Lieut-Gen Baljit Singh (retd) briefly scans the avian species, which various states mentioned as their choice for the National Bird

The endemic Nicobar pigeon in his exotic plumage
The endemic Nicobar pigeon in his exotic plumage

When the Indian Board for Wildlife was established in 1954, it soon realised that public concern for wildlife was almost non-existent. The board decided to focus on the aesthetic appeal of wild creatures rather than the scientific imperatives of nature conservation per se, to arouse public awareness en masse.

To start with, the peacock emerged as the National Bird, both for its countrywide presence and for its feathered beauty. It will, however, be interesting to briefly scan the subsequent choices made by various states. Admittedly, it is easier said than pick on one bird, as the symbol, from the several 100 species inhabiting a particular state.

For instance, a group of bird enthusiasts in Chandigarh listed 325 species within a radius of about 50 km from the cityís centre. When asked about their choice of the state bird, the question was politely deflected. Nevertheless, in October 2010, the bureaucracy declared the grey hornbill as UTís bird when commemorating the National Wildlife Week.

At the crack of dawn, a male blood pheasant strides out on to a sunny patch
At the crack of dawn, a male blood pheasant strides out on to a sunny patch

Whether to ingratiate the central government or from sheer laziness, Orissa had plumbed for the peacock. A more informed choice would have been the red jungle fowl as Orissa alone boasts of the largest surviving population. Its neighbour Andhra Pradesh opted for the Indian roller as did Bihar and Karnataka. Their choice was rather unimaginative as this bird can be encountered in every other state, even in Ladakh, where it migrates in summer from Central Asia and Tibet.

Tamil Nadu has five species of the dove, including the famous collared dove (bird of peace), but the Tamil Nadu Government settled for the emerald dove. It is decidedly the least known and hardly ever seen, except by the venturesome few who penetrate the evergreen forests. Even then, its green upper plumage makes detection a challenge despite the waxy, red bill.

The great hornbill is the largest (130cm) of our seven species and is confined to the Western Ghats and along the Himalayan foothills. The bird was an obvious choice for Kerala but surprisingly Arunachal Pradesh also adopted it. Arunachal Pradesh had better claim on the rufous-necked hornbill, both because of its near-exclusive presence in the state as also its attractive, multicoloured plumage. Now, Maharashtra, being home to the largest of our pigeons, naturally chose the green imperial. Its wings, back and tail have a metallic, leaf-green sheen but its identity marker is the bright chestnut feathers under the tail.

Goaís avian mascot is the black-crested bulbul. Predominantly, a bright yellow bird with a coal-black head and neck and olive wash on its wings. Has a cocky, tufted black crest and seductive eyes; the bright yellow iris shines like a beacon in the dark. Madhya Pradesh picked the Asian paradise flycatcher (male), even though the bird only transits through the state during autumn and spring. Those who happen to see the male flitting in green surroundings, its snow white body and long tail streamers will be reminded of a Christian bride in her wedding gown. However, if you are thinking of the traditional Hindu wedding trousseau, move to the Rann of Kutch and watch a flight of the greater flamingos splashing the sky in bridal pink. That is the bird of Gujarat.

As we move upwards and eastwards, we enter the avian realm of the globally threatened species. With less than 500 of this species left, Rajasthanís the great Indian bustard is on the brink of extinction. The sarus of Uttar Pradesh are still in four digits but more than half of their habitat has been lost to industry and agriculture. The black-necked cranes, which used to visit and breed in Ladakh only, are now down to about 20 pairs. The Indian Army and the ITBP have long protected the breeding sites but the march of agriculture and animal husbandry has usurped the swamps. Haryana was the first in the country to name its state-run hospitality ventures after birds and more than one have the black partridge as the emblem. Punjab chose the hoopoe because it dug deep in soil to pick worms, harmful to crops. Unfortunately, it was replaced with the northern goshawk; a mistaken identity for the falcon kept by the Tenth Sikh Guru.

Now the world of pheasants includes some of the most exotically coloured birds. And their preference for cold and forested environment leads them to inhabit our hill states; as is the case with the western tragopan (Himachal Pradesh), the Himalayan monal (Uttarakhand), the blood pheasant (Sikkim), Blythís tragopan (Nagaland) and Mrs Humeís pheasant (Manipur and Mizoram).

Left in the balance are four state-birds and two from UTs. Going by all accounts, the population of Assamís wood duck is the lowest of any avian. The hill myna is the mascot of Meghalaya and Chhattisgarh. Wedged in-between are the white-throated kingfisher (West Bengal) and the Asian koel (female) of Jharkhand. Our island territories are the least frequented and so their birds are seldom spoken about. While the Lakshadweep has the elegant sooty tern, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have the exclusive, Nicobar pigeon. May these graceful birds enter the 22nd century.