- Telukunchi village’s community in Andhra Pradesh welcomes Asian openbill storks every monsoon in the hope of good rains and prosperity. The community has framed rules to punish those who harm the birds.
- The birds, considered local migrants that move within India, are lured by the vast wetlands in the Srikakulam district of the state along the Bay of Bengal.
- India’s National Action Plan (NAP) for Conservation of Migratory Birds and their Habitats along Central Asian Flyway (2018-2023) lists the Asian openbill stork as one of the known 171 waterbird species that use the Flyway region in India. Wetlands act as ecological connections in the flyway.
- Several wetlands in India that are outside the protected area networks are of ornithological importance.
With the onset of monsoons, excitement sets in, in a community along India’s southeast coast. The Telukunchi village community in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, with vast swathes of wetlands, prepares to welcome their winged guests, the migratory Asian openbill storks (Anastomus oscitans), in the hope of prosperity and good rains.
Conspicuous by their peculiar long, dull grayish-yellow bill with a gap, the large pale grey wading birds have been visiting the village for several decades, recall village elders. The distinctive-looking stork species occur in the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia. Along the Bay of Bengal, coastal areas of Srikakulam, such as Telineelapuram and Telukunchi wetlands, are Important Bird Areas (IBA) receiving good numbers of spot-billed pelicans, painted storks (Telineelapuram), and openbills (Telukunchi).
The Asian openbills prefer the Srikakulam district because of the wetlands habitats that aid in their feeding. And at Telukunchi, the community has forged friendly relations with the birds and is familiar with their routine-the storks arrive every year during monsoons and leave the region around January; after enjoying six months of stay with their hospitable human inhabitants.
They use the Central Asian Flyway (CAF) in India, one of the nine flyways (or migration flightpath) in the world. India lies at the heart of CAF, which spans 30 countries. Ornithologists said the Telukunchi openbills are local migrants that move within India. The Telukunchi wetlands, economically important to the community, act as ecological connections in the Flyway.
Tradition seems to have added to the comfort of the avian species prompting them to spend half of a year in this village whose wetlands form key bird habitats outside protected areas. Bhagirathi Reddy, a middle-aged construction worker from Telukunchi, told Mongabay India that he is familiar with the storks since childhood.
“We take care of them as our children. With our century-old tradition, the village residents and birds have forged a strong cordial relation. Not a single person from the village threatens or harms them.”
The storks forage on snails and fish in the surrounding wetlands and paddy fields. Reddy also said that the birds are a bit shy as they do not come in direct physical contact with the people but hover over the village, roost on trees near the village, and even on a single tree whose canopy touches multiple households. They are present in large numbers in trees that line the periphery of the village.
The residents have also framed rules to punish anyone who tries to harm them.“But we hardly have seen any such incident. Nobody taught us this conservation. Our children picked it up by seeing the tradition. Even the stray dogs in the village will never harm them if they fall from the trees or are injured,” said 59-year-old Mangaragaj, a village elder.
Beliefs underpin stork conservation
The community at Telukunchi is mainly reliant on agriculture for a living and practices pisciculture in the wetlands. They perceive the birds as harbingers of prosperity, wealth, and rain. P Ammanaidu, the Forest Range Officer (FRO) of Kasibugga in Srikakuma district, said that around 8,000 to 10,000 Asian openbills visit Telukunchi for breeding and laying eggs each season.
“The arrival of the birds often brings happiness and prosperity to the community. Soon after their arrival, rains come to our village. When they stay in the village, hardly any villager falls sick. In the past, we have seen people with vested interests coming to our village to kill them. The alert community thwarted such attempts,” said M Narayan Reddy, another Telukunchi resident showing the series of trees behind him hosting thousands of storks.
They are versed in the activities of the birds and try to compliment them. For instance, the storks make snoring sounds in chorus during the daytime and nights, but Telukunchi’s residents have accepted it and learned to live with it without any complaints.
“These areas offer them a good number of water bodies and paddy fields. Food is available in these areas in plenty, and disturbance in areas like Telukunchi is the least. They have developed a faith in the villagers who keep them safe,” said V Vasudev Rao, Principal Scientist at All India Network Project on Vertebrate Pest Management (AINP), Hyderabad.
“Their arrival also seems to be an indication of rains. Their delayed arrival often indicates a delay in the arrival of the monsoon. But for the last many years, they have not deviated. When they do not get the adequate nesting space, they may go up to more distance and increase their range to arrange it,” said Rao.
