Manja and his pelicans

Three-year-old Manja yelled out to the pelicans in the heat of early summer. “Shshsh… you’ll disturb them,” admonished his mother Gouramma. “They are resting, sitting on their eggs. If you make a lot of noise, the eggs won’t hatch!” Little Manja soon quieted down.

That exchange between Manja and his mother exemplifies the fondness the villagers of Kokkrebellur feel for their annual winged visitors. Kokkarebellur, usually shortened by the colloquial usage to Kokrebellur, is a village in Maddur taluk of Mandya district  of Karnataka, India. The village is named after the Spot Billed Pelican (Pelecanus phillipensis) called “Kokkare” in Kannada language.

During October-November every year this village teems with feathered activity, as it turns home to migratory birds. Flocks of Pelecanus philippenis descend on this village to build their nests and rear their young.

And they come in droves, especially during February when the population peaks. February witnesses an egg-laying frenzy. Then there is a lull as they settle down to roost.”That lull is broken in late March when the eggs hatch. Each tree is home to about 15 to 20 pairs, in large nests wedged between branches and lined with hay from the surrounding fields.

The Spot-billed Pelican is chiefly grey and greyish white, with short stout legs and large webbed feet. The bill is flat and enormous, with an elastic bag of purple skin hanging below it.

To the villagers, these winged visitors are welcome guests. If they fail to turn up in a year, they believe it bodes ill for the village. The droppings of these fish-eating birds are valuable manure for the paddy fields. According to the villagers, these birds have been coming here since ancient times.

From behind the counter of his teashop under a Peepul tree, Rudrappa says, “No one from this village will ever hurt a bird, so they feel safe here. Sometimes when a fledgling falls off a nest, or a weak and injured bird finds itself grounded and flightless, we care for them in the nursery.”

By May, as the summer heat begins to peak, the birds finally bid adieu and take to the skies to return yet again next year. That prospect, however, is becoming grim with each passing year, as the pelican is now on the endangered list and Kokkrebellur is only one of the 10 known breeding sites left in India.

As the flocks finally depart soaring into the lightening sky, an old woman says, “For us, these birds are like a daughter coming home for delivery….” To the villagers, it is not just a matter of co-existence with the birds, but something more — an affection that borders on reverence.

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