12 January 2018

2018 Pongal Bird Count

The annual Pongal Bird Count, held for the fourth consecutive year is an opportunity for everyone to observe, learn and appreciate bird life. The event is part of a worldwide effort to document birds around the globe and to make bird watching popular and scientific. The event is coordinated by Tamil Birders Network and Bird Count India. The result of the count will be uploaded on ebird.org (an online platform for bird watchers to register their observations in a systematic manner. It is like a bird atlas which through its created database arrives at birding trends over the years.

The 2018 Pongal Bird Count will be held from January 13 to 17. Birders from all over Tamil Nadu and Puducherry will document bird species and count their numbers for at least 15 minutes each day and thereafter upload the observations. Through this Pongal Bird Count, growth and distribution of bird species, migratory and behaviour patterns will be assessed. In addition this count will help spread awareness towards bird conservation.

Pongal Bird Count was started in 2015. In the 2017 Pongal Bird Count, birders from all over Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, participated. Out of 1741 lists submitted, most were from Coimbatore, Pudukkottai, Kancheepuram, Thanjavur and Tiruvannamalai (top five districts).

House Crow was the most common resident bird appearing in 53.8% of all the checklists, followed by Common Myna (53%), Black Drongo (45%), Large-billed Crow (41%) and Indian Pond-Heron (39%). The most common migrant appearing in 31.2% of the check-lists was Barn Swallow followed by Blue-tailed Bee-eater (25%), Blyth’s Reed-Warbler (21%), Rosy Starling (13%) and Common Sandpiper (12%).

Various resource materials are available at on how to prepare bird checklists in eBird, online pictorial guide to some common birds of Tamil Nadu and Introduction to birds and birdwatching. These resources are available in both English and Tamil. For more details go to this link here.

03 January 2018

How to Keep Squirrels Away from Bird Food

Many bird lovers are irritated that their offerings of food to avian visitors is regularly intercepted by squirrels and other small creatures. One method to protect bird food is to mix hot red pepper seeds with other seed or sprinkle the bird food with chili powder. Do this every time you add bird feed and soon the squirrels will stop coming around. Squirrels (and other small scavenging creatures) don't like hot pepper but it won't bother birds.


Birds will happily eat the hottest of hot chili peppers, a fact so well known that some varieties are popularly known as “bird peppers.” The question is how can such tiny creatures consume such incendiary food and exhibit no sign of discomfort?

If you want to understand how birdies can safely eat chili read the below information compiled by an ornithologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

The chili (or chile) peppers, genus Capsicum, comprise about 25 species, of which five are regularly cultivated. Of American origin, native peoples have grown them as a valued condiment for thousands of years. Red chili pepper is unrelated to black pepper (Piper nigrum) of the Orient. The heat engendered by chilies proved so popular that they rapidly became an integral part of many Old World cuisines, including those of India, Southeast Asia, southern China and parts of Africa.

All wild chilies contain varying amounts of the chemical capsaicin and related compounds. (Sweet or bell peppers are cultivated varieties that have been selected for low capsaicin content.) Capsaicin is not a protein, but a nitrogen-containing lipid related to vanillin, the active principle in vanilla. The compound has a powerful irritant effect on certain mammalian pain receptors (nociceptors). The key receptor molecule, a protein on the outer surface of the cell, was identified in 1997. When capsaicin comes into contact with it, a cascade of intracellular reactions is triggered that is perceived by the brain as pain. These reactions are very similar to those produced by damaging heat, so it is no coincidence that we sense chilies as being hot. The effect can be so overpowering that sprays containing capsaicin are used to repel grizzly bears and even elephants.

