Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Birding in Colombo



Colombo is a bird watchers paradise, and is a prime location for observing our feathered friends and studying their habits, and is unmatched in any other capital city in the world. Few other cities enjoy such a varied landscape as that of

Colombo. Its diversity of scenery is reflected in the wonderful rich bird life that abounds in the gardens of the city.

This article is designed to help recognize and remember some of the common birds that frequented our home gardens, and still do, and it is hoped that it will bring back unforgettable memories of those wonderful days, when we had the time to ,”Stand and Stare” as a poet so aptly put it.

CROWS: The most common bird found in Colombo is the Crow, belonging to the family Corvidae. There are two species, the House Crow (Corvus splendens), Kolamba Kaputa (S) and the Jungle Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos), Kalu Kaputa (S). The House Crow is relatively smaller than the Jungle Crow with smaller beak, smokey-grey neck and glossy wings. Sexes are alike. The Jungle Crow on the other hand is larger with a heavy beak, and the plumage is black throughout. Both species mingle freely, but do not interbreed. Both species are notorious parasites of man and are seldom found at any great distance from human habitation. Their nests are a mass of twigs lines with fibers, and set in a tree with no attempt at concealment. They lay 3 to 5 eggs of a coloration of green to blue.

KOELS: Another common garden bird is the Koel. The Koel belongs to the family Cuculidae (Cuckoos), Koha (S) and is widely distributed in Colombo. Its presence is largely governed by that of the two species of Crows as they often victimize the crows by foisting their eggs on the Crows and leaving them to foster their offspring. Hence the breeding season corresponds with that of Crows.

During the breeding season they are excessively noisy birds with their monotonously reiterated, “ kuuuuuu-kuuuuu-kuuuuuuuu-KUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU”….increasing in pitch, call that can be heard from dawn to dusk emanating from a lofty tree. The male of the species is black with a bright red eye, whilst the female is speckled.

COUCALS: The Coucal, Attie-Kukkula (S) belongs to the same family as the Koel, It is about the size of a Crow, with a long and broad tail, with a slightly curved black bill, and chestnut wings. Its principle haunts are well wooded cultivation and scrub jungle, and is found in most home gardens. Much of its time is spent on the ground and in hedges. Its flight is slow and labored, and hops to the topmost branch of a tree for take off. The Coucal hunts solitarily and is a notorious robber of other bird’s eggs and young, and will eat almost any small animal like lizards, frogs, snakes, mice, and even snails.

The Coucal’s call is one of the best known bird-sounds, with its far-sounding, “Hoop oop oop oop oop” ending in a curious sound donk, much like a cork being extracted from a bottle. Its nest is a mass of creeper stems and leafy twigs, and the female lays two to three dull chalky white eggs.

BARBETS: Barbets belong to the family of Capitonidae, and although there are four species found in Sri Lanka, it is mainly the Brown-Headed Barbet, Polos Kottoruwa (S) that prevails in Colombo. This bird can be recognized by its large brown head and breast, yellow naked face, and heavy reddish-colored bill. Overall body, wing and tail color is green. Its monotonous call of, “Kottuur kottuur kottuur” can be heard over great distances to be answered only by its mate. It lives mainly on berries, fruits, and wild figs, and is often seen eating berries of the Jam Fruit tree (Muntingia calabura). The female lays three to four dull white eggs in a hole pecked out in a soft- wooded dead stump or branch. The nest hole entrance is about 2 inches in diameter.

BABBLERS: Babblers belong to the family Timaliidae. The most common of the species that invades the home gardens of Colombo is the Southern Common Babbler or “Seven Sisters”, Demma-litcha (S). This yellowish-grey bird is always found in flocks of seven or more. Its pale bluish-white eye gives it a curiously anemic look. It feeds on insects and vegetable substance, and most of the food is taken on the ground. The troop keeps up a noisy chatter, and its members indulge in a kind of dance.

The nest of the Babbler is a fairly deep cup, and the eggs, three to five in number, are a beautiful glossy turquoise blue. Breeding proceeds to some extent all year round.

SUNBIRDS: Sunbirds belong to the family Nectariniidae and are a family of very small birds. The commonest are the Purple-Rumped Sunbird, Mal-Sutticha (S) and the Purple and Lotens Sunbirds, Dum-Sutticha and Run-Sutticha (S).

FLOWERPECKERS: Flowerpeckers belong to the family of Dicaeidae and these birds are even smaller than the Sunbirds. There are three species. They are the Thick-Billed Flowerpecker, the Legges Flowerpecker, and the Tickells Flowerpecker. The (S) Sinhala name for all these species is generally, Batticha or Pillatchia.

ORIOLES: Orioles belong to the family Orioldae and few birds surpass them in ornamental value as their splendid plumage is commonly seen in gardens. There are two species of Orioles that are present. The Black Headed Oriole, Kahakurulla (S) is a race peculiar to Sri Lanka, and the Golden Oriole Kahakurulla or Varakamadulla (S) is a migratory bird from India.

