Leisure & Travel

Premier bird sanctuaries of India

With growing public and governmental support to wildlife and environment conservation, several designated bird sanctuaries in the subcontinent are transforming into major tourist attractions, much to the delight of ornithologists, actual and potential


The preferred habitat of 1,200 avian species, i.e 14 percent of bird species on planet earth, India is a bird-watcher’s paradise, especially during the winter season (November-March) when migratory birds wing their way to the subcontinent. If you are an ornithologist — actual or potential — interested in observing our feathered friends displaying their exotic plumage and enchanting birdsong, it’s the time of the year for bird watching.

Man’s relationship with birds is ancient and birds have played a major role in legends, religious customs, and literature besides inspiring several orchestral compositions. Since the 12th century and perhaps earlier, in the desert kingdoms of the Middle East where falconeering and bustard hunting is a national sport, bird gaming was a feudal passion and a blessing in disguise as several kings developed bird sanctuaries to attract migratory winged creatures.

By mid-20th century with alarming reports of depletion of numerous avian species streaming in worldwide, bird-watching — rather than hunting — emerged as a civilized pastime as ornithologists armed with books, cameras, binoculars and telescopes added a new dimension to wildlife tourism. Now with bird hunting banned in most countries, including India, and growing public and governmental support to wildlife conservation, several designated bird sanctuaries are transforming into major tourist attractions. Fortunately, given the widespread sanctity for all life forms in India (unlike Communist China where almost all bird life was snuffed out during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1960), birds can be seen in most national parks and sanctuaries all year round. India’s most popular bird sanctuaries are detailed hereunder.

Chilika National Park, Orissa

The largest lagoon (swelling to 11,000 sq. km in the monsoon) along the east coast of India spanning the districts of Puri and Ganjam in the state of Orissa (pop 44million), Chilika is one of the ecological hotspots of India and shelters a number of endangered species in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list. The lagoon is a unique pot-pourri of marine, brackish and fresh water eco-systems with estuarine characteristics. It is an avian haven and the wintering ground of more than one million migratory birds of over 800 rare species from around the world.

In the popular imagination, Chilika is an endless vista of flamingos feeding in the shallow waters of the lagoon. Among other feathered species here are grey and purple herons, egrets, spoonbills, storks and white ibis, brahminy ducks, shovellers, pintails, gadwall, teals, pochards, geese and coots — all of whom are ubiquitous on Nalban island and its vicinity. Moreover numerous raptors frequent the lagoon, especially the pariah and brahminy kites. Other avian winter visitors include the kestrel and the globally threatened peregrine falcon. Quite obviously the winter months (December-March) are the best time for birdwatching. 

The Chilika Lake Wetland Centre (10 a.m-5 p.m) is a professionally collated exhibition on the lake’s wildlife. It comprises an observatory, telescope, and a valuable bird identification chart.

Getting there. The nearest airport is Bhubaneswar (100 km from Chilika). The nearest railhead for the Barkul settlement is at Balugaon.

Accommodation. The Orissa Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC) has reasonably priced residential accommodation on Satapada island, 50 km from the well-known beach resort of Puri, and at the settlements of Barkul and Rambha. OTDC also offers comfortable tourist bungalows at the Panthanivas and Ashoka hotels at Balugaon. Guides are recommended.


Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur

This globally famous bird sanctuary derives its formal title from the Keoladeo temple of Lord Shiva. ‘Ghana’ is the vernacular synonym for dense forest. Legendary as the best duck shoot resort during the heyday of the British raj, Bharatpur sanctuary was declared a reserve for birds in 1956 and later upgraded to the status of a national park. Unesco has listed it as a world heritage site. Ideally located on the main north-south avian route of India, its small size (only 29 sq. km) notwithstanding, Bharatpur teems with 375 bird species and more than 132 breed inside the national park. Moreover it attracts birds from all over India, Europe, Siberia, China and Tibet.

Every year on the eve of the monsoon, hundreds of avian species migrate to Bharatpur to roost and nest in the babool and kadam trees of the park. Each tree houses 50-60 nests of differing species rearing newly hatched chicks, emitting an echoing chorus of birdsong through the forest.

