Common Birds of IIT Kanpur

Brahmini Myna
This Brahmini Myna had a long swim in a puddle in my garden, until it was driven out by some babblers. It then sat on a branch looking like a witch, thumbing his nose at the babblers (I am not making this up, check out this Photo story!)

This is a narrative of birds commonly encountered at IIT Kanpur. The campus may be particularly attractive for birds since it is a virtual oasis of green amid the surrounding agricultural land; this checklist lists 259 bird species that have been sighted around here.

I am no bird expert. Until some years ago, I didn't know a cattle egret from a little green bee-eater. The birds shown here are not rare or special - they are just everyday birds, birds that may drop in at your lawn. Most were photographed while walking around my house, but many are from other areas such as the orchard behind the airstrip and the reservoir near it, or the barA nahar (Ganga Canal). See more on bird-sighting spots at IITK below.

While most of the images are nearabout the IIT campus, these birds are actually common across most of Northern India (Gangetic plains), and some are common much beyond. As one goes West, things get drier, and birds like the drongo or the pied myna become rarer.

If you come across an exceptionally artistic picture, it is probably the work of Sainath Vellal, who did his Master's here 2006-2008. Some other pictures have also been contributed (see below), and do let me know if you would like to contribute any pictures here. (amit [AT]

Those from IITK may visit the page [Birds of IIT Kanpur] created by Prof. TV Prabhakar, which lists more than two hundred species that have been seen at IITK, incorporating the descriptions from the Book of Indian birds as well as non-IITK photographs. Unfortunately this page is not available outside IITK, but I have updated and made an HTML version of the checklist that was originally created in the 70s by Raman Athreya and others, as well as this PDF version which includes the local (Hindi) names. Note that abour 50 of the bird species are from Bithoor on the Ganga and are typically not encountered on campus. A more recent attempt at creating a list, by Sainath and Suhail, may be found here. See more links below.

Common Babbler

These light brown energetic birds have beady eyes that look perpetually angry. You see them everyday foraging noisily at the bottom of the hedge, flying off into the low branches, and occasionally harrassing squirrels with repeated bombdives, with the squirrel scurrying into cover.

Yet I didn't know its name for nearly a decade at IITK. Hindi legend has it that the babbler flocks are mostly females - which is why they are known as sAt bahin (seven sisters). But perhaps that has more to do with how they are forever squabbling and fighting - wrestling pairs from a group will pin each other to the ground in a flurry of claw and feathers. You can hear them uttering a single intermittent "squaw" through the day, but often they make other calls as well.

In particular, when a cat or a snake is near, they go into a frenzy hurling invective at the intruder (Click on the adjacent image for the photo-story of What the Babblers think of the Cat... )

Birds, like everything around us, hold more interest as they are more uncommon. This is as it should be, since non-surprising phenomena contain less information. But I realized it firsthand when I found myself reluctant to turn the camera onto babblers, despite their fascinating social behaviour.

In the middle image, Notice how much birds can inflate when they breathe! (Click on images to enlarge)


Barbets are small-ish birds, about Bulbul size, with a large head and a broad beak, often seen on trees that are fruiting. The crimson-breasted barbet, also called "Coppersmith Barbet", with a black eyestripe and crimson and green colouration, is very common, the large green barbet with its big yellow eye is also commonly seen in urban parks. Since the birds are small though, it helps if one is looking through a binocular.

These birds (size:Myna-) visited my garden in small groups of 2 or 3 about twice a week or so through the pre-winter flowering season. The brilliantly coloured crimson-breasted variety is quite common across India, even in urban areas.

Crimson-Breasted Barbet

Finally, an artistic contribution from Sainath, practically from his hostel window in Hall 7:

Large Green Barbet

Nowadays called the Brown-headed barbet. I find it more commonly in Western India.

Little Green Bee Eater

You can see bee-eaters in most open spaces, sitting on wires, and tall reeds of grasses, their tail having the distinctive thin wire-like bit coming out in the middle. They are amazingly acrobatic, catching insects on the wing. They'll often be sitting on the wires; near the airstrip is a good bet. The first two images are from Sainath (you can tell from the quality).