The pepper sensation is not, properly speaking, a taste. There are only five kinds of taste buds (salt, sweet, sour, bitter and MSG, the last only recently identified). Capsaicin itself is tasteless and odorless. What we describe as the “taste” of chili might better be described as the “pain” of chili. One possible explanation for the appeal of chilies is that the body manufactures painkilling endorphins, akin to morphine, to counteract the pain, and endorphins themselves are pleasurable. In other words, we eat chilies because it feels so good when we stop. The heat of chilies is traditionally expressed in Scoville units, a subjective scale devised by the pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. Jalapenos rate about 4,000 Scoville units, while the hottest habeneros score up to 400,000. One variety in southeast Asia has recently been evaluated at an incredible 850,000 Scoville units.


The situation is entirely different for birds. While mammals will avoid food containing as little as 100-1000 parts per million (ppm) of capsaicin, birds will readily consume up to at least 20,000 ppm). The difference seems to be that bird receptor cells are largely insensitive to capsaicin. Certain chemical modifications can make capsaicin somewhat aversive to birds, which shows that it is the structure of the molecule that is the key. Capsaicin sensitivity is perhaps the most well known difference between bird and mammalian receptors, although birds also seem to be insensitive to many other substances that are irritating to mammals, including ammonia and naphthalene. This difference is exploited by some commercial bird seeds, which add chili powder or capsaicin to the mixture to deter feeder-raiding squirrels.

The reason chilies incorporate capsaicin in their fruits (and red/green peppers are fruits in a botanical sense, not vegetables) seems to be to ensure that their seeds are dispersed properly. When small birds consume the fruits of wild peppers the seeds pass through the gut undigested and, due to the birds’ flight range, are deposited in distant places where they can grow with less competition. If the fruits were consumed by larger mammals the seeds would either be digested, or deposited much closer to the parent plant. Studies have shown that the seeds of wild peppers are in fact dispersed almost exclusively by birds.

Given that capsaicin is so aversive to mammals, one might wonder if birds might not be able to protect themselves against predation by retaining the compound in their flesh or feathers. But although many insects do this sort of thing, it doesn’t seem to be common in birds. (One exception is the Pitohui—AKA the P-tuh-hooey! of New Guinea, which contains a neurotoxin apparently picked up in its food).

Pitohui Bird

13 May 2017

Greater Racket Tailed Drongo

Some months ago bird enthusiasts spotted and reported sighting for the first time, the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. 

Racket-tailed Drongos (Tamil=Kondai Korichan) known for their long tail with two ‘rackets’ on either side are generally seen in thick, well shaded forests. Enthusiasts state that spotting this Drongo species at Tiruvannamalai is testimony that afforestation drives over recent years is improving tree cover in and around Arunachala. 

One bird watcher reports that previously: “The nearest place where Drongos were reported to have been seen earlier was Javadi Hills. Recently, we spotted the bird along the path leading to Skandashram which is less a mile from Ramanashram.” 

Another local bird watcher reports he also spotted the bird in the valley near the path leading to Skandashram. “I have heard that people had spotted Greater Racket Tailed Drongo in Amirthi in Javadi Hills. 

I have spotted them in Sittilingi. It is a surprise to see them here. They need good shade and thick shrubs to live. Thickets have visibly improved in the valley in recent times and the fact is proved by the new beautiful visitor to the place.” 

Adult Drongo

2 Adult Greater Racket Tailed Drongos

Racket Tailed in Flight

Bird with insect

Racket Tailed Drongos pecking at Tree Bark

Racket Tailed Drongo at Nest

Fledgling Racket Tailed Drongo

Juvenile Bird

Racket Tailed on Indian Coral Tree

Crest on birds varies in shape and size

The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus Paradiseus) 

This Drongo is about the size of a Mynah bird. Its glossy black with prominently tufted forehead and two long wire-like spatula-tipped feathers or “streamers” at the end of the tail. In flight the broad tips sometimes give the illusion of the bird being pursued by a pair of large bumble bees. 

Young birds are duller, and can lack a crest while moulting birds can lack the elongated tail streamers. The racket is formed by the inner web of the vane but appears to be on the outer web since the rachis has a twist just above the spatula. 

