Pal Pandi: A Bird’s Best Friend

Christine Grandy-Dick profiles Pal pandi, the well-known bird watcher of Koonthankulam, whose life is all about the countless acts of love and compassion that have enriched the lives of his winged friends. For this grassroots avian activist, birds are not just another life-form, but imbued with the Sacred Spirit that permeates the Universe.

Koonthangulam is a tiny sparsely populated village in south Tamil Nadu, 38 km away from Tirunelveli, on the banks of Tamiraparani River. The area comprises Koonthankulam and Kadankulam irrigation tanks which are part of a network of 132 freshwater and rain-fed irrigation tanks in the district. Thanks to the ancient tradition of harvesting rainfall and water from mountains and rivers, Koonthangulam attracts thousands of migratory birds every year from the northwestern hemisphere. It is the largest sanctuary for migratory breeding birds in south India.

A Heritage of Conservation

The village is unique in several aspects. It enjoys a 200-year-old unbroken tradition of community participation and involvement in the conservation of the thousands of migratory birds that flock here annually from as far away as Siberia and Mongolia, as well as other parts of India. Around 232 different species of migratory birds visit Koonthangulam every year, including the rare bar-headed goose from Siberia and the flamingos from the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat (the only other breeding and nesting place in India for the flamingo ). Some of the other migratory birds which regularly visit Koonthangulam are the Pintail Duck, Spotted Sand Piper, Green Sand Piper, Green Shank, Coot, and Common Teal from Siberia; the White Stork from Germany; and the Common Sand Piper from the Lower part of Ladakh. Migratory birds start coming by the end of December and fly away to their northern homes by June or July.

Koonthankulam sanctuary is actively protected and managed by the village community. The local people take a keen interest in protecting this sanctuary and they live together in total symbiotic harmony. Birds coming to the backyards of the people in the village are protected enthusiastically and regarded as harbingers of luck. The excreta of birds and silt from the tanks is collected by villagers in the summer and applied as fertiliser (guano) to their fields. All villagers protect the birds, their nests and fledglings. Fallen chicks are taken care of in the rescue centre until they are able to fly on their own. Anyone disturbing the nests is punished by having their head shaved or being paraded in public on a donkey. People do not even burst firecrackers during the Hindu festival of Diwali because the sound of crackers would drive away the winged visitors.

In recent years, however, Koonthangulam has also become synonymous with Pal pandi, a resident of the village who has dedicated his life to the cause of the winged visitors. As soon as I catch a glimpse of Pal pandi’s eyes, I am attracted by their mysterious power. His rugged face reminds me of a weather beaten rock. I anxiously try to scan his face for the interplay of shadow and light in the life of this passionate bird watcher. My search was easy because once Pal pandi began to talk about his lifelong fascination with birds his story just flowed like a river in spate…

The Call of the Wild

Pal pandi is the youngest of 14 siblings in a rather poor family. Even as a young child, birds fascinated him. For instance, he often rescued injured birds on his way to school. None of his other siblings shared his natural interest in birds and they often chided him for “wasting time”! His family instead advised him to concentrate on his studies, as he was a good student!

Pal pandi’s inspiration for his lifelong interest in Nature was his teacher in Class 8 who told the students that the reduced rainfall in the village was because trees were being felled indiscriminately. Pal pandi immediately swung into action and planted trees. In addition he became aware of the fact that birds were drawn to Koonthangulam because the availability of water and the green canopy of the trees that made ideal nesting grounds.

As a youngster, Pandi caught fish in the freshwater streams to feed the birds. He also unfailingly rescued fledgling birds which had fallen from the trees, nursed them back to health and set them free. Of course his father disliked his son’s interest in birds as the family found it difficult to make ends meet. On the other hand, because there was no money to buy a bicycle, Pandi had the opportunity to watch the wonders of nature as he walked to school and back. One day he observed the food gathering habits of ants. He was fascinated by their teamwork. “Why can’t people plan like ants”? he wondered.

Pal pandi finished Class 10 and unfortunately he could not pursue his dreams of further education because of the family’s financial situation. Saddened that his father turned down his request for a notebook, Pal pandi ran away from home to Bombay, in search of work. After a series of misadventures, he returned home. A few months later, his father himself sent him to Bombay with a friend to enable his son find suitable employment there.

A Different Life

Pal pandi spent six years in Bombay working as a newspaper boy, and later at a well-known detergent company in Gujarat. By then he was married to 19-year-old Vallithai and had two children. Interestingly, Vallithai shared his passion for birds. Although they had a comfortable life in Gujarat, Vallithai insisted that they must go back to their village where they could revive their passion for birds. She suggested that with his knowledge of birds and nature he could be a Nature guide. The suggestion was irresistible. In 1984, Pal pandi and his family retuned to Koonthangulam.

Life in Koonthankulam was a contrast to their comfortable life in Gujarat. But what they lost in monetary terms was made up by the company of birds that gave them an opportunity to show their love, and to have it reciprocated in turn. It was around this time that Pal pandi met the famous ornithologist Salim Ali in Koonthangulam. Initially Pandi had no idea of the legendary reputation of the ornithologist.

