The authors visit a village in Karnataka that’s home to a host of migratory birds.
We heard them long before we saw them.
Driving in from Karnataka’s Bheemeshwari, we passed villages with mulberry and silkworm farms, interspersed with lush fields of rice and sugarcane. This district is called “The land of sugar” and so, at first, we thought that activists were agitating either for or against the price of cane. As we got closer, however, the collective sound shredded itself into cheeps, squawks and guttural honks. Then we spotted them: soaring, swooping, dots in the sky, circling and landing and rising around a spot hidden in a mass of trees. We’ve seen this happening above landfills around major cities but there were no urban centres in this green and very rural region. Our guide said, “We’re nearing Kokkare Bellur.”
The name of the village captures its uniqueness. Kokkare Bellur, according to one of the many interpretations given to us later, could mean “The place of the water birds”. That’s very apt. To our delight, we discovered that this beautiful little village was home to an incredible host of nesting pelicans and storks, cormorants, herons and even a pair of black ibis though there might have been more of these sacred waders on the outer fringes of the village. All the birds had built huge untidy nests on the trees shading the cottages. Most of the nests carried crèches of shrieking chicks.
Yet, in spite of the avian cacophony, the people of the village seemed unperturbed. A young man cycled past carrying a long fishing rod, a housewife spread grain to dry and then covered it with a net, a senior citizen read a newspaper on his verandah, a furry grey cat lay curled on a chair, all its ends tucked in contentedly. Clearly, they had got used to the all-pervasive chorale, the faint fishy-phosphorus odour, and the constant splatter of detritus from the flocks on the trees above them.
We picked a drizzle-free spot and drew up next to a small, fenced off, grove. Inside, there were stone benches and tables speckled with bird-lime, and two hut-sized piles of straw on which pelicans waddled like corpulent counsellors, and long-legged storks stood regarding us with cold curiosity. It was a most unusual place in a most extraordinary village.
A grizzle-haired man walked up and introduced himself to us as Linge Gowda. He said, in a soft-spoken and very matter-of-fact way, that this enclosure was an infirmary for abandoned fledglings. He opened the gate and we followed him in with three boys trailing behind. One of the boys picked up a fish from a metal bowl and threw it to a pelican. It caught it deftly in its ungainly beak and then, on second thoughts, dropped it.
“Not fresh,” explained Linge Gowda. “It has a broken wing so it cannot forage for itself, but still it eats only fresh fish!” He pointed out another bird, blind in one eye. “When they are fit they fly away but, for some time, they return here. Then, when they build their own nests in our village, they do not ask to be fed.”
The differently-abled pelicans groomed themselves. Gowda said he was a farmer. “The birds are like our children. My people prayed at the temple of Bhairaveshwari, gave a gift to the idol and asked for the birds to be sent to our trees. The birds arrived,” he said.
“Why did they ask for the birds?” we queried. “Do the birds keep your fields free from pests?”
He shook his head. “No. Nothing like that.” Then he added, “It is said that long ago, a European visited our village and said that the birds were present even then. From 1914 to 1917, when a plague struck the village, the people moved out. The birds followed. When our people returned, so did the birds.”
That was odd. What did the birds give back to the village for sheltering and feeding them? What was the symbiotic relationship in this intriguing place?
In Malaysia we had noticed apertures in the walls of modern concrete structures. They had been made to encourage swifts to build their saliva-bound nests. Birds’ Nest soup is a delicacy. Then, in Egypt we had seen conical, towers honey-combed with holes. These were wild-pigeon farms where fledgling squabs were selectively harvested for their reputedly rejuvenating flesh. But the pelicans and their fellow residents were, clearly, not being harvested by the people of Kokkare Bellur. Possibly, then, they played a socio-spiritual role. In Medieval, Christian, lore the pelican was regarded as a symbol of Jesus. Its ability to regurgitate food for its chicks was misinterpreted as its self-sacrificing passion to nurture its progeny on its own blood.
A memory of what we had seen in Nepal, surfaced. There, we had noticed little holes let into the walls of village huts. These had been created for sparrows. The rural folk of Nepal believed that when they died, sparrows would carry their souls up to heaven. People, living close to nature, had found a reason to respect the intricate web of life. Could this instinctive sensitivity explain the wonder of Kokkare Bellur?
Linge Gowda, however, did not elaborate. He instead handed us a well-produced pamphlet created by the Mysore Amateur Naturalists.