The bird prefers moist-deciduous forests on the plains and hills. The sexes are alike and the bird moves singly or in groups. The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo is a very noisy bird with a large repertoire of loud metallic calls. It is an excellent mimic which it assumes to confuse other birds when hunting. Their calls are extremely varied and include monotonously repeated whistles, metallic and nasal sounds as well as more complex notes and imitations of other birds. They begin calling from as early as 4 a.m., in moonlight often with a metallic tunk-tunk-tunk series. They have been said to imitate raptor calls so as to alarm other birds and steal prey from them in the ensuing panic. They are also known to imitate the calls of species (known sometimes even to fluff up and moving head and body like a Jungle Babbler) that typically are members of mixed-species flocks and it has been suggested that this has a role in the formation of mixed-species flocks. 

This Drongo feeds mainly on insects but also on fruits and flowering trees for nectar. Having short legs, they sit upright and are often perched on high and exposed branches. They are aggressive and will sometimes mob larger birds especially when nesting. They are often active at dusk. 

The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo is a resident breeder throughout its range. The breeding season in India is April to August. Their courtship display may involve hops and turns on branches with play behaviour involving dropping an object and picking it in mid air. Their cup nest is built in the fork of a tree and the usual clutch is three to four eggs. The eggs are creamy white with blotches of reddish brown which are more dense on the broad end. 

Controversy at Arunachaleswarar Temple with Bird Restrictions

Below I reproduce a recent article in The Hindu regarding an ongoing controversy at Arunachaleswarar Temple regarding wire mesh work installed on all the Temple Gopurams which restricts the sanctuary and nesting of birds. 

The article reads:- 

Meshes in Tiruvannamalai temple ‘gopurams’ kick up row 

"The sharp pat-pat-pat sound of birds taking off is something you hear inside most old buildings. Many times, pigeons, sparrows and even bats find shelter inside temples, churches and mosques. 

Aluminium meshes installed in openings on the nine Gopurams (towers) of the Arunachaleswarar temple in Tiruvannamalai seem to have stirred up a controversy with a section of devotees objecting to it saying pigeons and bats are unable to stay in the temple towers. 

Raja Gopuram before meshes installed which now prevent birds and monkeys receiving sanctuary

Tiruvannamalai resident and animal lover M. Raghavan said a group of persons had submitted a petition to the District Collector asking him to instruct the temple officials to remove the meshes. “In the evenings, hundreds of birds would usually be seen near the gopurams but now we only see a lot their feathers and wings near Vengikaal where many rice mills are located. We can only conclude that the birds are being caught in large numbers in that area,” he said. 

Agriculture student and devotee J. Neelakantan said cleaning of droppings was an issue and the temple authorities could ask any of the devotee groups to do it. “Temple gopurams are places where birds have been living for hundreds of years. We don’t talk about the pollution that is created by thousands of humans coming for the monthly girivalam [circumambulation] around the Arunachala hill here,” he complained. 

A former official of the Archaeological Survey of India, which protects monuments said that it was a regular practice to install such meshes in temples so as to not permit the entry of bats. “There must not be any concrete or brick structure blocking the flow of wind across the towers,” he said. 

Sources in the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments explained that old damaged iron meshes were only replaced during the temple’s Mahakumbabhishekam in February this year with aluminum ones. “After these new meshes were installed, the monkey menace has come down by 90%. Monkeys used to jump down from the Gopurams scaring devotees. The bat and bird droppings only speeded up the process of the wooden beams and rafters inside the gopurams rotting,” the official said. “The birds have been provided space and they do continue to sit on the gopurams." 

23 November 2016

Black Kite (Milvus Migrans) — Kalu Parandu in Tamil.

I have previously made two postings on Arunachala Birds about the Black Kite, you can view them at this link here and here.

For a number of months this year a colony of around 15 Kites regularly gathered at the Samudram Eri. Because of heavy undergrowth and a number of ponds on the 700 acre Eri, food was plentiful for their community.
Small Cluster of 3 Kites on Samudram Eri

My dogs and I walk daily on the Samudram Eri and as some of the ponds dried out, large dead fish were often to be seen on the top of the water and available to the animals frequenting the water-holes.

