Living in one of the most concretised areas in the city, I jump with excitement and and throw societal norms to the wind, when it comes to new bird sightings. Some years ago, I caught a pair of birds nesting in a bougainvillea shrub. As I peered through my binoculars into the bush that was inside the gate of a house, a lady came out to enquire what I was doing, leaving me to explain.
If I were a half decent birdwatcher then as I am today, I wouldn’t have needed the binoculars at all. Judging by the general jizz or giss (a term used by birdwatchers to identity a bird by its overall size, shape, colour, flight), I would have identified it as the Indian Silverbill, with its characteristic triangular stubby silver beak.
The Indian Silverbill (Euodice malabarica), a sparrow-like bird but much plainer in appearance, is a widespread resident in the Indian Subcontinent, except in certain areas of the North-West and North-East India and the Himalayas, an observation made by T.C. Jerdon in his book Birds of India, published in 1863. The genus Euodice is derived from the Greek words eu meaning good and odikos meaning musical singing.
The males and females look very similar, with fawn-brown upperparts, a whitish face, a long pointed black tail and white rump. The shape of the beak says a lot about a bird’s diet. A passerine (perching) bird, its beak is shaped to crush seeds and grains. However, parents feed their young ones with insects to meet protein requirements. In the heart of urban settlements, you will come across a small flock feeding on seeds, grains, and sometimes small berries; on the outskirts of the city, they are often seen eating seeds while perched on tall grasses.
As a bird with a sweet repeated flight call of chir-rup, the Indian Silverbill often goes unnoticed due to its small size and soft voice. Through the 1800s and 1900s, it was tamed to be kept as a pet, like many sweet-sounding birds were. T.C. Jerdon talks of a unique observation made by Francis Buchanan Hamilton, a Scottish physician and significant contributor as a geographer, zoologist, and botanist while living in India between 1794 and 1815. He said these birds were particularly attached to their mates. When one was let go, instead of flying away, its mate would come back and sit next to it. While this monogamous behaviour was seen in the cities, it hasn’t been recorded a lot in the wild. I’ve often observed pairs feeding together on tall grasses and also preening each other as a sign of affection.
Dry agricultural fields, grasslands and thorn scrubs are some preferred habitats for the Indian Silverbill, with bushes, hedgerows and low trees being their typical hangouts. The nest they build is large, loosely constructed with grass. In cities they may even be in crevices of machines and houses. Considering their flocking behaviour, sometimes two or more pairs will build the nest together, which hints at community nesting behaviour to some extent. They may also take over weaver bird nests, as weavers usually abandon the construction once nesting is complete.
Sadly, urbanization has cast out a number of bird species from our cities. No matter how much they try and adapt, human-led disturbances and other generalist bird species such as crow and mynah, adapt better to city life.
The birds in the bougainvillea stayed for a couple of months, feeding their juveniles and teaching them how to fly, soon disappearing, never to be sighted again near home.
The writer is the founder of NINOX – Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India.