One may have not chanced upon a village like Kokkare Bellur. Located in Mandya district, two hours away from the state capital Bangalore, it seems just like any other scenic village in Karnataka. It has a combination of drylands and wetlands, with the perennial river Shimsha flowing towards the south. However, from November to July, the village transforms into a spectacle as it prepares for the arrival of rare migratory birds, specifically the painted stork and spot billed pelicans who set up their nests on the backyard trees of the village homes. Other local birds include cormorants, egrets, black ibis, white ibis, and pond heron. This is a rare, unusual and mysterious phenomena that has been occurring for several hundred years.
In 1994 when Manu K; founder of the NGO, Mysore Amateur Naturalists (MAN) had visited this village, he was distraught at the state of the chicks who would sometimes fall from the nests and often serve as food for cats, dogs and snakes. He interacted with the village folks and encouraged them to take care of the birds. Before, the villagers had been unaware on how to tackle this novel problem. Inspired by Manu K, B Linge Gowda and others (in ’94) started a local initiative called, Hejjarle Balaga (Friends of the Pelican). The villagers shared a harmonious relationship where the birds could descend in thousands to build their nests on the various trees, and to rear their young. The land below the trees was left untouched so as to not scare the birds. One early success is when villagers prevented a fellow farmer from cutting down a tamarind tree that housed a host of birds. Instead, they collectively paid him rent for the farming season in exchange for not cutting the tree. Further, the forest officials pay the villagers a specific amount of money to not use the land and also conduct checks each year.
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The villagers consider these birds a godsend. According to them, the birds are believed to be bring good fortune, prosperity and blessings for all. The birds in the nine months prove to be extremely useful too! Their droppings, called Guano is a great fertilizer for the soil, as it is rich in potassium. For the women, these birds are, ‘daughters who are coming home for their delivery; (to deliver their babies).’ Children have been instructed to value the eggs and to protect the chicks. They are taught how to nurture and care for birds. They learn to care for injured chicks under the elders’ guidance. Children learn the importance of environment and the value they must give it. The birds and the villagers live in a compatible relationship and the villagers feel sad whenever it is time for the birds to leave. They look forward to the next season and hope to see the birds soon.
B Linge Gowda, has gone one step ahead and has donated around 2500 square feet of his own land, turning it into a Pelican Rescue Center. He protects birds from predators such as dogs and other animals, treats injured and orphaned chicks, and rescues birds. The rescued birds are fed approximately 2 kg fish, which they obtain from the neighbouring river, Shimsha. He is extremely popular in the village as he is one of the few people who remain true to the original initiative. B Linge Gowda is the first-person villagers go to when unable to tend to a bird. He is renowned for his ability to save chicks during the season. In a short interview with Praveen Singh, he remarks, “Other volunteers have moved on… I am the only one remaining now,”. When not busy rescuing birds, he can be found in his fair price shop or farming in the remaining months. He also happens to cultivate various crops such as paddy, groundnut, ragi and sugarcane.
He also informs us how the various birds build their nests. He mentions that pelicans are messy nest builders, with many eggs falling off the big tree tops. They lay about three-four eggs. But, the success rate (of chicks) is one. As of November, 2020, the latest nesting season, there are 91 pelican nests with more to be built in future. Typically, pelicans arrive in this village in November and leave by June-July. However, painted storks, by comparison, are good nesters. They lay eggs on smaller tree tops. They lay about two-three eggs. The success rates are better, about two chicks. The life-span for both birds are approximately 18-20 years.
“Visitors and tourists are simply awed by the sights they see here… they have never seen anything quite like it,” remarks Praveen Singh, a heritage enthusiast, when talking about the numerous guests he takes to visit the various sights around Bangalore. Many of his guests from abroad have mentioned, that they are aware of a solitary or a couple of storks nesting on high smoke stacks, especially in the European countryside. But this is different. Such a profusion of wild, large birds living in close proximity to humans leaves them flabbergasted. However, to the villagers of Kokkare Bellur, though this might seem extraordinary, it isn’t unusual.
In recent years, however, there has been a sharp decline in the number of migratory birds, causing grief to villagers, officials, avid birdwatchers and alike. Various reasons have been considered however no definitive cause has been proven. Some think that there may be roundworms in the fish that the bird eats or it may be polluted, as in recent years, the river Shimsha has gotten contaminated by sewage and other discharge due the sugar factories located at the banks of the river. Other reasons could be urbanisation, degradation of wetlands around the village and the deterioration of the water and air quality.
This has caused the locals to step up and become more active than ever to tend to the birds. The government has helped by deployed forest officials during the peak season, monetary compensation has been increased by the rural government, camps and workshops are conducted by the locals to educate people about birds using fun ways such as plays, stories and other activities. This curious attraction draws people in and has caused many to visit this village though for the most part it has remained unknown. This is a little explored wonder of nature. One feels truly relaxed among nature. Kokkare Bellur is a testimony to man and bird’s relationship, one that can never fail to astound those around us. It remains one of the few places where you can see birds and man interact so closely. It also seeks us to remind us that small steps like a local initiative is a big step for conservation.
Written by Aayushi Jain and Praveen Singh. Photos by Praveen Singh and B Linge Gowda