And now, one more amazing capture by Sainath. The bee-eater on the right looks on jealously while the other gobbles his catch :


Two species are common - the
Red-vented Bulbul with a black crest and a brown chest with a netted texture, and the Red-whiskered Bulbul, which has two red patches on its cheeks. They will often sit on exposed branches and sing - mostly their song has four notes, but they also have a rich set of variations.

Red-vented Bulbul

Here is a red-vented bulbul looking royal on a palm tree outside Park Royal hotel in the urban congestion of Nehru Place, Delhi. Notice the black crest and the naughty gleam in his eye:

Here are some more images. The "vent" is that red tuft at the bottom of the tail:

Red-whiskered Bulbul

The Red-whiskered Bulbul is a regular visitors to low branches of trees - also see it sitting on my garden gate in the banner image for this page. For something barely larger than a sparrow, it sure puts up a lot of airs. It has a beautiful repertory of song, with the most common refrain being a five-note melody.

Brown Rock Chat

The Brown Rock Chat (also called the Indian Chat) is a fairly common bird on campus, frequently seen trilling away from the roof corners of the lecture hall complex or other buildings. This one was photographed from a first floor balcony in Delhi in March 2006.

I have seen the rock chat singing away in solitary splendour around April-May, which may be their mating season. They can often be seen on prominent roof corners of buildings, and are well-known for their ability to mimic the songs of several species.

Pied Bushchat

The pied bushchat can be found all over campus. The male is bright black and white, the female a more subdued buff-brown.

Pied bushchat, male

Pied bushchat, female. Near Hall 8, hovering in and out of the tall grass beyond the oxidation tank fence.

Pied bushchat, male (1,2: Prateek Gupta). Sitting on lamppost, on the grass and near Hall 8.

Crow Pheasant (Greater Coucal)

The crow pheasant or the Greater Coucal is a large brown and black crow-like bird - often seen walking around on open ground.

From close up, it looks rather scary, with those huge talons (see the third image, 0277) and the eyes and furry black head like something leftover from a horror movie. These images are of the same individual, who transited through my garden almost every day for a few weeks in April 07.

House Crow!

The commoner the bird, the less one feels like "wasting" energy on them... (such are the laws of entropy). Perhaps the act of flight gives this image a little distinction.

Cuckoo (Asian Koel)

One can hear them calling mellifluously in April May, but finding them is harder.

Murphy's Law: They never call when you are looking at them.
Proof: You are so focused on looking through the lens that you can't hear.

Male Cuckoo

It is only the male cuckoo who sings, the female is largely silent (lucky him!)

One April morning the cuckoo to the left was sitting on a branch, serenading away to the world, when another male cuckoo quietly landed on the same branch to its right. There was a ritual sparring, after which the intruder flew off again. In photo 2857 the original inhabitant (to the left) is staring down the other.

Female Cuckoo

The cuckoo gene apparently carries a marker that specializes the female to lay eggs that match the host species that it parasitizes. So daughter cuckoos will also parasitize the same hosts.

Black Drongo

These glossy black birds with a distinctive forked tail are fairly common in IIT; they are less common in Delhi and are seen really frequently as you go eastward. The third image is from Sainath, and catches a drongo against a background of grass fires - it is waiting for insects to fly out.

Wet Drongos

These birds (and a couple of pied myna) would take off from their perch, dive and splash into the jheel and return back right away. Their flights were not deliberate as if they were fishing or looking for food - it seemed to me that they were just having fun. It was October near Calcutta (off Kalyani Road) - not too hot either, but sunny.

Cattle Egret

We have all seen these large snow-white birds hopping around in an ungainly manner near buffaloes or even sitting on them. Mostly they are looking for insects turned over by the buffalo feet. The last two pictures from Sainath. The rightmost one shows it in breeding plumage.

Cattle Egret on Water

I saw these Egrets flying along the Lower Ganga canal running behind IIT, during a bicycle ride on the morning of March 25, 2007. They are amazingly graceful in flight. Here they are flying along with the Red-wattled Lapwing, which is also commonly seen at the reservoir near the mango grove (when it has water) and even on our lawns!

Little Egret

The little egret has a darker beak than the cattle egret, and is rarely seen away from water bodies. When I started this page, I had labelled these as cattle egret, thanks to Ramit Singal for correcting it!


