There’s unrest in the village of Vedanthangal. An agitation is gathering strength near the entrance of the bird sanctuary; angry men arrive there on bicycles and bikes; village elders loudly discuss the situation: a local youth has been arrested for fishing in the lake the previous day. The people feel violated. “It’s all because of the birds!” hollers a woman. “All our problems are because of them.” Agriculture flourishes, but not without its problems. The farmers have to deal with hungry ducks that stop by to feed on their paddy.

But despite it all, no one in Vedanthangal holds a grudge against their bird visitors. They might chide them for the misfortunes they sometimes bring; but deep down, every one cares for the birds. “They are like our children,” says Sundaravaradhan.

The 55-year-old has been born and raised in the village. Birds to him are like family with whom he shares his home. He spent his leisure time during his youth lounging in the tea-shop by the sanctuary. As a result, bird behaviour is recorded in his mind without the slightest effort. “They leave for the day at 4 a.m. and come back at 6 p.m.,” he says. His favourite is the karandi vaayan (spoonbill). “It looks beautiful. I like the beak — it reminds me of a dosai karandi ,” he grins. He also likes to observe the mother birds feed their young. “They spray water like a sprinkler into their tiny beaks,” he observes.

Selvam likes the grey heron. “They are considerate. When they walk in our fields, they avoid stepping on our saplings. They place their feet with care,” he says. Selvam says the farmers have devised ways to deal with birds that come to feed on their produce. “When the kiluvai (common teal) flies into our fields, we clap to chase it away,” he says. There have been instances when the villagers apprehended poachers. “We once rounded up poachers when they were about to make away with the birds they had hunted down,” recalls Selvam. “We can make out if people trespass into the sanctuary at night; the birds will tell us through their disturbed calls,” he adds.

No one can describe a bird’s appearance as beautifully as the children of Vedanthangal. Nine-year-old Rajesh paints a vivid picture of a bird: “It is a big bird. The beak is orange and the body is white. There is a little bit of black at the edges of every feather. Their feet are orange.” Then there’s five-year-old Dinesh Kumar who claims to have seen a bird with a green beak at the lake!

The kids, most of whom walk to the primary school close to the sanctuary every day, are keen observers of the features of the birds that visit them between November and March. Erattai vaayan, paambu thara, karandi vaayan …they reel off the names of birds in Tamil like the names of their pets. As we leave, Rajesh comes to see us off at the door of the classroom. “When I grow up, I want to do an aaraichi (research),” he says — “On birds.”