“They could be considered as local migratory birds which move inside the country only. As they feed on fish, they are in search of water bodies nearby. They do not go very long distances though and confine their movement up to 100 km,” said Rajah Jayapal, Senior Principal Scientist, Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore.
The storks have two breeding peaks in undivided Andhra Pradesh. It starts from July in parts of Telangana while in Andhra, they breed around November/December. “So there is a local migration of the birds in the area itself. There are around 20 breeding sites of the birds, including Telukunchi and others in Andhra and Telangana combined,” added Rao.
Rao and Jayapal both agreed that the storks most likely move towards Godavari basin in the south or towards Chilika lake in Ganjam district of Odisha post-nesting at Telukunchi but more studies are needed to confirm their movements.
“The birds will not even venture 200 metres away from the village. In this area, this is their favourite nesting site. Moreover, we have observed that they stay and make their nests only on four tree species that are in abundance in the periphery of the village,” observed P. Ammanaidu.
The trees are: tamarind (Tamarindus indica), Manila tamarind (Pithecellobium dulce), sacred fig (Ficus religiosa), and rain tree (Samanea saman). The department also claimed to have made two ponds beside the trees and deploys two forest guards to protect the migratory birds. The forest department counts the nests, the number of eggs they lay during their stay to conclude the total number of birds before they leave the village.
Government statistics show that there has not been a significant change in the numbers of birds counted in the village in the last decade. The government records accessed by Mongabay-India showed that in 2007 around 3000 nests were spotted, and in 2017 it was 3370. Similarly, in 2007, the total birds spotted were 7400, while in 2017, it was 6100.
The birds are, however, impacted by cyclones that ravage the Bay of Bengal. During cyclone Titli in 2018, many of their favourite trees were uprooted and damaged, injuring them. The forest department also made trenches for feeding them. But they preferred the snails near ponds that were out in good numbers post-cyclone.
Despite the birds flocking to the area, the forest department has failed to develop it into an eco-tourism site due to a lack of government land around the village. Many of the trees where the birds roost are on private land. The community has refrained from cutting down the trees on these areas to ensure their timely arrival and stay.
Wetlands conservation for protecting migratory birds
Ecologically dependent on wetlands, migratory waterbirds connect continents, hemispheres, cultures, and societies through their seasonal movements. The flyway concept is used to link sites and ecosystems into a single functional unit in order to enable waterbirds to complete their migration cycle, explained Ritesh Kumar, Director, Wetlands International South Asia.
“Migratory waterbirds play an essential role in wetlands they inhabit at different stages in their life cycle, by contributing to resource fluxes, biomass transfer, nutrient export, food-web structure, and even shaping cultural relationships, and thereby population dynamics of waterbirds is often used as an indicator of wetlands ecosystem health. Conserving species movement as a process is an equally important goal as conserving migratory species,” said Kumar.
Of the 1,317 species recorded in India, about 30 percent are migratory. Nearly 370 species of migratory birds (or 80 percent of migratory birds) visit India through three flyways – Central Asian Flyway (CAF), East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), and Asian-East African Flyway.
India’s National Action Plan (NAP) for Conservation of Migratory Birds and their Habitats along Central Asian Flyway (2018-2023) lists the Asian openbill stork as one of the known 171 waterbird species that use the CAF region in India.
The CAF comprises migratory routes from the northernmost breeding grounds in Siberia to southernmost non-breeding grounds in the West and South Asia, the Maldives, and British Indian Ocean Territory. In its current delimitation, there is considerable overlap between the migratory populations of CAF with East Asian- Australasian Flyway and West Asian-East African Flyway.
Wetlands habitats are among the most used habitats with waterbirds and human interface in the country — the second most populous nation in the world with an agricultural economy–said the country report for Convention on Migratory Species.
“Nearly 71 percent of the migratory waterbirds of the CAF use India as a stopover site. Sustaining the health of Indian wetlands is thus crucial for maintaining the waterbird populations within the Flyway. While protected areas have been cornerstones of securing wetland habitats of high ornithological value in several parts of the world including India, several such wetlands are located outside protected area network, and within a high development setting,” said Kumar.
“Governance solutions for conserving such wetlands need to have people as part of the solutions and put in place governance mechanisms that enable collaboration between a range of conservation and development sector actors. Equally pertinent is to nest conservation actions across several wetlands used as habitats by migratory birds.”
Banner image: Asian openbill storks drape trees around Telekunchi village. Photo by special arrangement.