Friday, May 1, 2009

Vanishing Species - The Painted Stork

An article by Mohan Pai

The Painted Storks of Veerapuram & Kaggaladu

Pic by Geeta Shankar

These migratory birds are endangered species who find a haven in the understanding and caring villagers.

Last week April 22-23), we made a trip to two heronries of painted stork near Tumkur. The first site we visited was Kaggaladu village near Sira and the second nesting site, a village called Veerapuram, just across the border in Andhra Pradesh. Karnataka (Kokrebellur, Rangantitthu, Kaggaladu etc.) and Andhra Pradesh ( Kolleru Lake, Pulicat, Neelapatu, Veerapuram, etc.} have sizeable colonies of these migratory birds.

These birds are thought to have migrated originally from the Great Russian ice desert in Siberia. They went south towards Asia, seeking warmer and more comfortable places of the world like India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia. However, they seemed especially drawn to the Indian Peninsula. They come to breed in and around large bodies of water and coastal areas.

Standing from a distance, heronries of painted storks look like cluttered dirty blobs of white on the tree tops. One really has to strain his eyes to make out what exactly the entire scene represents. A closer look brings in view spectacular ‘hunched up’ colony of large birds. Built on tree one might find as many as 10-20 nests on a single tree, almost touching each other.
Painted Stork is a massive bird with a yellow, long and heavy bill, slightly curved near the tip. The plumage is white and closely barred, marked with glistening black above and with a black band across the breast.

Statue of two painted storks adorn the entrance to Veerapuram Village - Pic by Geeta Shankar
It’s wonderful but difficult to understand the bond between the painted storks from Siberia and Veerapuram, a tiny remote village in Anantapura district, about 140 km from Bangalore. The Painted Storks have settled down in Veeepuram for more than a century now. The chemistry of love between the storks and Veerapuram is unfathomable as the birds are found nestled only on the trees within the village and not even on the outskirts.
Idyllic scene - Veerapuram Village - pic by Geeta Shankar
The villagers claim it is their "love for the guest birds'' which keeps them in the village. Though the village has a small water body (a tank) it dries up by the time the guests arrive in the village or it doesn't get the water at all due to the poor rainfall in the area. Nestled in the village the male birds fly even up to a couple of hundred km every night to fetch food from the water bodies. However, they return to the nests by dawn. The painted storks from Siberia and Algeria fly across the seas and mainland for about 6,000 km to reach Veerapuram. The migration starts from December and ends in May-June when the birds return to their homelands along with their new borns.
They start hatching immediately after reaching the tropical areas. After a gap of four years, an estimated 2,500 birds have migrated to the village last year. The villagers see the war in Afghanistan and severe drought conditions in the district for the last four years as the reason for the absence of the guests in the recent years.
The young chicks often fall down to the ground from their nests and are injured. The caring villagers have set aside a nursing hut for these injured birds. A vet is called in to treat the sick.
Chicks fallen to the ground are being nursed by the villagers - pic by Mohan Pai
It is amazing to see and know that these birds have chosen this village as their breeding centre. It is presumed that because these villagers take care of the birds by not harming them, they repeatedly come every year. The Care and concern shown to these birds by very enthusiastic children and the old of the village was very evident. We saw a big net which was tied under the trees to safeguard the eggs from falling onto the road.

Enthusiastic youngsters of Veerapuram There are some 20 tamarind trees full of painted storks. But we also found a nest (above) in a gulmohar tree! - pic by Geeta Shankar

Feeding ground - A lake near Veerapuram Pic: Mohan Pai


Kaggaladu village near Sira, about 128 km from Bangalore, has become a potential bird sanctuary. The birds first started nesting here about 12 years ago. Around 10-12 tamarind trees turn into home for the painted storks from November to May every year. The painted storks come here in November from far away Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Kaggaladu Village - pic by Geeta Shankar
The villagers treat the birds as family members and never pluck the tamarind as it would disturb the nest. Every villager has turned into an ornithologist and they have a good account of the life-style of the birds. Adding to the presence of the painted storks there is a sizeable population of grey herons. There are also some Spot billed pelicans around.
However, Kaggaladu is in need of serious sustainable conservation effort to maintain itself as one of the most important breeding sites for Painted Stork.These large beautiful birds prefer Tamarind trees for nesting, completely avoiding all other trees. Probably the strong stunted branches of Tamarind provide an easy landing for these heavy birds. More over, having no dense foliage, tamarind trees offer relatively lower resistance against stiff wind, which is prevalent in this part of Karnataka. This makes the nesting places safe from dangerous sway. Even though we could see many tamarind trees in the village, the storks choose only 10 of them for reasons completely unknown. Apart from the fact that the villagers take care of the trees, there is no coordinated effort to protect them. Four of the five nesting trees are on government land, by the road and the other one is on private land. We have seen private buses irresponsibly honk their horn loudly and race through the village road directly below the nests.