The hoopoe is commonly seen even in urban areas across India. In IIT, it visits our lawns, and can also be seen near the Visitor's hostel. The fluffed up crest and the flip-flop flight makes it rather remarkable, and one remembers it. This one was photographed in Giridih, Jharkhand.

Grey Hornbill

A pair of Hornbills have been regular visitors to the top branches of my garden since last November. They come from the West, around nine in the morning, sit amicably for about half an hour, and wing on eastwards.

And now a fascinating image from Sainath. The hornbill uses mud and feces to seal its nest; the female stays inside for the entire incubation and is fed through a hole by the male.

Common Kingfisher

This image is from Bithoor, by Sainath.

© Sainath

White-breasted Kingfisher

This is the bird that got me interested in bird photography - October 2005, Delhi. Image 3 (with the blue tail visible) is from the banks of the Ganga in Bithur. It is also called the White-Throated Kingfisher.

Pariah Kite

Large brownish kite, matched most features of Pariah Kite, which is the most common raptor in urban areas. Sometimes the feathers may separate in flight seeming like a tear (they are attached to the bone at the front of the wing).

The rest of the images are from a kite nesting family in Calcutta. I have a small doubt about their ID though, because the pariah kite is supposed to have a forking tail; this one shows it only in some views. Mostly though, the descriptions match.

You often see them in flight:

Kites Nesting

I was fortunate to be able to see a pair of kites nesting in a tree in Calcutta - I got to check it out in October and then again in February, at which time (at least) two juveniles were in the nest, and were being fed by what appeared to be the adult female.

Building the nest:

Next time around, there were two juveniles in the nest. When I shot this photograph I thought there was only one bird, standing prominently a little above the nest, but if you look closely you can see the other one - see if you can find him? It is amazing how much their striped skin is meant to look like the texture on the branch. He's hidden in the foliage on the branch to the top right of the image, looking down at the other nestling (you can see the larger picture by clicking on the thumbnail).


Now see how the Juvenile is asking for food, and being given. Couldn't make out what the prey was, though.

Red-Wattled Lapwing

A large brown bird (somewhat larger than a pigeon) with a black head and neck, brown and white colour, with thin yellow legs. Often seen near water, along with other waterbirds. However, a pair has taken up residence on the roof of Prof. Gajbhiye's house (618), and terrorizes lane 32 with their loud call, day and night: "Did-you, Did-you, Did-you do it?", especially if they see a dog or a cat.

The first image [2041], finds it sitting on the roof of H. 618, which it colonized for much of 2007-08. Though there are don't seem to be any water bodies nearby, Prof. Gajbhiye is kind to them and often keeps his lawn wet, and then these birds will sink down to the belly on the wet grass. They often actively dig out earthworms from the ground.

In flight, The V-shaped white stripe (see image under Little Egret) is very distinctive.

a flock of red-wattled lapwings at a corner of the oxidation tank near H8. Dec 2009

Brahminy Myna

Although this bird is quite common, and sports such brilliant colours, it is relatively less known, being often mistaken for the common myna. This species has been re-named "Brahminy Starling" at an international congress with no representation from India. In fact, the entire Myna range was renamed "Starling", throwing out a fact lamented by Indian ornithologist J.C. Daniel in

Mynas love exploring holes, and this one in the gulmohar tree is a favourite. The Brahminy enters head first, disappearing completely, but manages to turn around inside the hole and re-emerge head first. Occasionally, it might have an insect too...

And don't forget to read the story of the Brahminy Swimming Pool.

Pied Myna

These are more common in areas east of Kanpur - in Varanasi or Calcutta, they are almost as common as house sparrows. In IIT, their are a few nesting pairs on the large pipal tree near the Dhobi ghat, just beyond the Yadav Taxi stand. This species is also called Asian Pied Starling.

Bank Myna

This is very similar to the common myna, except it is gray and the black crown is a sharper change in colour and not graded. This picture is from Bithur.

Common Myna

Rose-ringed Parakeet

The totA or the parrot is often seen flying by noisily and fast. A great signal that my guava is ripe is when I discover them on the tree. They can then be found on the top branches in noisy groups, positioning themselves precariously to get at the fruit. There are three species that you can see in IIT:

Guava tree: In the guava season, it is hard to find a time when there aren't some parakeets discreetly munching away on the tree. If you look at this rose-ringed parakeet male, you will even find guava dribbling from his beak! And it is even glaring at me, as if it's saying, "Impostor, get away from my tree!"

