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Nesting vultures

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A white-backed vulture perched on a coconut tree at Anjarla village. Vivek Bendre
A white-backed vulture perched on a coconut tree at Anjarla village. Vivek Bendre

P. Devarajan

Anjarla (Ratnagiri), Jan. 28

NATURALISTS believe the white-backed or Bengal vulture (Gyps bengalensis) is nearing extinction. That does not seem to be the case in Anjarla village where we sighted on an afternoon, between 12.30 p.m. and 3 p.m., 11 nesting sites of the white-backed vulture with the male and female perched over their nests atop mango, coconut and Casuarina trees situated in a few Konkan wadis.

From Velas village, we took a three-wheeler to a creek and crossed over in a hodi (country boat) to Kelsi village and walked on to Anjarla. Even as we placed our bags in the home of a friend of Bhau Katdare, Varad Giri saw a white-backed vulture just below the crown of an old, tall mango tree. As it turned its neck with its curved beak one saw its thick collar and couldn't take one's eyes off for a few minutes. Its strength was evident.

We walked the wadis (orchards having supari, banana, mango and a few other varieties) and could see with bare eyes males and females. In one nest we did spot a baby vulture with our binoculars and for the villagers of the area it is a usual sight.

Dr Salim Ali describes them as "a heavy, dirty blackish brown vulture with scrawny, naked head and neck." While resting the bird sometimes flaps its wings open for one to note a white mark on its back. They were flying in and out of their nests and in one instance a vulture was shielding its chick with its wings.

Bhau Katdare has started on a novel way of monitoring the events in the nest by placing a camera close to the nest on the mango tree (without in anyway disturbing bird activity) and linking it to a TV placed at the friend of his home. Switching on the TV anyone can watch nest activity. A few villagers are helping him to keep a daily record of the lives of the raptors and one old woman, as we were passing by, told us of an adult bird recently falling dead inside a well in the wadi. They know Bhau and allow him to do what he wants. "Pakshi bagaiche (Seeing birds)," he tells them to earn the nod for an entry.

Bhau has been regularly monitoring the vultures and passing them on to the Vulture Captive Breeding Centre at Pinjore in Haryana. Last year in Anjarla, Bhau counted 28 nests in the area with 15 chicks. Experts have blamed the pesticide Diclofenac for vultures dropping their heads before falling dead in many parts of the country. In recent times, wadi owners have been a bit upset over vulture droppings on the tops of coconut trees stunting the growth of coconuts. Then there is the problem of food. Dr Salim Ali writes of the bird: "A carrion feeder and useful scavenger on the countryside and in the environs of towns and villages. Large gatherings collect at animal carcasses with astounding promptness and demolish them with incredible speed. The obsequies are attended by a great deal of harsh screeching and hissing as the birds strive to elbow themselves into advantageous positions or prance around with open wings, two birds tugging at a morsel from opposite ends. Though a repulsive creature at close quarters, a vulture gliding effortlessly in the sky is the very embodiment of graceful motion."

Twice Paul and myself have watched them from near in Rajasthan though on this trip one saw them through binoculars. Bhau admits that in Konkan the villagers generally bury their cattle on emotional grounds. "These animals have worked with us for long and we do not want to throw them away or sell them to an abattoir," they remark depriving the vultures of a major source of food though they still manage with stray pickings.

Bhau would like to build a canteen for the vultures by setting up a walled in space away from the villages where carcasses could be dumped. "That's a touchy subject. First one needs the permission of the villagers to build such a facility. Second, one has to persuade villagers to hand over dead animals. It takes time to convince the villagers and I do not want to do anything without their co-operation as they have helped me all along," says Bhau. His passion for conserving vultures and white-bellied sea eagles is a spin-off from tracking Olive Ridley turtles. While walking the Velas beach, one spotted a white-bellied sea eagle in flight a dash of brown and white. For Dr Salim Ali, it is "a large handsome eagle, ashy brown above with pure white head, neck and under parts."

While having lunch at a village home in Kelsi village, Bhau and Varad saw a pair nesting just below the crown of a mango tree. The birds can be seen sallying over the sea in search of food.

At Anjarla village one saw a big nest (some 3x3 ft) placed across the forked branches of a mango tree. If left undisturbed, they come back to the same nests (a platform of sticks lined with fresh green leaves) every breeding season and in the process the nests take on girth.

Bhau reminded one of a nest which an old woman had particularly noted from the time she was a girl in her village used by a pair of white-bellied sea eagles. In a way Dr Salim Ali confirms the observation when he writes: "Usually the traditional nest is renovated from year to year."

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 29, 2005)
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