A sacred trust

It was the hour before sunset. Above and sweeping low over our heads were thousands of egrets, ibises, cormorants and herons, all returning to their nests in the trees standing in the middle of the half-dried water tank. A breeze flooded the area with its soft presence, the day's heat now tamed by the setting sun.

This is Vedanthangal -- a bird sanctuary in India that has existed for centuries, not because of official conservation methods but because the villagers themselves are pledged to protect the water birds that come here each year in large numbers, to nest and breed, raising two and sometimes three broods , in their short stay. Water birds grow visibly each day.

Vedanthangal is down south, fifty miles from the coastal city of Madras. After the heavy monsoon rains, the birds arrive in their thousands, settling on the same trees each year, the boles of which are submerged and insulated by water. They breed and nest in a congested, mixed heronry and are extremely vulnerable to all sorts of dangers -- the worst, as always, being predatory man.

To the villagers, the birds are a sacred trust, a heritage left to them by their forefathers, to guard and protect, as they have done for hundreds of years. There are no small boys here with catapults -- no hungry householder looking for food. From their earliest years the children learn to play and work around the tank, side by side with the birds.

Vedanthangal has an interesting history. In the last year of the 18th century, an Englishman named Lionel Place was appointed in charge of the district by the East India Company. He was one of those dedicated young men who loved the country and its people, and who identified with their interests in many ways. To him came a delegation of villagers one day, complaining that a party of Englishmen had arrived with guns and were shooting the birds as they came in to nest and feed. Since the birds had been protected for centuries, they made easy targets for the guns.

Place immediately investigated the complaint and stopped the shooting. He then wrote out "a document of authority" which legally banned all shooting in this area. This worked so well that it was not until 1925 that the Government of Madras thought of making Vedanthangal a sanctuary for water birds, with official protection.

The birds arrive in their thousands in September and October, making straight for the trees in the middle of the water. Gradually, as the season progresses, the water begins to dry up, providing a very rich feeding ground for the parent birds and their young.

The water is surrounded by a high, shady embankment and it is here that visitors may stand and watch the birds, crossing and recrossing over their heads , flying so low sometimes that the swish and flutter of wings seems barely a handspan away.

Although there are thousands of migratory waterbirds and waterside birds here , all do not breed during their stay at Vedanthangal. The nesting and breeding birds are all indigenous -- migratory birds arrive only for shelter and food from far northern climes.

Three different types of cormorants breed here, as well as Darters or snake- birds, Large and Little Egrets, Spoonbills, white Ibises and Openbill Storks -- the smallest of Indian Storks.

Each has its own separate and distinctive method of flying, nesting and feeding. Cormorants fly together in solid wedge-like formations. Spoonbills and Ibises in loose congregations, while storks soar up to great heights and then descend to their nests in a series of acrobatic loops and whirls that are quite spectacular. Darters look just like snakes as they swim with only the sinuous neck and head above water, the rapier-like beak held in readiness for any prey. Grey Herons attract knowledgeable birdwatchers for two reasons. More of them can be seen here than anywhere else in India and during their stay, a peculiar oddity is that the skin of their legs turns a bright salmon pink -- something that happens nowhere else and is perhaps due to some small fish or acquatic insect that is found only in this stretch of water.

The ground vegetation all around the water is a rich storehouse of food for the birds -- snails, fish, insects, frogs, crabs and other small creatures abound in and around the swampy areas. The trees, (Barringtonia Acutangula)m are often as much as 400 years old. As they die out, new ones of the same species are planted to replace them. They have housed at least a hundred generations of birds.

Binoculars are an added advantage here, though not strictly necessary. Flights of birds, flying low and other birds around the embankment such as bulbuls, hoopoes, cuckoos and mynahs flash and call through the trees all day. Cormorants come out of the water to dry themselves, looking for all the world like flowers in the sun, spread-out wings collecting luminous granules of sunlight so that they are surrounded with a shimmering haze of light.

There are other, larger water bird sanctuaries in India, but none with the special charm of Vedanthangal.

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