THE PELICAN BRIEF
Words: ANITA RAO-KASHI
Photographs: VINOBHA NATHAN
The narrow road after turning off the Bangalore-Mysore Highway might be bumpy sometimes, but when you see the sights on either side – lush green ragi (millet), paddy, maize and sugarcane fields interspersed with the occasional avare (hyacinth beans), tomatoes and mulberry bushes – all that is forgotten. A few turns later, Kokkrebellur comes into view, bringing with it an element of surrealism.
Large birds, predominantly white and speckled with black and pink, call Kokkrebellur home, swooping down on the tops of ficus and tamarind trees. Both birds and villagers go about their work nonchalantly while visitors are left staring open-mouthed. There are two main varieties: spot-billed pelicans and painted storks, clustered in groups of 10 to 15. When a pelican takes flight, the low-flying bird’s sheer wingspan is over seven feet, giving the entire place a Jurassic Park-esque feel. While it can initially be startling, the sheer grace with which it flies, contrasted starkly against clear blue skies, leaves you speechless.
To cater to the large number of visitors who come to gaze at the winged creatures, the village has earmarked a parking area at which you can leave your vehicle and wander around on foot. Nondescript at best, the village takes its identity wholly from the birds. While it’s believed that Bellur might have been the actual name of the village, the prefix kokkre, meaning stork in Kannada, was added thanks to its popularity with birders. Local villagers say the birds have been coming here for nearly five centuries, usually towards the end of the year, though there are hiccups in this schedule sometimes. There’s no consensus about where they come from – it ranges from peninsular India to South Asia. But arrive they do – to mate, build nests, lay eggs, hatch and take care of the hatchlings for three months, before heading out. Over the years, a unique relationship has developed between the villagers and the birds. The urea-rich droppings are used as fertilizer by the villagers who treat the birds like their own children, protecting them, taking care of orphaned chicks or those that inadvertently fall out of nests.
Walking around the village, you realise that the birds dominate the landscape even though they are perched high up on almost every tree in the village as well as on the rooftops on the outskirts of the village. Look closer and you’ll also spot cormorants, egrets, herons and ibis. When the commotion created by the birds, accompanied by the frequent flapping and swooping of the pelicans, fills the air, it’s quite clear who rules the roost here.