He lost his wife to bird flu. Spends more money on birds than on his family. Can’t think of living without the sight, sound and smell of birds. Akila Kannadasan talks to Balpandi who inspires youngsters to care for these feathered friends

Twelve-year-old Balpandi was cycling back home from school that rainy evening. A baby bird lying by the bus stop caught his attention. It was a painted stork, a wader bird that would grow up to be a long-legged beauty someday — if it survived. The little one had fallen off the nest, and there were no signs that its mother would take it back. Balpandi took it home with him and raised it till it was fit enough to fly away.

Thus began S. Balpandi’s 40-year-long association with birds. The 58-year-old is an unconventional ornithologist. He didn’t go to college; he didn’t even finish school. But he knows birds like the back of his hand. The reason — his village of Koonthankulam in Tirunelveli district. Koonthankulam sounds like the stuff dreams are made of. When Balpandi talks about it, his eyes light up.

Welcome sight and sound

“When you enter Koonthankulam, it’s the song of the birds that you first hear. You will be welcomed by the sight of painted storks with wings spread out to protect their young from the sun. There will be thousands of them … flamingos, pelicans, pintail ducks, bar-headed goose… you can see them in our lake; perched on trees lining our streets. Our roads will have thorns parent-birds carried to build their nests. But we don’t mind them. When the birds come, our farmers rejoice, since they are a sure sign for rains. Bird-droppings can be seen everywhere. And colours… you can see 50 to 100 birds on a single tree. From October to March, Koonthankulam is something else.”

Born and brought up in Koonthankulam that was declared a bird sanctuary in 1994, Balpandi naturally developed a love for birds. They were his guests and he wanted to make sure they were well, even as a little boy. He rescued chicks that fell off nests, fed them, and returned them to the skies once fit. He has so far rehabilitated over 3,000 birds!

The man is enslaved by his winged visitors — his attempts to make a living outside the village failed; for he couldn’t live without the sight, sound and smell of birds around him. That’s when Balpandi decided to work full-time for birds. He married Vallithai, who was inspired by him towards the cause. Director P. R. Sreekumar has even made a documentary on her. Together, they planted hundreds of trees for the birds in Koonthankulam, bought fish by the kilo to feed the chicks they rescued…all this with the pittance Balpandi made as a guide to visiting bird-lovers. “Vallithai once pawned her earrings to buy a hosepipe to water trees,” he smiles. It was when he was 56 that Balpandi secured a permanent job in the Forest Department for his services. Despite the little he earned, he spent more for the birds than for his family.

Recording rare birds

He has recorded several rare birds in Koonthankulam, some of which include the Egyptian vulture, Caspian Plover and ground-nesting birds such as the Indian Courser and Sandgrouse.

Even today, Balpandi wakes up with the sun and disappears into the trees around his village with his field glasses. He vows to do so for the rest of his life, despite the fact that he lost Vallithai to bird flu.

A pelican that came home to say hello to him on Deepavali day, a painted stork that followed him around wherever he went… Balpandi says that the birds he rescued have their own way of expressing their love. “When I release a bird, I have to make sure it doesn’t see me for at least four days,” he says. “Otherwise it might want to come back to me to feed it,” he smiles.

His favourite bird? The pelican. “It’s a huge bird — you should see it feed its chick that’s several times smaller. The mother will bend her neck low to place a fish into her baby’s tiny beak. It’s a beautiful sight. I cry every time I see it.”