The Black Headed Oriole with its beautiful yellow and black coloring is found frequently flying around from tree to tree displaying its bright coloring in between the green foliage of mango trees, and other similar fruit trees. It feeds on insects, berries, and fruit. Ripe jak fruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) is one of its favorites. The breeding season is from October to May and its nest is like a basket slung in the fork of a tree. The two to three eggs are creamy white spotted and blotched with shades of brown and purplish black.

The Golden Oriole’s behavior, eating habits, and nesting are very similar to those of the Black Headed Oriole.

DRONGOS: Drongos belong to the family Dicruridae. In total there are five species of Drongos found in Sri Lanka. However, only the White Bellied Drongo, Kawuda or Kawuda Pannikkiiya (S) is peculiar to Colombo. Besides its white belly, its most characteristic feature is its glossy black plumage, and its long deeply forked tail. They are arboreal birds of strong flight. Their diet is mainly insectivorous, taking most of their food on the wing. The Drongo is a great songster with various musical whistles, which include imitation notes of many of the other bird species. It has even been known to imitate the mewing of a cat. Its nest is rather small and shallow, and the eggs, two or three are pale cream to salmon pink.

KINGFISHERS: Kingfishers are very colorful birds and belong to the family Alcedinidae.
Sri Lanka has seven species of Kingfishers, and here again it is only two species that reside and breed in Colombo. These are the White Breasted Kingfisher, Liya Sudhu Pilihuduwa (S) and the little Common or River Kingfisher, Mal Pilihuduwa (S).

The attractive White Breasted Kingfisher is a feature of Colombo gardens and parks. It can catch fish if available, but its diet consists mainly of grasshoppers, frogs, lizards, centipedes, and worms, and its relatively large bill is put to good use.

The Common Kingfisher on the other hand prefers the rivers, canals, reservoirs or lakes in Colombo. Its diet is mainly small fish and it waits patiently on a branch overhanging the water waiting to plunge and dive into the water for its prey. It seldom misses its strike.

Both species of Kingfishers have their nesting burrows in a bank besides water. Their eggs, three to five in number, are a glossy white in color. It is sad to note that Kingfishers seem less abundant in Colombo now, most likely due to the degradation of the environment and air quality.

BULBULS: Bulbuls belong to the family Pycnonotidae and Sri Lanka has six species but only two seem to reside in the Colombo area. The most common is the Red Vented Bulbul, Kondaya or Konda Kurulla (S). Sexes are similar with a black crested head, mottled dark brown body, and bright vermilion under tail coverts. It feeds mainly on berries and insects of many kinds. The nest is a compact cup of small twigs lined with fine fibers. The eggs are profusely spotted and are purplish to reddish brown.

PITTAS: Pittas are of the family Pittidae, and the Indian Pitta, Avich-chia (S) is a regular winter visitor. It arrives from India in large numbers in September- October and departs again in April-May. The Pitta spends most of its time on the ground under big trees turning over dead leaves in search of insects. Pittas are one of the most beautiful types of bird species in India and have the most gorgeous coloring. They breed in the Himalayan foothills making large nests and laying four to five glossy white eggs with spots of purplish brown. Pittas have a clear double whistle which makes their presence well known.

ROBINS: Robins belong to the family Turdidae, and the Magpie Robin, Polkicha (S) is the most familiar in Sri Lanka, and is found in every garden in Colombo. The male of the species is a glossy blue-black and white. The female has a grey head and is duller than the male. Both sexes indulge in a curious gesture of tail raising and dropping of wings. This bird keeps late hours often being active until well after dusk. Its call is a four note chirp on a descending scale. The nest is a mass of untidy grass and fibers set in a tree hole, well above eye level. The eggs, of up to three, are of a blue to sea green coloration.

PARAKEETS & LORIKEETS: Parakeets and Lorikeets belong to the family Psittacidae.
Sri Lanka possesses five species, being: -

Alexandrine Parakeet, Labu Girawa (S)
Rose-Ringed Parakeet, Maala Girawa (S)
Blossom-Headed Parakeet, Panu Girawa (S)
Layards Parakeet, Alu Girawa (S)
Ceylon Lorikeet,Girra-Malitta (S)

These birds, although they are common in Colombo, are not strictly found in home gardens but are seen in flocks, flying to their places of roosting in the late evenings.

MYNAS & SPARROWS: The common Myna bird, Myna (S) belongs to the family Sturnidae, and like the House Sparrow family Passeridae, Ge’-Kurulla (S) are too familiar to need description, other than that they are both hangers-on of man. They are distributed throughout the Island wherever human communities exist.

I hope that even in a small and humble way I have helped readers to reminisce on the beautiful songs and colors of birds that formed part of our daily lives in those very happy and memorable days we shared while growing up in Sri Lanka.

I also wish to thank ALBATZ for the encouragement and support, and his kind permission in the use of his website.

Ian Hepponstall


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