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Flying odysseys: The captivating world of migratory birds

I don't think I’ve ever been a birder, though I did enjoy the occasional sighting of a pretty bird chirping or collecting twigs for a nest or bathing in a puddle of water. It was only during my trip to Bharatpur bird sanctuary on my last birthday that I realised how incredibly amazing these beings are and I felt a special admiration for the ones which migrate there thousands of miles each year.

Bar-headed goose watercolor painting

Bar-headed goose, watercolors & pencil

Artwork by Ankita Singh © 2023

I read somewhere that migratory birds are almost a perfect metaphor for hope! Emily Dickinson’s line “hope is the thing with feathers” perfectly sums it up. It reminds me of a heart warming film that I had seen years ago, Fly away home starring Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin. The story is about a little girl who adopts a bunch of orphaned geese. These birds are instinctively driven to migrate when the time comes. She later helps & guides them to migrate south with the help of her amateur aviation enthusiast dad. The final scene of the film fills your heart with feelings of awe, when the geese fly away and safely reach their destination.

Painted stork flying

A stork soaring in the blue sky

Photograph by Anshul Kapoor © 2022

Last December, I witnessed similar exhilarating sights of several such groups of geese, cranes, storks and many other birds soaring the blue sky of Rajasthan to reach their final destination. It astonishes and puzzles me at the same time how they manage to travel vast distances knowing the exact destination. Their courage, intelligence and resilience is nothing short of wonder! Its ironic us civilised human beings need google maps for navigation! In their journey the birds face many perilous hurdles, all of them posed by humans. This is alarming as many of the species are becoming endangered.

A snakebird sun bathing (L) and a fleet of Little Black cormorant (R)

Photograph by Anshul Kapoor, Ankita Singh © 2022

Exploring the bird sanctuary by a bicycle gave me plenty of time to indulge in bird watching, observing several species & their colonies. Quietly gazing at resident and migrant birds of all shapes, sizes and colors, spread across different corners of the park, you come to realise how intricately everything is connected to each other. In that silence you allow yourself to learn not just about the birds but the ecosystem too.

Best rides in the bird sanctuary (1), a painted stork colony (2), Unknown bird (3)

Photograph by Ankita Singh, Anshul Kapoor © 2022

To understand the behavior of migratory birds, how and why they are compelled to migrate every year for breeding or wintering I did some reading. Birds have a compass that relies on subtle, fundamentally quantum effects in short-lived molecular fragments, known as radical pairs, formed photochemically in their eyes. This enables them to “see” the earth’s magnetic field, which aids them in navigation. It is an evolutionary mechanism fairly common in many animals and other organisms.

Grey wagtail (L), Siberian crane (C) Ruddy shelduck (R), watercolors & pencil

Artwork by Ankita Singh © 2023

They have at least three different compasses at their disposal: one allows them to extract information from the position of the sun in the sky, another uses the patterns of the stars at night, and the third is based on earth’s ever present magnetic field. Science fiction stuff for us! 

The navigational input comes from several senses—mainly sight, smell and magnetoreception. Characteristic smells can help birds recognize places they have visited before. This article elaborates the topic in detail.

Cheetal aka Axis deer stag in Bharatpur bird sanctuary

A lone Axis deer stag 

Photograph by Ankita Singh © 2022

Apart from the science behind their complex mechanism, come to realize birding is a wonderful way to chill out and letting nature take over. Paul McCartney of the Beatles echoes similar sentiments in one of his recent podcasts. McCartney explains that he developed a fascination with bird-watching when he was young. The classic blackbird is perhaps an inspiration from his love for bird watching. 

In fact, bird watching has fascinated humankind since ancient times. There are several references of personifying them with supernatural abilities in many ancient myths and religions. References can be found in Hinduism, native American legends and ancient Egyptian culture. This continued fascination towards birds later developed into the field of Ornithology.

Amur falcon watercolor illustration

Amur falcon, watercolors & pencil

Artwork by Ankita Singh © 2023

As an artist I often look towards the natural world for inspiration and lately migratory birds have fascinated me. It started off as painting birds for leisure, since the act of creation helps me truly appreciate the subject. As I dived into the subject of bird migration I came to understand that it is an important area of study because of its impact on many related fields like climate change, bird conservation, habitat studies, and policymaking. It led me to dedicate my annual desk calendars series about the captivating world of migratory birds.

2024 art calendar and planner

‘Flying Odysseys’ 2024 calendar & planner

Artwork by Ankita Singh, Design by Old Studio © 2023

‘Flying Odysseys’, a watercolor bird illustration series is an ode to all the birds making some of the most treacherous & adventurous journeys every year. These limited edition hand painted and crafted desk calendars & planners are available to order on this link (till stocks last). With these art calendars I hope to inculcate a sense of enthusiasm and responsibility in children as well as adults to treat the environment and all organisms with sensitivity. 

At the moment it feels like there is a lot of unrest in the world, wars, inflation, climate change catastrophe. Thinking about the courage and resilience of these birds fills my heart with hope for this new year. I hope to pause more often and appreciate the birds, the bees, the flowers and mushrooms around us.


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