Totas are known to be very smart animals. Like many other birds, use their limbs very creatively. Here you can see a tota holding a bottlebrush flower with one hand (oops, claw).

Finally, the story of a young parakeet, who was a bit too greedy. On top of that, he wasn't too smart, and he had a slight problem. Click on this image or link to read the story of The Foolish Tota on the Guava Tree.

Plum-headed Parakeet

The plum-headed parakeet has a yellow beak, and a thin blue tail with a white tip. It is a bit smaller, is more yellowish-green, and has quite a distinctive shape. The head is distinctly reddish, as opposed to the full green on the rose-rigned.

Earlier, the plum-headed parakeet used to be also called the blossom-headed parakeet. But Grimmett/Inskipp consider these as different species; the blossom-headed is similar but has a yellowish tip to its tail.

Doves and Pigeons

From a photographer's point of view, the great thing about the dove, compared to almost any other bird, is that once it comes and sits down on a branch, it is there for a reasonable period!

Collared Dove

This dove has a half ring around the back of the neck. Here it is trying to engage a brahminy myna in conversation at the top of a babool tree. The second image, due to Sainath, has them involved in a morning argument.

Laughing Dove

This dove, also known as the Little Brown Dove, has what Salim Ali calls "a miniature chessboard" in brown or black on both sides of the neck (see middle image below).

Spotted Dove

This has a stippled pattern on the wings, and also on the back of the neck (rather than on the sides for the Laughing dove). It is yet another bird that is more common in eastern India.

1. (photo: Prateek Gupta) near the Bara Sirohi gate 2. from Kolkata.

Blue Rock Pigeon

This is the most common pigeon in all cities. Have you noticed how it prefers to be at the very edge, on the precipice, rather than in safer spots? That's because it's natural habitat used to be cliffs and coastal crags. Looking at this picture, you will realize that pigeons believe God created humans so pigeons could have more cliffs to jump off from!


The peacock strutting about with its impossibly long tail poses a mystery - why would evolution tolerate a development which is clearly a hindrance?

1. The male's long dysfunctional tail just before the rains (April). 2. It has become barely a stub in the non-breeding season (October). 3. (photo:Sainath): The peacock's spectacular display highlights the length of its tail. Individuals with longer tails attract more mates.

The answer lies in sexual selection, as noted by Darwin:
We may conclude that...those males which are best able by their various charms to please or excite the female, are under ordinary circumstances accepted. If this be admitted, there is not much difficulty in understanding how male birds have gradually acquired their ornamental characters...
The wasteful tail is an honest indicator of the individual's "fitness", so that the female who chooses to mate with it is assured of a high-quality gene. Some people think that by analogy, human brains may be a peacock's tail, they are quite unnecessary and expensive, and may only serve for being attractive to the opposite sex. See this article I wrote some years ago in my column Storytelling Science in the Hindustan Times.

An exceptional image of a peacock in flight from Sainath.

Magpie Robin

These good looking birds are also common in Bihar and Bengal - it is the national bird of Bangladesh (doyel). You can hear its lively cheep sound, which it utters with its beaks open and body tensed up... It is especially visible in the springtime, when (perhaps the male?) positions itself prominently, and sings away for hours.

Indian Robin

Saw this on my lawn a couple of times in Oct 2006, and many time since then.

[more robin images]

Common House Sparrow

Amazingly, no sparrow ever visits my garden. I have seen them in Kanpur city though, e.g. on the tracks at the railway station. Sparrows (like most birds) are masters at hopping (middle image).

Purple Sunbird

These had me foxed for a long time. Though these birds look like several different species, it turns out that the male Purple Sunbird changes its plumage dramatically over the year.

Purple Sunbird - Female

This tiny bird could be seen only because of its motion.
This purple sunbird was jumping around on a tree just outside a window. This shot was taken with a 200mm lens from about two meters off.

Sunbirds and hummingbirds both have curved beaks and a hovering style of feeding, but they aren't related - these features are just an example of convergent evolution. /P>

Purple Sunbird - male, non-mating (eclipse) plumage

The fourth image (0584, from Kolkata, Dec 09) is either in-between moults, or it may be a different species.

