her birding experiences at and has joined bird portals for interactions with birders world-wide. Her profile is on She joins birdwalks/programmes organised by the National Conservation Foundation. She has attended Garima Bhatia’s workshops on birding.

When she heard about the eBird online database, she began uploading her bird sightings. “It has reviewers for every district/state/country.”

International experience

Mahathi spotted an announcement about the Cornell Young Birders three-day programme in the eBird newsletter, applied, and was accepted. It was held from July 12-15, 2018 in Ithaca, New York. The event aims to bring together teenagers with a passion for birds and interested in pursing a career in the field. Participants meet people who have successful careers that involve birds — from ornithological researchers to tour leaders, to audio specialists and computer scientists. Preference is given to students entering Class XII and students who have previously applied.

“This was a major opportunity as India has negligible numbers of recognised university programmes related to birding,” she feels. “I met birders in my age-group from around the world, experience the university atmosphere in the U.S., and interact with scientists/researchers in the fields of ornithology and wildlife biology.”

The event featured two days of field trips, presentations by Cornell Lab of Ornithology staff including professors, researchers, and students, eBird and sound recording workshop, and a tour of Cornell Lab including the Macaulay Library and Museum of Vertebrates.

Mahathi plans on building a career around birds by choosing ornithology or ecology. However, “Even if I choose a different career, birding will continue to remain a passion. I may do a project that bridges my career and birds.” Mahathi makes a big pitch for birding when she says, “It is fascinating to see new birds; to be able to identify small differences in looks and behaviour of say, two babblers.” And yes, birding helps conserve the feathered species.

Data on eBird help to infer how habitat change affects bird species, amateur birding-records help to make decisions related to city planning, public parks and gardens. So she listens to calls as she bicycles to the gate. “Anything that moves catches my attention.”

The academic route

Get a good degree of your choice, and then apply to these places for Masters and Doctoral studies.

IISER, Pune. (Has a good Ecology course. They organise field research at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh.)

Salim Ali Institute for Ornithology, Coimbatore.

Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradhun.

IISc, Bengaluru. (Offers general UG courses as well.)

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 11:08:22 PM |

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