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Jan 2002

The Vedantangal bird sanctuary

- by Kireet (Gerard Jak)


Ninety kilometres northwest of Auroville one finds an international community of a different type: The Vedantangal bird sanctuary, a swampy area where over 40,000 birds of different feathers have literally flocked together. But this is not a stable community. The main breeding season is from November till March, the high season is in December and January. After March most birds will have migrated to cooler wetlands in Northern India, though some of them will fly as far as Turkey, Iran or Russia.

The best time to see the birds is shortly after sunrise. So off we set for an early motorbike ride, bravely defying the cold. The sun had just risen, casting a soft orange glow on the still misty landscape. Half an hour later the mist had gone and we enjoyed the fresh green of the paddy fields. Another hour later we stretched our backs and warmed our hands holding cups of sweet hot tea from the local tea stall. Then it was bird watching time.

I had visited Vedantangal before, during a seed-collecting trip outside the season. That was a silent time and I saw only a few birds. Now an almost deafening noise produced by thousands of birds greeted us when we mounted the banks that surround the swamp. There was so much activity going on that it was hard to decide where to look first. We saw cormorants, egrets, storks, ibises, herons, spoonbills, pelicans, grebes and many other birds taking off and landing, nesting in the water-rooted trees, diving for fish or having a brawl with their neighbour. My expectations were far surpassed.

The cormorants are the busiest birds, flying non-stop and making spectacular dives to catch fish. As they are good underwater swimmers, it is difficult to predict where they will pop up next. Once feeding time is over, they perch upright on a stake near the water, drying their outstretched wings. In the past people used to tame them for commercial fishing. Happily, this practice has stopped.

There are also many varieties of herons around. I see the grey heron, the cattle egret, the large and the little egret. The cattle egret, as its name suggest, is a welcome visitor for cows and water buffalos. You see them sitting on their backs, eating their ticks and the insects that fly up from the grass when they move around. The little egret is also found in Auroville, fishing in the ponds and ant-channels around the houses. The white feathers of this bird, in particular the ornamental dorsal plumes called 'aigrettes,' were highly fashionable at one time, which nearly caused the bird's extinction. But the fashion changed, the trade has become illegal and the bird is no longer endangered.

High above we see storks drifting easily on thermals. They have not come to breed, but are here on winter holidays and will eventually return to northern Europe. They give me the impression of being proud birds, looking down condescendingly on the swarms below. A pelican swims by, sifting fish from the water with its large beak, collecting it for the little nestlings in its expandable pouch. Most interesting are the spoonbills, truly the punks of the area with their strangely formed beaks and spiky head feathers. They wade through the swamp continuously, moving their beaks non-stop in the muddy waters, raking up the bottom mud with the tip of the lower mandible, catching small tadpoles, frogs, molluscs, insects and vegetable matter.

That this bird sanctuary still exists has a lot to do with the beneficial effect it has on the surrounding farmlands. Thousands of birds produce a lot of guano, and the water from the swamp is channeled to the paddy fields. This water not only contains a natural fertilizer, but it also dispends with the need to use chemical pesticides. The farmers, who enjoy a rich paddy yield at comparatively low costs, convinced the authorities to declare Vedantangal the protected nature reserve area it is today. Bird lovers cannot thank Mother Nature enough for having created this eco-system where man and bird can live together in harmony.

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