Max to the rescue

Some of the dead fish were heavy and to help out my Labrador Retriever Max who would jump into the pond, gather the dead fish in his mouth, swim to the side and then deposit the dead fish on the pond’s bank.

In this way the colony of Kites became quite familiar with me and my dog gang and would often hang around for a nice fish dinner. The Kites were so comfortable with our presence that on one occasion when I was holding a dead fish by its tail and looking for a high spot to deposit it for the birds, they clustered over me, flying barely 20 feet from my head, eager to be the sole recipient of the large dead fish. The Kites were respectful of both my space and my 6 dogs and in no way threatened or bullied us. It was a truly a “Disney” moment.

However I am familiar of how opportunistic Black Kites can be, as one day swimming in what was then a Lake, a large Black Kite came swooping down and plucked a nearby duckling (who was swimming with its family) from the water and quickly made off with it.

Description of Black Kite 

This bird is around 24 inches, approximately the size of a Vulture. The Black Kite has dark brown plumage with a paler head and neck and with a dark patch behind the eyes. The outer flight feathers are black and feathers have dark cross bars and are mottled at the base. The cere, gape and legs are yellow. The Black Kite has a distinctive shrill whistling sound followed by a rapid whinnying call — ewe-wir-wir-wir — both uttered whilst on a perch and also on the wing. 

Black Kite

The Black Kite inhabits a wide variety of habitats such as semi-deserts, grasslands and woodlands but avoids dense forests. 

Kalu Parandu in Tamil

It is generally found near human habitations whether city or hamlet. Skilful when flying, turning and twisting to scoop scraps from traffic congested thoroughfares and avoiding tangles of overhead telephone and electric wires. The Indian Black Kite population is well adapted to living in cities and found in densely populated areas. Large numbers may be seen soaring in thermals over cities. In some places, they will readily swoop and snatch food held by humans. The bird which is both resident and migratory remains permanently in tropical regions. 

Black Kite in Flight

Sexes are alike and they singly or gregariously scavenge in towns and villages. Black Kites are opportunistic hunters and are more likely to scavenge. They are attracted to smoke and fires, where they seek escaping prey. This behaviour has led to the belief that Kites spread fires by picking up burning twigs and dropping them on dry grass. They spend a lot of time soaring and gliding in thermals in search of food. The Black Kites' food consists of carrion, garbage, earthworms, winged termites, reptiles, rodents, fish, bats and young birds. 

The breeding season of the Black Kite in India is during winter. At that time the bird forms large communal roosts. Flocks may fly about before settling at the roost. 

The bird’s nest which is an untidy platform of twigs, iron wire, tow, rags and is built in a large tree, roof or the cornice of a building, Both sexes take part in nest building, incubation and care of chicks. 

Black Kite' Eggs

The clutch usually contains 2 or 4 eggs, pinkish white, light spotted and blotched with reddish brown.The incubation period varies from 30–34 days. Chicks of the Indian population stay at the nest for nearly two months. Birds are able to breed after their second year. 

Below is a beautiful video of "The Black Kite Story" 

27 August 2016

Black-winged Stilt: Pavilla Kallan (Tamil)

First identified the Black-winged Stilt last season on the Samudram Eri here in Tiruvannamalai and was able to take several photos of the Stilt wading in the waters, but as my camera is not fit for purpose, am illustrating the below narrative of this bird with photographs taken from the web. 

Black-winged Stilt Juvenile

The Black-winged Stilt in India is both local and migratory. Here at Tiruvannamalai I have only spotted it during the wet season, but in South India its more of a permanent fixture at cooler places such as Karnataka. 

Juvenile in Flight

The Black-winged Stilt’s name in Tamil is Pavilla Kallan and has the scientific name of Himantopus Himantopus. Himantopus comes from Greek meaning “strap foot” or “thong foot”. The long, distinctive legs of the black-winged stilt account for nearly 60 percent of its height. 