Boats, cycles and rickshaws are available on hire and drivers as well as professional guides are good at identifying different species and helping amateur photographers.

Getting there. Bharatpur lies 176 km from Delhi and is 2 km from the national park. Bus services link Bharatpur with major cities of Rajasthan and outside the state.

Accommodation. The Bagh (Rs.2,527-11,407); Laxmi Vilas Palace Lodge (Rs.4,577-9,836), Bharatpur Forest Lodge (Rs.2,250-4,229); New Spoonbill Hotel (Rs.683- 888); Monarch Farms (Rs.400).


Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, Ahmedabad

Comprising a huge lake and ambient marshes, Nal Sarovar is situated 64 km from Ahmedabad, the commercial capital of the state of Gujarat (pop. 63 million). A magnet for migratory birds in winter and spring, this is one of the largest bird sanctuaries in India. The lake which was declared a bird sanctuary in 1969, measures 120.82-sq-km, attracts over 210 species of birds in the winter months and harbours diverse flora and fauna. Besides a few mammalian species such as the endangered wild ass and the blackbuck, its migratory bird population includes rosy pelicans, flamingoes, white storks, brahminy ducks and herons.

Accommodation. November to February is the best season to visit Nal Sarovar. Gujarat Tourism provides tent accommodations within a distance of 1.5 km from the lake. However, other than a few more resorts there is no proper accommodation available. Hence it is advisable to stay in Ahmedabad for better accommodation.

Khijadia Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat

Situated at a distance of 10 km northeast of Jamnagar (Saurashtra) on the south coast of the Gulf of Kutch, Khijadia comprises a seasonal freshwater shallow lake, intertidal mudflats, creeks, salt pans, saline land and mangrove scrub. In May 1981, revenue wasteland of the lake covering an area of 182.9 hectares was declared a sanctuary under s.18 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. In November 1981 another area of 421.96 hectares was added to the sanctuary which currently covers 605 hectares and includes three freshwater lakes. Located in the western-most part of the country, it falls within the traditional route of migratory birds including the waterfowl. Almost 220 species of resident and migratory birds, including globally threatened species such as Dalmatian pelican, Asian open bill stork, Black-necked stork, Darter, Black-headed ibis, Eurasian spoonbill, and Indian skimmer are found here.

Getting there. The nearest railhead and airport is Jamnagar, where all categories of hotels are available.


Ranganathittoo National Park, Mysore

Situated in south-central Karnataka near Mysore, the Ranganathittoo bird sanctuary is situated 4 km from Srirangapatna and 19 km from Mysore. The park consists of numerous islands inhabited by colonies of cormorants, darters, egrets, storks and ibis, all of which can be observed at close range, either on foot (south bank of river) or by boat. The south-west and north-east monsoons feed the wetlands, so the months between August and September are the best times to visit.

Getting there. The nearest airport is Mysore and closest railhead is Srirangapatna.

Accommodation. Mysore offers a wide range of residential options including the Orchid Metropole, KSTDC-run Mayura Hoysala and the luxurious Lalitha Mahal Hotel. Ranger-guided boat tours are available for hire and recommended for close range birdwatching.


Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, Tamil Nadu

Sited 75 km from Chennai, Vedanthangal bird sanctuary is spread over 74 acres of marshland with a plethora of trees ideal for nesting water birds. The sanctuary gets its name from a nearby village and attracts over 100,000 migratory birds every year. The best time to visit is between November and February when birds of myriad plumage including herons, darters, spoonbills, pelicans, sandpipers, white ibis, cormorants, bullwinged teals, storks, egrets and swans descend on the lake in hordes.

Getting there. Reservations for the Vedanthangal Rest House can be made with the wildlife warden, Adayar, Chennai. Chennai is the nearest airport and one can motor down a distance of 100 km, most of it on the well-maintained National Highway 45. The nearest railhead is Chingelpet (26 km).

Accommodation. Available at the Forest Department Rest House or Hotel Tamil Nadu of the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation.