Purple Sunbird - male, mating plumage

These are a glittering blue-black.

Purple Rumped Sunbird

This is a bird from the South and East of India. This image ID I have some doubts about. It was seen in Calcutta. You are unlikely to see one in Kanpur.

More about [How I discovered sunbirds].

Common Tailorbird

Sparrow size, brownish colour, tiny tail, often lifted up. The tailorbird makes its nest by stitching two or three leaves together, somewhat off the ground, often at eye-level or therearbouts.

The tailorbird is a rather common bird, but I find it a bit difficult to distinguish from many of the warbler-like species on campus.

Rufous Treepie

Though this is quite a large bird and a common visitor to my garden, it is very jittery and not easy to photograph. It's a rather noisy bird - notice it calling in flight.

Lesser Golden-backed Woodpecker

I saw this only one day, that also for a few minutes. Thanks to B. Ravindran for ID'ing it. It is now called the Black-rumped Flameback.

The beautiful image next is from Sainath.


This tiny restless bird is a frequent visitor, sipping on the flowers. Even if you can't make out the white ring around the eye, you cannot mistake the yellow-orange colour, and the tiny size, as it jumps from branch to branch, sometimes in small groups. Getting a white-eye to sit long enough for you to photograph it is a rarity.

These images are from the bottlebrush tree in October, and from a Delhi park in April.

Unidentified birds

These are just the most common birds that one sees, the ones (I think) I have been able to figure out.

There are many more birds on campus, that one sees less frequently. In the page Less Common Birds, I list some of these:

There are a whole lot of other birds that one sees on campus, but I just don't know their names. Please check up on them at this page of Unidentified Birds.

  • Sainath S. Vellal, a final year M.Tech student in CSE, is an avid naturalist and has some exceptionally fine photographs on his blog at, including the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Zitting Cisticola, Pied Kingisher, and other not very commonly seen species. Several other photographs are from Prateek Gupta who graduated in 2007.

    Other Information


    There are of course many other naturalists / photographers in IITK - if you know of some more web pages, please let me know. There are also lots of great websites of birders across India - (many excellent images by category), (images of all 978 Indian bird species, but site is a bit flaky of late), etc.

    Bird Watching Spots

    Favourites vary, but here is a tentative list, in increasing order of effort:
    Here is what the reservoir looked like in April 2007. In this photograph, there are about twenty night herons sitting on the tree to the very left (enlarge to see better). There are lots of pond herons and other waterbirds in the grassy bank at the other end.

    In the last two years, the pump that fills this tank with waste water has been malfunctioning (yes, that long!), so the reservoir has gone completely dry. The pond has become dense muddy jungle, and birdlife has also gone down. As of January 2010, however, I was told that the pump has been repaired, but it will be a many months before the pond comes back...

    Meanwhile, the oxidation tank near hall 8 is worth a visit. The perimeter road running beyond it is also worth a visit.

    The travails of Photography

    Birds are tricky to photograph. They are never still, and they will move, as if with great deliberation, between locations with great lighting disparity, e.g. from a background of foliage to where they are silhouetted against the bright sky.

    Also, the work begins only after you have taken the actual photo. Thank heavens for the digital era, but now you have the problems of plenty. You have to collate the images, sort them by quality, bird name, venue, time, etc. You have to crop, cut, and resize them. And if you are planning to make webpages, you have to create thumbnails ... the work is endless. And it can be very very consuming. Very detrimental for a normal civilized existence.

    Nonetheless, there is great satisfaction in it of course, which is why the breed of bird photographers is constantly increasing.

    Note on Camera: Most of the pictures on this website were taken on the Canon EOS 350D DSLR with a Canon 55-200 f4.5-5.6 lens. However, I would not recommend a zoom lens for such photographs, a fixed telephoto, 300mm or higher, with image stabilization, may be better (Sainath uses a 400mm lens). But these lenses are rather unwieldy, and the cost, around Rs. 1 lakh, can be prohibitive. I have recently got a superzoom compact camera - the Canon SX20IS; with the lens going to 560mm, this is quite a competent alternative, in a much more compact format.

    Amitabha Mukerjee Dec 23, 2009