By Dr. Dilip Verma*
At times I used to wonder, will I ever witness a Common Tailor Bird building its nest? Well, this pandemic has given me the opportunity to get such a moment. With everything under lockdown, I got time to closely watch Common Tailor Bird and observe how this small beautiful bird just curls up two leaves of mango tree to make a tunnel like structure, uses its sharp beak to pierce through its ends, and makes an almost totally invisible nest.
At a time when humans are nervously tracking spread of the virus as it seeps through communities and leaps across borders, new birders are finding relief in tracking the migratory patterns of Bar Headed Goose, Forest Wagtail, Indian Paradise Flycatcher instead.
For many, bird-watching has been a respite from the fast paced life. Now the chirps and coos in the backyard, once ignored as background noise, have become clues to understanding an entire ecosystem.
Birdwatching – A Recreational Activity
Birdwatching is a form of wildlife observation in which the observation of birds is a recreational activity. It can be done with naked eye, through a visual enhancement device like binoculars and telescopes, by listening for bird sounds, or by watching public webcams. Birdwatching often involves a significant auditory component, as many bird species are more easily detected and identified by ear than by eye. Most birdwatchers pursue this activity for recreational or social reasons.
Historical Aspect of Birding
Birdwatching in real terms dates back to late 18th century. The study of birds, and natural history in general, became increasingly prevalent in Britain during the Victorian Era, often associated with collection of birds and eggs. It was only in late 19th century that called for bird protection, started owing to the increasing popularity of observations on birds. As a result, the Audubon Society was started to protect birds in the United States while the Royal Society for the protection of birds began in Britain.
Initially, birdwatching was a hobby undertaken in developed countries. Since the second half of 20th century, an increasing number of people in developing countries have engaged in this activity – transnational birding has played an important role in this, as birders in developing countries usually take up the pastime under the influence of foreign cultures with a history of birding.
My Encounter with Birdwatching
For me, birding started when I bought one of the simplest of Cameras, Canon 550D with 55-250mm lens to capture my young son’s activities; secondly, when I saw a photograph of one of the most beautiful Indian birds, Indian Paradise Flycatcher (previously named as Asian Paradise Flycatcher), I roamed in every possible forest in Chhattisgarh to click the bird. At last, the search ended in a place called Rajeev Smriti Van in Raipur; since then I have captured every possible moment of the whole life cycle of the bird, right from building its nest to seeing its chicks taking their first flight from the nest.
This has even given me pleasure of documenting some of the rarest moments of birds viz. a cattle Egret devouring a Sunbird after killing it; Black-naped Monarch & Red-vented Bulbul stealing nesting material from an Indian Paradise Flycatcher Nest. First record of Spotted Crake and Falcated Duck in Chattisgarh has been reported by me.
Positive Aspects of Birdwatching
There are so many positive aspects of birdwatching, namely:
1) Economic Aspect – birdwatching equipments, ecotourism
2) Monitoring – through birds censuses, migration
3) Environment education
4) Competition – more prevalent in USA, UK as compared to India
5) Organization – prominent national and continental organizations concerned with birding include the British Trust for Ornithology and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom, and the American Birding Association and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in North America. In India, BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) is taking care of birds related activities.
6) Equipments – there is a vast range of equipments now available for birdwatching right from binoculars to high end mirror lens cameras, videography, portable media players etc.
Learnings from Birdwatching
Personally, we get so much to learn while birdwatching:
- You get a reason to explore the world. You may not know of Smriti Van, but ask any birder and he/she will tell you about its serendipity and plethora of birds found there. People around you might not understand what’s so special about marshy grassland but you do.
- It gives you a chance to mingle with like-minded people and who knows, you might find lifelong friends (happened to me during my recent trip to Uttarakhand). People from all walks of life are taking up birdwatching – you might meet yoga teachers, artists, lawyers, engineers, badminton players, businessmen etc. – all in one circle. Is that not a good opportunity to branch out and maybe even widen your perspectives? Personally, I am seeing more doctors being inclined to birdwatching.
- Your eyes become sharper. You learn to distinguish raptors soaring high in sky just by the tail pattern.
- You learn to be grateful and mindful. Though, this is an unconventional way, it still leads to mindfulness. Birdwatching inherently makes you live in the moment, to appreciate small stuff, to be happy in whatever state you are and find balance, in your head and in your heart.
- You become environment conscious. From indifference, you step into the light of awareness. You care about saving trees, not throwing plastic in water bodies, illegal trading of animals and often times you start actively doing something about it.
- Birdwatching comes with added advantage mostly. People often pair birdwatching with other hobbies like hiking, kayaking, painting, photography, and even gardening. It has even become a sport in some countries.
- Birdwatching is full of surprises. You can walk a path a hundred times and still be surprised by a bird that might turn up on your way. And who doesn’t like surprises?
Health Benefits Associated with Birdwatching
As a Doctor, I have found so many health benefits that we don’t realize while birdwatching:
- Just listening to bird song contributes to perceived attention restoration and stress recovery.
- Within minutes of being in natural setting, things like cortisol, a stress hormone, improve.
- Within 15 minutes, the ability to solve puzzles and cognitive benefits are seen. Even attention seems to get better. At around that time, blood pressure improves and so does pulse.
- A lifetime of regular exposure to nature, whether walking in a park or camping in a forest is associated with improvements in cardiovascular disease and longevity.
- There are health benefits of birding in a group as well, since multiple studies show that social connections and friendships are the key to a long, healthy life. Sharing a hobby you’re passionate about can connect you to others.
- I have myself noticed a calming effect of birding on my private practice as a surgeon.
Ethics to be Followed While Birdwatching
There are certain ethics, which need to be followed while birdwatching:
- Habitats where they live must be protected.
- Keep disturbances to birds and their habitat to a minimum.
- When you find a rare bird, think carefully about whom you tell.
- Do not harass any bird for that perfect view or photo.
- Abide by bird protection laws.
- Respect the rights of land-owners.
- Respect the rights of other people around you, since in Indian scenario we get most of the help from villagers, so there privacy should be taken care off.
Lastly, I feel that prevalence of Covid 19 has taught us that there is definitely a craving for engagement with nature, especially, considering how limited our ability to move is right now!
* Author is a passionate birder and a surgeon by profession. He is the Director of Sarvodaya Hospital & Maternity Centre at Raipur in Chattisgarh.