Sultanpur National Park, Haryana

Forty-six km from Delhi on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, the Sultanpur National Park is a stretch of marshland remodelled into an artificial water body. A number of organisms like crustaceans, fish and insects thrive in this environment and attract birds of various hues, resident and migratory. Numerous migratory geese and Siberian cranes such as demoiselle cranes, ruddy shelducks, pelicans, flamingoes, bar-headed geese, grey lags, gadwalls, mallards, pochards, shovellers and teals winter in Sultanpur. Local species include plovers, red-wattled lapwings, herons, cormorants, white ibises, spoonbills and painted storks. The park also contains plenty of local wildlife, notably the blackbuck, nilgai, hog deer, sambar, hedgehog, mongoose, striped hyena, Indian porcupine, rattle/honey badger, leopard, wild pig, and the four-horned antelope.


Nawabganj Bird Sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh

The Nawabganj sanctuary, sited 43 km from Lucknow, is the winter resort of several migratory and water birds. A popular site for birdwatching and photography, it consists of extensive marshlands and a shallow lake bordered by dry forests. Speckling the landscape is an assorted avian population of pochards, shovellers, woodpeckers, parakeets, coots, purple moorhens and common teals.


Pulicat Sanctuary, Andhra Pradesh

Sprawling across 500 sq. km in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, Pulicat Sanctuary (54 km from Chennai) is the second largest brackish water lagoon in India, attracting droves of migratory water birds. A popular feeding and breeding ground for a variety of aquatic and terrestrial birds, it supports a rich bio-diversity, and attracts over 15,000 flamingoes annually.

Karnala Bird Sanctuary, Maharashtra
The Karnala Bird Sanctuary in Raigad district is located at the base of Karnala fort, between Pen and Panvel. Karnala is rich in avifauna as the ecological conditions of the tract favour some exotic bird species. In the monsoon one can glimpse the paradise flycatcher, shama or magpie, robin, and the Malabar whistling thrush, which are some of the most melodious avian songsters. A variety of other species such as the racket-tailed drongo, red vented bulbul, horn bill, myna, owl, ashy rain war blur, and the rare ashy minimet and spotted heart woodpeckers have been sighted here.


Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Goa

On the western tip of the island of Chorao along the Mandovi river, mangrove swamps cover this bird-watchers’ paradise aptly named after India’s most well-known ornithologist.

Travel advisory. Open throughout the year, the sanctuary can be visited with the permission of the chief wildlife warden, forest department, Junta House, Panaji. Apart from a rich assortment of coastal birds, one can spot flying foxes, jackals and crocodiles.


Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, Kerala

Situated on the banks of the Vembanand Lake, the Kumarakom bird sanctuary hosts an eclectic collection of waterfowls, cuckoos and owls, as well as migratory Siberian cranes. The Kumarakom Tourism Complex, spread over 101 acres of enchanting woodlands and lake, was built around the 50-year-old Baker’s Mansion, which was earlier a small hotel run by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC). Excellent hotels in the vicinity.


Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, Kerala

A veritable microcosm of India’s bird population with about 500 winged species, the Thattekad bird sanctuary was designed by Dr. Salim Ali, around river Periyar. Indigenous birds found here are the Malabar grey hornbill, grey jungle fowl, heron, egret, jungle myna, wood pecker, rose winged and blue winged parakeet. And with a little luck, rare species like the rose billed roller can also be spotted.


Point Calimere, Tamil Nadu

Point Calimere, aka Cape Calimere and Kodikkarai, is a low headland on the Coromandel Coast in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu. A historic landmark here was the Chola lighthouse, which was unfortunately destroyed in the tsunami of 2004. There is a wildlife and bird sanctuary here, with three natural habitats: dry evergreen forests, mangrove forests, and wetlands. The forests of Point Calimere are the last refuge of the dry evergreen forests that were once typical of the East Deccan eco-region.

