Every October for about three decades, flocks of egrets roosted in the trees overhanging the crocodile ponds at the Croc Bank. By day, they rooted around the rice fields and backwaters, in the evening, should we be Croc Bank-bound, we would see waves of birds headed towards the safe airspace above the crocs. Occasionally some failed to return, having fallen victim to the ancient muzzle-loaders of the korava tribe.
By December, the trees were covered in guano: a white Christmas! Come April and the birds forsook the Crocodile Bank for other places. Rom figured that the birds didn't nest here because the trees were young. To encourage appropriate thoughts of procreation, he tied woven bamboo baskets high up on the canopy, but the birds were not very smitten with them. Eventually, the baskets came floating down with the wind.
About ten years ago, something clicked in the egrets' heads. They stayed through summer, and began nesting. Within a couple of years, the population of birds at the Croc Bank increased exponentially. Soon they were nesting all over the place, not just above the croc ponds. Walking to the office from the kitchen was a proverbial Russian roulette — with the odds of being shat upon rising as the days went by. The worst days were when spoiled eggs became air-borne and landed on one's head.
The raucous noise of parental squabbling and chicks' incessant pleas to be fed were deafening. To add to our woes, cormorants, night herons, and pond herons also joined the nesting orgy. There wasn't a single tree branch free of bird nest. On the weekly off-days, fully fledged chicks wandered the pathways like tourists or posed like ornaments on the enclosure walls. Every morning, the Croc Bank's clean up squad had to clear the white bird droppings, regurgitated fish that the chicks had clumsily thrown up, and dead chicks, before the place could be open to the public.
The ones to bear the brunt of this avian assault were the tortoises. The beautiful colours and patterns of the Travancore and star tortoises were transformed to a uniform snowy white, and one couldn't tell what kind of tortoise they were! Every week, they had to be bathed and cleaned of all the bird goo, and I don't know which they hated more — the smelly scats that caked their shells or the cleaning. We worried that the animals might get some disease (bird flu, maybe?) from this surfeit of guano.
When (the late) Ravi Sankaran, the ornithologist visited, we moaned about our ‘bird problem' and the menace of aerial ‘bombing'. He protested that a heronry of this density was quite rare, and we ought to protect it! I joked: ‘Yeah right, Madras Crocodile Bank and Bird Sanctuary!' He shot back: ‘Why not?' If we built tree-top platforms, and set up scopes, bird watchers will visit in droves, he suggested. Rom built on the idea: ‘We could provide disposable ponchos with every ticket so people don't get upset by the droppings.' These remained mere daytime reveries.
Then, a wandering monkey showed up out of nowhere, and all hell broke loose. He stole chicks from their nests, tucked them under his armpits and hobbled around clumsily. The parent birds shrieked and pecked at this intruder, but the monkey just swatted them away. Some chicks fell from his grasp, and were eaten by the waiting crocs below. The staff tried to chase him away, complained to the authorities, and tried to trap him, but nothing worked. Then just as suddenly, he vanished. Recently, a booted eagle arrived at what can only be described as a smorgasbord, but there is no sign of a dent in the water bird population yet.
To cite an example of good-intentioned-conservation-gone-wrong, all I need to do is mention the empty woven bamboo baskets waving in the wind, and an embarrassed Rom begs: ‘Don't even remind me, please!'
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