Urban Birding in Delhi, India

Common Pigeon, Columba livia


We must have been quite a sight in all our birding garb on the rooftop of the Leela Palace Hotel in the heart of Delhi.  I wonder what the sunbathers and swimmers in the infinity pool were thinking while Andy, Krishna, and I took countless photographs of the swarming kites while the pool guards were waving flags trying to shoo away the feral pigeons and these very same raptors.  To us, in the U.S., a kite was a great bird and it was several days in India before we realized that these scavenger Black Kites were a-dime-a-dozen.

Black Kite, Milvus migrans

Delhi was our gateway city to India and we wisely arrived a day early before our guided tour to get acclimated and try some urban birding.  When you fly into Delhi your plane does not break through the low-lying smog and dust until 1000 feet and you therefore do not get a feel for this sprawling metropolis of 25 million souls.  My first impressions were of mayhem, color, heat, and traffic as we took the cab to the Leela Palace, a spectacular oasis of calm amidst the chaos of the capital city.

Humayun’s Tomb

Delhi is the site of an ancient Hindu city dating back 3000 years.  It has had numerous names and captors with the Mughal Emperors ruling it from 1526 to 1857 when they were ousted by the British.  The Brits moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.  Our formal tour took us to many impressive sites including the Red Fort, a massive sandstone edifice speaking to the prior authority and grandeur of the Mughal rulers.  The stately 16th century Humayun’s Tomb combined Mughal and Persian elements and was an architectural precursor of the Taj Mahal.

Streak-throated Swallow, Petrochelidon fluvicola

Tiring of the Kites and having already ID’ed the Prinia, Bulbuls, Parakeets, and Streak-throated Swallows on the hotel grounds it was time to move the birding show onward.  I’ve tried urban birding in many of the world’s largest cities, but clearly Delhi was different. It is not a “walking town”.  Sidewalks are rare and I don’t believe I ever saw a crosswalk or pedestrian “Walk / Don’t Walk” light in the entire country.  The map showed a small green space directly across the street from the hotel but getting there was an issue.

Prinia (Plain or Ashy? You tell me.)

The busy street was a wide river of flowing and honking motor scooters, small cars, colorful trucks, and the motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks, many of which stopped and tried to entice us onboard.  We later learned from a helpful Indian that the correct technique in crossing a street is to “walk like an elephant”, (get into a tight-packed group and move ahead slowly and purposely without stopping or wavering until you reach the other side).  It works.

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Treron phoenicopterus

The small several acre park proved to be a real gem.  Several guards and caretakers at the entrance gave us an inquisitive  stare until they realized we were foreign birders and therefore safe.  There was a loud, repetitive, bird call booming right inside the gate that we assumed was piped in for effect until the guard pointed out the source, a perching Brown-headed Barbet.  The Groucho Marx mustachioed bird is apparently known for its loud call, especially on a hot day like we were enduring.  We don’t speak Hindi and they knew no English, but our new friends were eager to point out several other new birds in the park.

Brown-headed Barbet, Megalaima zeylanica

Greater Coucal, Centropus sinensis

By the time our session was ended we had seen in addition to the Barbet, a Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Greater Coucal, Rufous Treepie, Jungle Babbler, Brahminy Starling, Common Myna, and more Prinias (were they Ashy or Plain?  I still can’t tell them apart).  It was a great start and introduction to Indian Birds. In one day we had added 16 birds to our life lists.

Red-vented Bulbul, Pycnonotus cafer

Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda

A Dehli highlight for me was the visit to the last abode of Mahatma Gandhi.  His quarters were a small spartan room with a mattress on the floor and low writing table.  He was brutally assassinated in a nearby garden by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948.  This quote was etched into a large boulder at the site:

“A leader of his people unsupported by any outward authority, a politician whose success rests not upon craft or the mastery of technical devices, but simply upon the convincing power of his personality.  A victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force.  A man of wisdom and humility…who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people…A man who has confronted brutality…with the dignity of a simple human being…Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”  Albert Einstein

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 to 1948)


8 thoughts on “Urban Birding in Delhi, India

    1. That’s a good question. As you know you can’t underestimate the influence of the Brits on India over several centuries. That must have something to do with it. Actually all world-wide birds seem to have a common English name along with the Latin genus and species.


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