The Painted Storks of Veerapura

Journeying through the village of Veerapura, Rohan Menzies discovers a mysterious connection between the people of the village and the birds that visit once a year. Is it myth, superstition, or something much deeper?

Leaving behind a noisy, polluted and crowded city, traveling about 95 km down the Bangalore-Bellary highway, towards the border between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, you find a dreamlike village called Veerapura. The rather unremarkable approach road belies its secret. Loose gravel shoots out from under the tyres as you traverse these muddy roads. With fields on both sides and shepherds guiding their flock towards grazing land, it appears to be just another village in South India. But as you get closer, the more unique this apparently normal road becomes. You begin to notice that the towering trees lining the roads are mottled with pink, you see flashes of black and white in the skies, and hear the call of hungry fledglings. The cows stand unfazed while young Painted Storks (Mycteria leucocephala) perch on their backs. A most unusual sight for city slickers, more familiar with the likes of crows and pigeons around our houses, these Storks are a far more familiar sight to the people of Veerapura.

On the road to Veerapura. Photo by Saleem Hameed.Painted Storks are a locally migrating species that follow the rains. They require water bodies filled with fish to feed themselves and their young. According to the IUCN Red List they are a Near Threatened Species whose populations are steadily declining due to habitat loss, hunting of adults and loss of eggs due to predation. In 2002, Veerapura has had a record 5000 birds nesting in its trees, making it perhaps the largest heronry of Painted Storks in Asia. Each nesting site is vital to a struggling species. The Storks have been using this location as a breeding ground for decades now and as a result have become a huge part of the very identity of this village

Veerapura is home to about four hundred people, many of whom have started moving out to larger towns and cities like Bagepalli and Bangalore. This has seen a shift in occupation as well, since a farmer’s son may no longer be a farmer, preferring instead to start his own shop or small business in a nearby town.

The visible reverence that the people of Veerapura have towards the Storks was very intriguing. Most people in cities have begun to lose that kind of connect with nature. Curious, we decided to speak with the people in the village about the deep connection they have with the birds, to understand if it was symbolic of something more significant.

Mr. Venugopal prepares feed for the storks. Photo by Saleem Hameed.The one man army
As we moved through the village, one story kept resurfacing, recounted every time with enthusiasm; the story of one man who cared about the birds a fraction more than the rest, Mr. Venugopal. A 30 year old farmer, he has been rehabilitating injured birds in the village for over 10 years. He would pick up fledglings that had fallen from their nests, most often due to stormy weather, and bring them back to his house to give them the food and medication they needed until they were well enough to return to the trees. Over time he learnt more about rehabilitation from a wildlife expert from Bangalore, Mr. Saleem Hameed, and he was then able to dress wounds, check for fractures and administer injections, all of which improved the birds’ chances of survival. What started off as a one man army began to spark interest in his neighbours and led to other villagers joining his effort, bringing fallen birds to him for care. Even the children get involved, alerting him whenever they find a bird in distress.

The harbingers of good fortune
When we asked the villagers about the significance of the Storks, every answer we received was interesting. The farmers attributed their good crops to the presence of the Storks in the village. The home-makers said that it beautifies the village. Many said that the birds bring goodwill to the village. And only one young boy said it was a sign of rain.  The prevailing idea was that the presence of the Storks ensures smooth functioning of everything within the village, from good crops to good health, beautification to goodwill, protection and good business.

In truth, the Painted Storks are as significant to the village as the people are to it. It would seem like a large number of factors play a role in the appearance of the Storks and this in turn plays a pivotal part in the happenings of the village. It is easy for us to deconstruct the situation and analyze it logically until it is reduced to nothing, but to the people of Veerapura, they know that when the trees are filled with these colourful birds, it bodes well for the village.

A way of life worth protecting
Two old men who seemed to have lived lives filled with experiences told us a couple of stories that summarize the way of life of the people in the village of Veerapura. On one side of the village, a frail old man sitting under an empty Peepal tree slowly lifted his head and began speaking with a prominent vibrato in his voice. He told us that a few years ago, a firecracker manufacturing company tried to convince the villagers to give up their jobs and start manufacturing firecrackers for them, or they could move and allow them to setup the factory with other employees. The entire community of Veerapura came together, refusing to do either, because it would be bad for the Storks. They knew that the noise and activity would scare the Storks away, perhaps forever. The elders of the village are sentimental about the fact that the Storks have been breeding there for about a century. Mr. Narsamappa who is over 80 years old still recollects how the birds nested there when he was young. And as he told us the story I could see how meaningful the Storks were to him and to others around him.

On the other side of the hamlet, under a low shed, sat another old man, Mr. Narsappa, who looked much younger, with a steady voice, good hearing and definitely more adamant about telling us his story. He told us that quite recently, an industrialist approached the villagers and asked them to give up their land to setup an industry. They firmly said no, and to guarantee their own protection, told the government about the Storks. The authorities helped make sure the project didn’t take off and helped protect the Storks.

Symbolic science
The people of Veerapura are observant and truly appreciate the wonders of nature. As they see the Painted Storks descend from the skies as a colourful cloud, bearing rain, we see the logic behind it all.

The birds follow the rains, and their appearance is therefore synchronous with the arrival of the rain clouds. If the rains fail, the birds arrive late or leave the village immediately in search of water. In this way, the birds have become a sign to the village; their arrival means the rains are not far and the crops will prosper. If they are late, it is surely a sign of trouble.

The people have recently begun to notice a troubling trend of delay in arrival of the birds. They know that the reason for this is because there isn’t sufficient water for the birds. The farmers feel it too. The lakes dry up, the bore wells don’t have water and there are no other means by which they can irrigate the fields. The lack of rain also leads to harmful fluctuations in the birds' migratory cycle because the nests are built late, the hatchlings fledge later and the birds that are meant to retreat in April sometimes stay on till August. This significantly alters the dynamics of reproduction of the Painted Storks and has a subsequently detrimental effect on their populations.

The people of Veerapura consider the birds an auspicious sign that the village will prosper that year, but we could so easily say that’s just how nature works. The Storks are important indicators of the rain and the good produce that follows. Interestingly, the birds are not worshipped in any way, purely respected as an important part of the ecosystem they share.

The results of a simple survey can sometimes lead to something so complex, it is unfathomable to most. Although not based on scientific research or understanding, the people of the village have come to realize, through a cultural inheritance that values the Painted Storks, that the birds are an essential cog in the circle of their lives. That in order to maintain the balance, the Storks and their place in the village, must be protected.

Veerapura offers lessons that other towns and cities would be wise to learn from. The people could choose to sell their property and move to another location with far more money than they have right now, but they do not. They choose to stay and protect the habitat of this magnificent species. They choose conservation over self-preservation.

Storks on a treetop on the road to Veerapura.
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Yahoo Lifestyle | Photo by Mary Ann George
Thu 18 Apr, 2013 7:30 AM IST

The Painted Storks now face another threat, one that has already started to take a toll on them and the villagers. Climate change is slowly toppling all the norms and forcing everything to create new systems. The storks must fight this ever-increasing danger in order to survive. But in Veerapura, the people will fight the storks’ battles for them as long as they value the annual return of the migrating painted wonders.

Rohan Menzies is a 21-year-old classical guitarist and avid birder in the process of becoming a full-fledged ornithologist.

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