Illustrations by Pratiksha Sail | Words by Priya Ranganathan

Birds are the most commonly-sighted wildlife in city landscapes, colonizing trees, rooftops, balconies, air conditioning boxes, and even electrical poles! Here is an illustrated guide to six common feathered residents of most Indian cities…look outside and see how many you can spot in your neighbourhood!

The blue rock pigeon, or common pigeon, is an old friend (or foe) to most of us urban-dwellers. Pigeons prefer eating grains and occasionally snatch up small worms and beetles. Here’s an interesting fact for you: pigeons have a very strong homing sense, which means they can find their way home from long distances away, making them very good at carrying messages. This was the reason many people kept pigeons in the olden days – to deliver letters!

Meet the black kite, a high-flying scavenger that can be spotted circling high above the streets. Black kites are large, aggressive raptors with a distinctive forked tail. They are not picky about what they eat, and their diet includes small mammals (who doesn’t enjoy a tasty rat or two?), smaller birds, household scraps (I’ve met kites that ate leftover khichdi), and, of course, carrion (dead animals).

Can you spot this cheerful little bird? The red vented bulbul (named for the patches of red on its cheeks and underside) has long had a place in Indian culture. It was kept as a tame bird and used for bird fights, as it is fiercely territorial; this practice was seen in southern India as well as in Assam. The bulbul nests in short trees and alcoves 2-3 metres above the ground and is a busy little creature. It feeds on flower petals, fruits, nectar, insects, and the occasional unfortunate house gecko!

Once the most common bird in Indian cities like Mumbai, the house sparrow is now a far rarer sight. This is mainly due to a rise in predatory birds, like shikras and kites, which were attracted to big cities by the presence of garbage heaps, butcher shops, and slaughterhouses. These larger birds have greatly reduced the sparrow population, especially in Mumbai. The sparrow has a surprisingly high immunity, allowing it to survive the many pollutants and contaminants found in city food supplies.

The coppersmith barbet is a colourful addition to this list of city birds. The barbet carves a hole in a tree to use as a nest. It commonly eats insects, especially flying termites. This bird makes a loud tuk…tuk…tuk sound, resembling the sound of a coppersmith hitting his hammer against a sheet of copper, leading to its funny name. Though it is a small bird, it eats up to three times its weight every day!

Last but not least, wander past your local waterbodies and try to spot this bright blue beauty – the white-throated kingfisher. Kingfishers are tiny, acrobatic birds found around wetlands and other freshwater sources. They are adept at swooping down at high speeds and snatching fish out of the water, or even insects from the air. You may spot kingfishers sitting high on electrical and telephone wires, waiting to ambush their prey.

Cities may be concrete jungles, but, like jungles everywhere else in India, they have their own feathered citizens to boast about. You can become a birder without ever leaving your city home…just pick up your notebook, perk up your ears, and look out of the balcony at these busy birds.

About the Artist:

Pratiksha Sail is a researcher and wildlife illustrator. She is keen about natural history, conservation and writing. 

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’