Where birds of all feathers flock together

An article on a South-Indian bird sanctuary, published in The Sivakasi Times, a local Indian magazine, in August 2008.

At the Koonthakulam Bird Sanctuary, birds are part of the everyday life of the people in the village. The sanctuary attracts 232 varieties of migratory birds including the flamingo and bar-headed geese from Siberia and Germany. But despite the people’s passion for birds, is the sanctuary a safe haven for the winged visitors, wonders Chloé Benoist.

When I first heard about Koonthakulam bird sanctuary, I pictured rows on rows of caged birds. But when we reached the small village some 30 kilometres south of Tirunelveli, I realised I could not have been further from the truth. As we pulled off the road, we were greeted by a cacophony of bird cries, which sounded like a horde of cats meowing. Perched on acacia trees, dozens of painted storks were feeding their babies, apparently unfazed by our presence.

And for good reason: the villagers of Koonthakulam take great joy in the birds’ presence. They treat them like guests and pay careful attention not to disturb them. Paul Pandi, the watcher of the sanctuary, recounted an instance in 1981 when a hunter killed a fledgling bird. The villagers tied the hunter in the centre of the village and began to beat him, before Pandi arrived and stopped the violence. The hunter was still punished; however, his hair was shaved and black and white marks were put on his face to humiliate him.

For Paul Pandi, the birds are more than a job, they are his children. With his wife, Valli Thai, Pandi protects the birds from intruders; he also treats and feeds abandoned fledglings. The couple has also planted 1,000 trees in the village. In the past, Valli Thai even mortgaged her jewels to provide for the young birds.

Birds have taken refuge in Koonthakulam for more than 150 years, but the place gained significance when the construction of a national highway about 30 years ago forced other birds to leave their former refuge in Moontadaippu. In 1987, the Forest Department took over Koonthakulam, and in August 1994, the place was officially declared a bird sanctuary. Currently, birds have settled within a 30 km radius of Koonthakulam.

Some birds, like the painted stork, the grey pelican or the white ibis, are year-round residents of the bird sanctuary. But migratory birds, such as flamingos and bar headed geese, also visit the sanctuary, flying in from as far as Siberia and Germany. According to Pandi, 232 varieties of birds migrate to Koonthakulam. In July 2008, 4,223 nests were counted in the bird sanctuary, with each nest usually containing two adults and three fledglings.

Although the birds are free to go where they please, for ornithologist Professor Paramanandham, giving them a safe haven is absolutely necessary. According to him, birds, like most animals, suffer from human population pressure, pollution, and the abuse of chemicals that poison their food.

Another danger looms over the bird sanctuary. An atomic power station 25 km away from Koonthakulam has plans to erect 13 towers and cable lines through the bird sanctuary. Four electric power cables are already in place and birds have already died because of them. Pandi fears that the bird sanctuary could disappear, despite the many petitions the villagers have sent to officials.

As we climbed a two-storey watchtower overlooking a great lake and a mangrove forest, in which tall birds perched, an aura of serenity permeated the place. The silence was only broken by the fluttering of water hens dipping beneath the surface of the water. One can only hope that Koonthakulam remains a refuge for birds in the face of adversity.

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