Madras Bird Race is back, and over 100 bird species await

Meghna Majumdar 21 January 2020 18:56 IST
Updated: 21 January 2020 18:57 IST

Have patience, a love of birds, and the ability to be on your feet from dawn to dusk? Join in Chennai’s annual bird count exercise

The rules of birdwatching are simple. “Wear dull colours, because birds are sensitive to reds, yellows and oranges. Be quiet. Wear clothes that cover you completely, because you will be exposed to all kinds of environments,” says 17-year-old Mahathi Narayanaswamy.

She should know. She has been doing this for the past four years, wading through the city’s marshlands, waiting by its lakes, making her way through shrubs and deciduous forests for the Madras Bird Race. Last year, she was rewarded by a rare sighting of the Pallas’s grasshopper-warbler at the Perumbakkam Tank. She is not the only one who finds the exercise worth it.

Know the basics
  • Time: Dawn to dusk
  • Equipment: Binoculars, notepad, pencil
  • Target: To record as many species of birds as possible
  • Participants: Experienced amateurs and budding birdwatchers, in teams of four


In the past few years, the race has been seeing a steady participation of about 150 birding enthusiasts. “At least 80 of them each time are first-time birders,” says KV Sudhakar, secretary, Madras Naturalists’ Society. Constant interest by newcomers is something the society takes pride in; in fact, the organisation has experts available on request, in case the fresher pairs of eyes need some guidance or advice.

That is not the only help provided — “Once you register, your team will receive a booklet listing out nearly 160 species of birds you are likely to see in and around Chennai,” says Sudhakar. These log books, feature space for a number of observations per sighting — whether the bird you saw is male or female; was it nesting or feeding or mating. “You don’t have to fill all of it in, but serious birders like to,” says Sudhakar.

So just how serious is this exercise? In Mahathi’s first year, her team alone spotted about 136 species of birds. Last year, the winning team managed to spot 131 species: a veritable doff of the hat to this city’s biodiversity.

According to the society’s bulletin, in the 2019 race, “Five rare species were sighted — Bar-headed Goose at the Great Salt Lake [on the road from Thiruporur to Nemmeli], Tree Pipit at Thaiyur Lake [three kilometres off Old Mahabalipuram Road, on the road to Kayar], Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler at Perumbakkam Tank, Slender-billed Gull at Adyar Estuary and the Brown Hawk Owl at IIT-Madras.”

The more, the merrier
  • The Great Backyard Bird Count entered its 22nd edition in February last year. Part of the global count by the same name, it is held for four days every February and at least 13 Indian cities participate.
  • Campus Bird Count is a subset of the same event, albeit restricted to campuses, and to those who live, study or work in them.
  • Pongal Bird Count is held across Tamil Nadu and Puducherry during the festival, and is coordinated by Tamil Birders Network and Bird Count India. It is being held since 2015.
  • Bihu Bird Count was organised in Assam for the first time this year, by Bird Count India.

Chennai and its surroundings are home to about 30 birding hotspots. While some of them, unsurprisingly, exist around water bodies — like Adyar Estuary and Puzhal Lake, all the way up to Pulicat — others are in less public locations. For instance, institutes like Madras Christian College and Indian Institute of Technology both have green, bird-friendly campuses that feature in MNS’ list of hotspots.

It is not just about the sightings either. At the end of the race, all participants gather to give in their log books, discuss their sightings, swap stories from the day. As Sudhakar puts it, all of it is just one large exercise in creating an active bird-loving community. “The conservation of our environment is not something that can be left to the Government or the Forest Departments. It needs to happen at the grass-roots, with the help of citizens.”

The race will be held on January 26. Registrations close at midnight of January 22. For details, visit the Madras Naturalists’ Society’s website blackbuck.org.in