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Birds of Vedantaangal
 The Madras Christian College Magazine, Vol. 36, No.1, November 1966
E. O. Shaw and Gift Siromoney

Vedantaangal is a name that needs little or no introduction to any one in Madras or Chingleput district. It is the most famous bird sanctuary in Tamilnad, literally meaning ' the hunter's tank '  which may point to its being even in very ancient days a place much frequented by birds. But for the last 200 years or so the name has not been very appropriate as the hunting and shooting or snaring of birds in this tank has been prohibited both by local ban and for at least the past 100 years by law. The result has been to produce a sanctuary both for the water-birds and waders which are natives to South India and also to provide a safe centre visited regularly by large flocks of migratory birds, particularly ducks which come in the cool weather to India from beyond the Himalayas.

Within the lake, which when full, covers some 70 acres, are to be found some hundreds of Barringtonia (kadappai maram) trees, a tree which stands the yearly water-logging very well. This grove is some distance from the bund of the tank and so the trees provide well-protected nesting sites for breeding birds and roosts for the young and for non-breeding birds. Protected in this way both by nature and by man, thousands of birds adopt the trees as their seasonal homes. The droppings enrich the water and so make it not only able to support a large supply fish, frogs and all sorts of water-insects but also a very rich irrigating fluid for the fields that lie beyond the bund. The villagers' care for the birds saves them from buying artificial fertilizers. Within easy distance of Vedantaangal there are many other tanks and stretches of irrigated land to which the birds fly daily or nightly to feed. Some others such as the Cormorants or Storks using this tank as their centre regularly fly out 15 or more kilometers to feed and return.

The tank normally dries up completely for a short time in the hottest weather, and during this brief period very few birds will continue to stay there but as soon as the water begins to return, the birds begin to gather and usually by the end of August, nesting and breeding of certain species have commenced. As the sheet of water spreads outward, more and more birds, and birds of different varieties begin to gather until by October tens of thousands of birds have assembled and settled down to make Vedantaangal their home for the next 6 months or more. In recent years the careful protection which has been given seems to be leading to new species coming into breed here. The Painted Stork has been observed during the past two or three years; and the SpotbilIed Pelican, once only an occasional visitor, is now breeding in Vedantaangal in large numbers.

Among the big birds to be seen on the trees the commonest is likely to be the Openbill Stork (Sengaal naarai). The adult makes a distinctive sight as with its white wings tipped with black it circles round with red legs dangling, aiming to land on the tree where it is nesting. It is easily recognizable by its unusual bill which meets only at the tip and leaves an open space above the tip. The young of this bird are grey in colour and they are often very numerous on the trees near the bund. Lower down on the same trees are likely to be seen some Grey Heron (Saambal Naarai) standing tall and erect, handsome birds with distinctive drooping black crests. Unlike the Stork these fly not with outstretched neck but with the head tucked into the shoulders. This posture in flight is also that of the several species of Egrets (Kokku) which are almost entirely white and fly in large flocks. The Cattle Egret often goes to drier ground where it can pick ticks off cattle while the Little Egret and its larger relatives, the Median and Large Egrets, head for the flooded fields of young paddy where they can feed on frogs and other water creatures. In breeding plumage, the Egrets develop delicate plumes on the breast and at the back of the head, formerly much desired for decorating ladies' hats. Another large white bird but this time with a broad and flattened bill is the Spoonbill which flies with neck outstretched and makes a beautiful sight when a squadron of them comes sweeping into the breeding ground. Also white and flying with outstretched neck is the White Ibis but it is easily recognizable by its black neck and curved black bill which gives it its Tamil name of Aruvaal Mookkan. Common on the lower branches of the trees are also the Paddy Bird or Pond Heron (Madayaan) looking brown as it stands hunched up, but bursting into white when it springs into flight, and also the Night Heron (Vakkaa) with its glossy black back and black-capped head. It is mainly nocturnal and is well-known from its familiar croak in flight.

Probably the most numerous of all the birds are the Cormorants and Shags. In size they form a series. First the Large Cormorant which may be distinguished by the white patches on its flanks and throat. Rather smaller is the Shag, a sleek black bird in its adult plumage with a little white tuft of feathers on its cheeks--the young are brownish with a good deal of white on chest and belly. Smallest of the three is the Little Cormorant called Neerkkakkai or water crow. All these birds swim well diving frequently below to catch fish. Chinese fishermen make use of this bird by attaching a string to its leg to secure it and putting a ring round its neck so that it cannot swallow the fish it has caught. These can then be collected by the fishermen. Larger than any of these three is the Snakebird or Darter (Oosi Kaakkai) easily distinguished by its long thin pale-coloured neck, which is often the only part showing when it swims. It is a clever fisher and can be seen tossing its catch into the air to get the fish into the right position for swallowing.

All the birds described above may be seen flying singly or in squadrons to alight on the trees where they make their nests and rear their young. Later in the year mainly about December the main group of migrating birds come in. Apart from the Spotbill with its spots of red at the base of the bill, otherwise rather a drab coloured duck which is resident in India, the other groups of ducks are all migrants coming from as far away as Siberia. (A ring found on a Pintail Duck at Vedantaangal showed that the duck had come from the Volga delta, 2500 miles away). The most common duck is the Garganey Teal (Ciravi) a smart little bird with a distinctive curved white stripe above the eye. Larger than this is the handsome Shoveller which has the habit of swimming forward with its large beak ploughing through the water to catch surface insects. Occasionally the Pintail or one of the Pochards may also be seen. Other swimming birds are local migrants and include the Little Grebe or Dabchick (Mukkulippaan) with its habit of vanishing, for long periods under the water, the Moorhen, with its red forehead and beak, swimming jerkily and showing its white tail coverts, and the Coot of which the black one with the broad white shield on its forehead is commoner. The Purple Coot or Moorhen with its bright colours and red beak is occasionally seen. Around the edges of the tank from December onwards are likely to be seen flocks of waders, the Blackwinged Stilt ( Kaal Ullaan) with its long (18-inch) pink legs which trail behind it when it flies, and probably several kinds of smaller waders such as Sandpipers, Stints (very small) and Godwits with their large heads and beaks. 

Around the sanctuary may also be seen birds more well-known to us at Tambaram. The commonest probably is the Brahminy Kite easily distinguishable in its mature plumage by its white head and chestnut body, sometimes rather hard to make out in the juvenile stages when there are only various shades of brown. This bird unlike the fish-tailed Common Kite has a rounded fan-shaped tail. At Vedantaangal the commonest kingfisher is the large Pied Kingfisher, a handsome bird which hovers beautifully before it dives and is seldom seen singly. Mynahs, occasionally also roost on the crowded trees. Along the bund, loras, Babblers and Bulbuls are common. Altogether there is a rich variety of bird-life for any one willing to notice it in this wonderful sanctuary.

Not so well-known as a sanctuary are our own college grounds. Here too there is a rich variety of both resident and visiting birds seldom to be found in other places as readily, and well-repaying the study of anyone interested.

Barringtonia in "the hunters' tank" - Michael Lockwood

  1. Grey Heron
  2. Ibis
  3. Spoonbill
  4. Openbill
  5. Pelican
  1. Little Egret
  2. Cattle Egret
  3. Night Heron
  4. Pond Heron
  5. Darter
  1. Cormorant
  2. Stilt
  3. Pintail
  4. Dabchick
  5. Teal

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