The story behind a two-acre compound in Kerala where migratory birds and exotic plants thrive.

John Mathew
news Human interest Sunday, January 12, 2020 - 11:34

My father has been trying to create an ecosystem for more than the past fifteen years. His mission is a little done, with the arrival of some exotic birds.

Our house has always been serenaded with some enchanting cacophony, whether it is by the Jungle babblers who make quite a racket in their packs, the pleasant chirping of the red whiskered bulbuls or the sweet melody of the common koel. During monsoon, when the field down below would get wet, the local migrant — the Indian Openbill Stork, the Lesser Whistling Duck or the common White Breasted Water Hen — could be spotted loitering. Or if you are lucky, perched on the limp branches of the white-flowered milkweeds could be a couple of tiny heart-spotted woodpeckers or the Indian pitta precariously pecking at the ground or the orange-headed ground thrush crouching under the cool bowers. They probably flew in all the way from Central India or the Himalayas where they are typically found. The Asian paradise flycatchers, which have been declared regionally extinct in Singapore but can be found in the forests of Asia, are also regular visitors. 


Heart-spotted woodpecker

But what is it that attracts these rare and migratory birds to this place in Muvattupuzha, a small town in Kerala? It is arguably the two acres of haven immensely loved and cared for by a very particular John Mathew, my father, who considers it his mission to preserve and help every indigenous bit of nature that’s slowly disappearing. On a casual stroll through dad’s holding, one would come across the nalpamaram (the combined name for four Ayurvedic trees), nagamaram, also known as the cannonball tree, plashu or the flame of the forest and many more. 

My father has always collected seeds, stems or saplings from around the state, bringing them back to provide them with a loving home. There are also incessant trips to the nurseries of medicinal plants to come back with several dozen different types of now-uncommon plants. 

It was almost 15 years ago when my father bought a plot of land, all broken into small terraces, some of the parts swampy for six months of the year and scorching dry for the next six. At a loss about what to grow, he decided to get rid of the few rubber trees that were already growing for he believed that it was the mass cultivation of the tree — which was not only alien to Kerala but also purely commercial — that had led even Kerala to become scarce of water. 

“Everything I have learnt is from experience. You cannot compare notes on this thing. There are such vast differences in the situations,” he said. When neighbours, friends and sometimes even people from the Panchayat questioned him about allowing the land to go to “waste,” he learnt to remain undeterred. My father believed that what he was doing was way beyond cultivating for money or for a good yield. “It’s all part of some bigger scheme,” he often said. 

What bigger scheme? 

“Well, you know, nature, its ways - of creation, destruction and rejuvenation.” And he apparently had to take care of what he could.

In the beginning, he had been fascinated by the Indian idea of star trees and the belief that each person was connected to a tree by birth. “The belief is that you were that tree before you were born,” he said. His fascination soon led him to plant each of the star trees and get to know their medicinal properties in depth. But the more trees he planted and the more he found out, the more he wanted to plant. 

“A few years ago I planted the white milkweed [which is less seen than the lavender one] in our backyard and a few months later, I saw these tiny woodpeckers with perfect heart shapes on their backs, dawdling on the branches of the shrub. Heart-spotted woodpeckers they are called. They started coming regularly in the morning, only in pairs and would peck at the stems of the milkweed until the milk came out” he said. 

He became fascinated by how the birds found a tree useful in a way no other creature had. “When we take care of a tree, we are helping take care of all organisms associated with it,” he would often tell us.

Rather than as an expert in birds, plants or nature, he calls himself a caretaker. He believes that he, being a spectator, should do as little as possible — unless that branch there needed a little nudge or the sapling there a little more sunlight. He intends to build an ecosystem where birds, insects and animals can thrive by themselves; he is adamant about doing no harm to nature.

“Humans are such big takers. I have become skeptical of people who come and ask me why are you leaving the land ‘waste’ and not doing anything to get some ‘yield’. I don’t want to take anything anymore. I want to give, give the birds, the insects and the trees a home, some protection,” he said. 

He has documented about 96 varieties of butterflies, several varieties of chameleons and birds, including the black-hooded oriole, oriental dwarf kingfisher, jungle owls, shikras, red wattled lapwings that come for the swampy land, as well as several types of egrets. The Indian grey mongoose, Asian freshwater monitor lizards and various kinds of snakes are also among the commonly glimpsed.


Rustic butterfly 

“I once got these molluscs, which are highly threatened from here and there, and put them in the field so that they can multiply. They can rarely be found now, they used to be very common when I was young. The funny thing is, when the land dried in the summer and they were aestivating, these big storks came — Openbill Storks they are called — and they began eating all of them up. Feasting on them day in and day out. I was in such a big dilemma. I didn't know whether to shoo the storks away or to sacrifice the molluscs.”

If there is one thing my father doesn’t know, it is to classify the plants as rare or as common. “What do you mean ‘rare’?!” he would say. “God knows how many people have seen the jamun tree! And is that rare or common? You tell me!”

Over the years, though, he has had his own struggles. Just last year, the Panchayat channelled a ditch into the field deciding that it was a wasteland because of the lack of any apparent cultivation. Neighbours and passersby sometimes dump waste into the field, including a lot of plastic, all of which, he said, disturbs his mental peace. He ended up erecting walls around most of the area.

Just the other day, he was telling me about a new avatar - the red spurfowl which has nested in the field. Under the BirdLife International and Handbook of the Birds of the World (2016), the red spurfowl had been declared threatened. 

In his haven of “doing no harm”, it seems that there is just an absence of a Mockingbird - that sings its heart out and tries to only do good - as Harper Lee said in her famed novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. But then I figure, perhaps, there is one already.