Painted stork colony in tamarind tree - pic by Geeta Shankar

The tank and its vicinity however, had gone dry in the last four years due to incessant drought in the area. It was yet another reason why nesting activity had come to halt. Birds used to come and leave soon after noticing the dry tank. The tank received some water during the rainfall in September-October year before.

The Painted Stork, Mycteria leucocephala, is a large wading bird in the stork family Ciconiidae.It is a tropical species which breeds in Asia from India and Sri Lanka to southeast Asia. It is a resident breeder in lowland wetlands with trees. The large stick nest is built in a forest tree, and 2-5 eggs is a typical clutch.The Painted Stork is a broad winged soaring bird. Like all storks, it flies with its neck outstretched.The adult is a large bird, mainly white with black flight feathers. The head is red, and the long down-curved bill is yellow. A medium-sized stork, it is 93-102 cm (37-40 in) tall, 150-160 cm (59-63 in) in wingspan and weighs 2-3.5 kg (4.4-7.7 lbs). The tail and legs are pink, and there is dark barring on the breast. Juvenile birds are a duller version of the adult, generally browner and lacking the bright colours of the adult. The Painted Stork walks slowly and steadily in shallow waters or adjacent wet and grassland seeking its prey, which, like that of most of its relatives, includes fish, frogs and large insects. It sweeps its head from side to side with its bill half open in water as it hunts for fish.

The birds are classified as threatened by Birdlife International which means their total population is between 10,000 to 30,000 in India,

Physical Traits

The Painted stork of India is a tall and slim bird, which grows to a height of 95 to 100 cm. The bird is mostly white in color, with the exception of its wings and chest feathers that have black and white markings. The color of the lower back, along with the legs, is light pink. The head of the Painted storks is only partly covered with feathers and is orange in color.
The bill is long, yellow in color and curves towards the end. The female Painted stork is a little smaller than the male. The young ones are brownish in color when they hatch. Only after they become three years old, do they get adult feathers or plumage. Full maturity comes around the age of four years.
Painted storks of India prefer to eat fish, which also forms a major portion of their diet. However, at times, they consume frogs and snails also. When hunting, the stork puts its head inside the water, with its bill being partly open. The bird keeps swinging its head back and forth in the water, till it catches a prey.
Natural Habitat
Painted storks are seen occupying Indian freshwater marshes, ponds and flooded fields. Apart from India, the bird is found in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, eastern China, Kampuchea and Vietnam. A small population of the Painted stork lives in Thailand also.
Painted stork bird of India has a place in the list of protected species, at the moment.
The predators of Painted stork of India include tigers, leopards, jungle cats, hyenas and crocodiles. Some villagers also kill them for their meet.
Painted Storks are found mostly in large colonies and stay near water. The nests, made up of sticks and leaves, are built close to the edge of the water. One can see other stork species, like herons, ibises, cormorants and spoonbills, sharing the habitat with Painted storks. Till 18 months of age, the young ones can make loud calls to attract their parents. However, after this, they lose their speech and use other signals to convey something to their fellow birds.
Mating Behavior
The breeding season of the Painted stork starts towards the end of the rainy season. The mating period is the time for the male storks to perform ritualistic displays and attract females. After mating, the nest is built and the female lays around 3 to 5 eggs. The incubation period is between 27 and 32 days and the responsibility is shared by the both the parents. The young ones become fully matured when they attain four years of age.
The most important as well as the most developed senses of the Painted stork comprise of its eyesight and hearing. The young ones communicate through loud hoarse call. However, after attaining 18 moths of age, the style of communication changes to clattering of large bills or hissing or bowing to each other or spreading the wings, etc.

References: Wikipedia, Deccan Herald, Hindu, Indian Express.
Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks to Mrs. Geeta Shankar, Mr.Chandrappa, RFO, Sira Division, and Mr. Gurumurthy of Karnataka Forest Dept.


K.M.Venugopalan said...

Particularly attractive when featured side by side with the preserving mentality of the poor village people!

thammayya Anisetti said...

Very illuminating and interesting article by Mohan Pai giving many secrets of painted storks specially villages bordering many states specially Veerapuram and the love and care of the villagers for the birds. Very facinating story. For the first time in my life I saw 6 painted storks in Godavari river sediments near Mukteswaram, East Godavari, Andhra Prades on 21 August 2015.