Black Winged Stilt Grooming

This bird is about 10 inches long and is a large black and white wader with long orange-red legs and a straight black bill. It has black on the back of the neck, a white collar and a red iris. Both sexes are similar, and the plumage does not change during the year. 

Black-winged Stilts give a repeated high-pitched barking call. Immature Stilts lack black on the back of the neck and have grey-brown wings and their back is speckled with white. They have a smudged grey crown, which extends down the back of the neck as the birds get older. The lifespan of the Black-winged Stilt is about 20 years. 

Stilt with Fish

This bird pairs or flocks in social groups at marshes, jheels, village tanks, salt pans and tidal mudflats. Its stilt legs enable it to wade into comparatively deep water where it probes in the squelchy bottom mud for worms, mollusces and aquatic insects etc. When probing for food its head and neck are submerged at a steep angle with the back part of its body sticking out. 

Stilt Bathing

Black-winged Stilts, like many shorebirds, don't swim while feeding. They feed by pecking at food items while wading in the water. 

Adult Stilt in Flight

However it is in fact a very good swimmer but weak in the air. When flying it flaps its wings with its neck extended and its long red legs trailing beyond the tail. 

Flock of Stilts in Flight

Black Winged Stilt Coming in to Land

The Black-winged Stilt is a social species, and is usually found in small groups. The call it makes is a squeaky, piping chek-chek-chek. 

Immature (l) and (r) Adult Stilts

Couple going through Courtship

Pair of Stilts at Nest

The nesting season of the Black-Winged Stilt is principally April to August. It generally nests in small colonies, within which, mated pairs strongly defend their individual territories. 

Eggs in Nest

It makes its nest in a depression on the ground on the edge of a jheel or marsh, or on a raised platform of pebbles in shallow water, lined with vegetable scum or flags of reeds. 

Chick already emerged from egg

It often breeds in large colonies and lays around 3 to 4 eggs, light drab in colour, densely blotched with black, which closely resemble the eggs of Red Wattled Lapwing. 

Female at Nest with Chicks Around Her

Both sexes incubate the eggs and look after the young. The incubation period of the eggs is around 25 days.

Stilt Chick feeding in Mud

The below is a very beautiful video of the song of the Black-Winged Stilt.

06 August 2016

Variety of Migratory Waterbirds at Keelnathur Lake

It was reported this week in Nationally syndicated newspapers that a huge flock of Pelicans have been spotted at Keelnathur Lake, an irrigation tank, situated along the Tindivanam Road approximately 30 kms from Tiruvannamalai. Naturists claim that this is the first time Pelicans have been spotted so near Tiruvannamalai and that too in huge numbers. 

Pelicans and Painted Storks, Keelnathur Lake nr. Tiruvannamalai

The Pelican (Koohai Kada) is categorised into four species, with the one spotted at Keelnathur Lake being the Spot Billed Pelican.

Spot Billed Pelican

As well as Pelicans, also a large number of Painted Storks (Manjal Mooku Narai) and Purple Swamphens (Neela Thazhai Kozhi) are also at the Lake. Naturists have stated that “Spotting so many birds including such rare varieties signify the lake’s potential as a bird sanctuary.” 

The lake’s uncontaminated water, good fish population, marshy nature, the presence of bushes and vines and grass cultivation in nearby fields make it a haven for the birds. 

Painted Storks

Other Bird followers state, “We are surprised to spot the Pelican in such huge numbers near Tiruvannamalai. I have never spotted them anywhere near this hilly region. They might be in the lake for a long time. Now only we spotted them and realised the importance of Keelnathur Lake as a marshy wetland, a rare phenomenon in Tiruvannamalai. Even people living nearby don’t seem to be hunting or disturbing them. That’s why they thrive here. The place need to be preserved as such.” 