Not far from Point Calimere is the mangrove forest of Muthupet, surrounded by sea and shore, and bestowed with populations of varied wildlife such as chital, wild boar, bonnet macaque, black buck, flamingoes, teals, gulls, terns, plovers and stilts. Special attractions are close encounters with dolphins and turtles which often come close to the shore. Between November and January, the tidal mud flats and marshes are covered with teals, terns, plovers, sandpipers, shanks, herons and clusters of up to 3,000 flamingoes.

Travel advisory. Tiruchirapalli (225 km) is the nearest airport which connects tourists to Nagapattinam district where Point Calimere sanctuary is located. Thiruthuraipoondi (42 km) is the nearest railhead and the sanctuary is well connected by road.


The usefulness of avian Species

The relationship between avian species and homo sapiens is mutually supportive and reinforcing. In his seminal The Book of Indian Birds the late Dr. Salim Ali highlighted the usefulness of birds.
As destroyers of insect pests. A large proportion of the normal food of birds consists of insects, including many that are in the highest degree injurious to man and his concerns. Birds of many species not only take a heavy toll of marauding locust hordes all along their flight lines, but also scratch up and devour their eggs in vast quantities, as well as their young in different stages of growth after hatching. An idea of the extent of good birds do in destroying insect pests may be derived from the fact that many young birds in the first few days of their lives consume more than their own weight of food in 24 hours. A pair of starlings has been observed to bring food (caterpillars, grasshoppers, locusts etc) to their nest-young 370 times in a day. Therefore where birds have not been unwisely interfered with, they constitute one of the most effective natural checks upon insect numbers.

As destroyers of other vermin. Owls, kestrels, hawks and birds of prey generally — so often accused of destructiveness to poultry and game and slaughtered out of hand — are among the most important of Nature’s checks upon rats and mice, some of the most fecund and destructive pests from which man and his works suffer. These vermin do enormous damage to crops and agricultural produce, and are besides, the carriers directly or indirectly, of diseases often fatal to man.

Many of our owls and diurnal birds of prey feed largely on rats and mice; some of the former, indeed, live more or less exclusively on them.

As scavengers. Vultures, kites and crows are invaluable scavengers. They speedily and effectively dispose of carcasses of cattle and other refuse dumped in the precincts of our villages — notoriously lacking in any organised system of sanitation — that would otherwise putrefy and befoul the air and become veritable culture beds of disease. The speed and thoroughness with which a party of vultures dispose of carrion is astounding.
As flower-pollination agents. While the importance of bees, butterflies and other insects in the cross-fertilisation of flowers is well known, the large part played by birds in the same capacity is not adequately appreciated. A large number of birds of diverse families and species are responsible for the cross-fertilisation of flowers, many of them possessing special adaptations in the structure and mechanism of their tongue and bill for the purpose of extracting honey from the base of the flower tubes. The coral tree (erythrina) which is largely grown for shade in the tea and coffee plantations of South India, is also one whose flowers are fertilised chiefly, if not exclusively by birds of many species.

As seed dispensers. Bulbuls and barbets are largely responsible for the dissemination of the seeds of the sandalwood tree in South India and are welcome in sandalwood plantations. In the newly colonised canal areas of Punjab, the mulberry owes its abundance mainly to propagation by birds.

As food for man. A feature of the larger dhands or jheels in Pakistan and northern India during the cold weather is the magnitude of the netting operations that go on throughout that season for supplying the markets of larger towns, both near and distant, with wildfowl of every description for the table.

Quails, partridges and other game birds are also netted or shot for eating purposes, and innumerable other species of every description are captured and sold in the bazaars to fanciers or exported, yielding substantial returns to those engaged in the trade.

Guano. Guano which is the excrement of sea birds such as gannets, cormorants and pelicans is a product of great commercial value. The fertilising properties of the phosphoric acid and nitrogen contained in fish were not recognised until guano became a stimulus to intensive agriculture. The real guano is found in vast stratified accretions on rainless islands off the coast of Peru, and although no deposits of like magnitude or value exist within our limits, yet the possibilities of the liquid guanoa of colonial-nesting water birds have not been seriously exploited in India.

Source: The Book of Indian Birds, Oxford University Press (2002)