By Susheela Nair
Every year the nondescript hamlet of Kokkrebellur comes alive with raucous sounds, shrill cries and squawks when its many winged visitors make their annual rendezvous with this tranquil settlement.
The first thing that catches oneâ€™s attention on reaching the legendary village of Kokkrebellur, is the clusters of spot billed pelicans and painted storks perched atop trees, on the ground and on the roofs of homes. It is a sheer delight to watch the colourful painted storks hovering over the trees, circling low, swirling and soaring in the sky.
A solitary pelican
Guided by natural instinct and regulated by biological clocks, these birds descend on the village every year in droves to build their nests and rear their young on the large, shady trees of tamarind, peepal and portia.
A painted stork feeding its young one
Accompanied by avid nature enthusiasts, ornithologists and birdwatchers, I was on a photographic jaunt to the legendary village of Kokkrebellur to witness the remarkable avian drama enacted year after year with consistent regularity. Kokkrebellur is one of the 5 known nesting spots in India for the endangered spot-billed pelican (Pelicanus philipensis). â€˜Kokkareâ€™ in Kannada means the long-beaked painted stork.
We watched in admiration the mother spreading her wings to protect her offsprings from the searing heat while feeding the young ones. Birds court, mate and rear their young as the villagers nonchalantly go about their daily chores. The chirping and other sounds of the birds have become part of their life. The villagers have always protected them, believing that the birds foretell good fortune by ushering in the rains and good crops.
Pelicans nesting atop a tree
Kokkrebellurâ€™s proximity to the Thyloor and other tanks nearby offers the birds plenty of fishing opportunities. The abundant bird droppings, rich in potassium and phosphate, are used as manure for the crops.
The women of Kokkarebellur regard the migratory birds as daughters, and have a deep sentimental bond. They term it â€˜Banantanaâ€™(care of a pregnant woman in her maternal home). They even refer to the birds affectionately as the â€˜daughters of the villageâ€™ and compare them to the local girls who marry into another village but return home to have their babies.
The farmers are apprehensive about the perilously dwindling population of these birds. Over the past few decades, the nesting areas were threatened by several factors like increase in population pressure coupled with increased demand for natural resources, the use of tree branches and leaves for animal fodder, and silting and pollution of nearby lakes and tanks.
Kokkrebellur village at twilight
Moreover, young chicks and eggs were an easy prey for stray dogs and for crows. And the storks were easily intimidated by the intrusion of visitors near the nesting sites.
A typical village house with raised platform, pillars and painting
The villagers refrain from pruning their branches and harvesting the ripe imli fruits as it would disturb the nests and scare the birds away. They have formed a pelican conservation group to protect the endangered pelicans. This people-initiated conservation project has helped in curbing the drastic decline in breeding numbers.
Stone carving indicate Kokkrebellur is part of Karnataka's past
Since the winged tenants are cared for by the villagers and voluntary groups, the village has earned the sobriquet of being a â€˜Peopleâ€™s Bird Sanctuaryâ€™ or â€˜Community Reserveâ€™. As a part of a conservation scheme in the natural bird sanctuary, the villagers are paid an annual sum of Rs.500 to Rs. 2500 for maintenance of each tree in their backyards.
All photographs by Susheela Nair
(Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer contributing articles, content and images to several national publications, travel portals and guides and coffee table books.)