Purple Swamphen

Heavy rains are expected in the upcoming monsoon season, which bodes well for a large and varied migratory bird population this Winter at our own Samudra Eri at Tiruvannamalai.

21 May 2016

Parakeets and India's Birdman

To view an earlier posting on Arunachala Birds on the Rose Ringed Parakeet please visit this link here and for additional details and information about this bird visit this link here

Below is an abridged extract from the excellent 1915 “Garden and Aviary Birds of India” by Frank Finn which includes some more unusual details and varieties of this bird. 

Selection of photos showing the Parakeet eating

Female drinking flower nectar

The Typical Parrots 

“The Typical Parrots form the largest family, such species as the well-known Grey Parrot of India, the Amazons and Macaws of America, and all our Indian Parrots, belonging to it. The small long-tailed kinds are called Parakeets or Parroquets. The Parrots of this family are hardly ever crested, nor do they have a brush tongue. 

The Common Indian or Rose-Ringed Parakeet (Palaeornis Torquatus) is about sixteen inches long, about ten of which belong to the tail; in colour it is green with a red bill and white eyes. The male has a black throat, the black running a little way on each side to join a rose-pink collar which extends around the back of the neck. 

Male eating

Male eating perched in tree

Young birds of both sexes are like the hen at first, having no collar, but their eyes are black so that they can easily be distinguished from old ones. 

Varieties of this Parakeet are not at all uncommon; many birds are found splashed with yellow, and now and then a pure yellow one turns up; which, if a male, retains the red collar. Both sexes of the yellow variety have a red bill, but their feet are flesh-coloured, instead of grey like those of the green birds. Their eyes are often pink; if this is not the case, they are liable to moult out into the ordinary green plumage. A pale yellow-green variety is also found, but seems to be very rare. 

Female eating grain in fields

This species is found nearly all over India and Sri Lanka, east to Pegu but it usually avoids the hills. It is much the commonest of Indian Parrots, and is far too familiar as a garden-bird, doing a great deal of damage to fruit. It even comes into towns. 

It breeds from January to May, using holes in buildings as well as those in trees."

Male and female in courtship eating

Below is a beautiful and inspirational video of Sekhar, a camera mechanic from Chennai who doesn't have pets of his own, but loves thousands of birds, just the same. Sekhar, popularly know as the 'Birdman' in the Royapettah area, feeds thousands of parrots everyday and has been doing so for a decade. 

Sekhar started out with putting rice and grains with water on his parapet wall for sparrows and squirrels. One day, around the time the Tsunami devastated the subcontinent, two parrots came to Sekhar's house in search for food. 

Ten years later, around three thousand parrots now knock at his door for food and it is open for them, everyday without fail. Sekhar says that he might miss his meal, but his parrots never have to return with an empty stomach. 

"It's all love," Sekhar says in the video. Spreading love and kindness keeps him happy and that's his message to everyone. 

Watch Sekhar's inspiring story below. 

Towards the end of the above video Sekhar is feeding a large Parakeet which is known as the Rock Parrot or Alexandrine Parakeet (Paloeornis Nepalensis). 

“This is a larger bird than the ordinary Ring-neck, and has, in both sexes and at all ages, a large dark red patch on the wing, which distinguishes it at once. It varies a good deal according to where it inhabits, but the different varieties can hardly be ranked as species, though this is commonly done. Classing all these large Ring-necked Parakeets together, the Alexandrine may be said to be found almost all over India, Sri Lanka and Burma and also extends to the Andamans, where it is very large and bright coloured.” 
[Frank Finn – abridged]

Contact Information for Sekhar

On the You Tube page of this video in the comments section the following contact information of Sekhar (of the above video) is listed. 

Sekhar Camera House, 
No. 242, Second Floor, Pycroft’s Road 
Royapettah, Chennai 

Contact Mobile Sekhar’s son: +919444464967

Two Photographs Showing the Parakeet in Flight

Male Parakeet in flight

Male Parakeet stretching its wings whilst in flight