“I remember him as short bearded man with glasses,” recalls Pandi. Impressed by Pandi’s knowledge on the nesting behaviour of migratory birds, Dr Ali told his students that “He (Pandi) is another Salim Ali in the making.”

Another unforgettable event in Pandi’s life was his chance encounter with US-based wildlife photographer Murray. Murray visited Koonthangulam on a wildlife photography trip and employed Pal pandi as his guide on a daily wage of Rs. 5. One day while watching flamingos from a slight elevation, Murray lost his balance. He fell down and was seriously injured. Pandi and Vallithai nursed him back to health in their home. Vallithai even mortgaged her jewellery to buy the kind of food their guest liked—bread, jam and honey.

Surrogate Parents

Vallithai and Pal pandi shared a relationship with the birds that resembled the bonding between parents and their children. Despite their precarious financial situation, they always had money to feed their birds. Their focus was on rescuing and rehabilitating wounded fledglings that had fallen off the trees due to strong winds or heavy rain. Often these birds had their trachea or windpipe injured and would be bleeding profusely. Vallithai and Pal pandi employed a resuscitation technique in which they filled their mouths with water and transferred it into the beaks of the fledgling birds. In another instance, Vallithai even pledged her jewellery to pay off the debts incurred in buying huge quantities of fish to feed the voracious and ever-hungry pelican chicks!

Over the years, as a result of close contact with birds, Vallithai was infected with bird flu which aggravated her existing cardiac disorder for which she underwent surgery. Her doctor advised her to stay away from the birds. Vallithai was resolute.

“We all will die of something. I can’t resist caring for our birds,” said the stoic Vallithai.

Before she died in 2008, she made her husband promise that he would continue his work with the birds. In order to make it possible for him to devote his undivided attention to birds, she insisted that he marry one of her friends who had been widowed early in life.

Pandi’s lyrical song, sung in his inimitable rustic tone, about the trees the couple planted together, and the poem “you can buy a lot with money but not a mother,” that figures poignantly in a documentary on Vallithai’s life, are heart rending.

In 2009 Pal pandi co-authored a book Diary on the Nesting Behaviour of Indian Birds with naturalist Chinna Sathan. The colourful book contains 300 beautiful photographs along with 50 sketches and is a valuable resource about Koonthankulam. Pal pandi is much sought after for his avian expertise by researchers, ornithologists and bird watchers. During our visit, a zoology professor from Sivakasi accompanied by his students was engaged in an animated discussion with the bird watcher about the unique features of the sanctuary.

A Walking Avian

Pal pandi is a walking encyclopaedia on birds. He takes us on a short walk to a watery expanse which is a breeding site for flamingos. Even from a distance it is easy to spot these distinctive birds. The slender pinkish-white birds with stiletto-like legs look transfixed in yogic postures. We peer through the binoculars and the beauty of these avian species fills us with a wordless wonder. Simultaneously he points to several ground nesting species of birds and rattles off their names effortlessly!

Pal pandi is as methodical and organised in his work as any qualified ornithologist. Every day before sun rise he prepares a daily check list of birds and notes down in meticulous detail the various species of birds he spots, along with details of their nests, eggs (if any), and the colour and shape of the males and females.

“A good bird watcher must be sensitive to all details about birds: their pattern of building nests, nest building sites, colour and shape of eggs, feeding habits, and differences between male and female,” says Pal pandi. He also regrets the fact that many self-styled bird watchers lack the field experience of spotting birds in their natural habitat. “Can you call yourself a bird watcher by just looking at pictures of birds?” he asks in a disappointed tone.

A Fellowship of Souls

If love is extending yourself and expanding your boundaries for another person, Pal pandi’s life vindicates this sublime truth. For instance, Pal pandi learnt first aid from a veterinarian to take care of wounded birds, Today he splints the bones of wounded birds with banana bark and applies a mixture of limestone and chalk to the injured part.

When a pelican is hurt by falling from a tree, these massive birds often rupture their stomach. With the dexterity of a skilled surgeon, Pal pandi reinstates the ruptured intestines back into the abdominal cavity and sutures it. For a few weeks thereafter, he places the wounded pelican on a sack and takes maximum care to ward off bacterial and other sources of infection. The sutures are gradually absorbed into the bird’s body. In a few days, the bird is ready to fly away to freedom! Yet what astonishes Pal pandi is that the birds which he has treated, unfailingly return the following summer, knock at Pal pandi’s door and express their gratitude with cawing, shrieking, and other displays of affection! Currently Pandi has rescued 2632 injured birds, nursed them back to health and set them free… to soar into the blue expanse…

Yet despite Pal pandi’s legendary bonding with birds, he is still poorly paid. In 1989, when he joined the Forest Department, he was paid Rs. 8 on a daily basis! In 1997 when Koonthakulam was declared a sanctuary, his pay was hiked to Rs. 17 per day and since 2010 he is on a permanent monthly salary of Rs. 5000. In fact Pal pandi himself regrets that his lack of higher education has often been a disadvantage. He cites several instances of scientists and researchers exploiting his immense wealth of knowledge about birds often in return for a paltry payment, and worse, as is most common, without even acknowledging his contributions!

Pal pandi is the recipient of numerous awards that recognise his contribution to the conservation of birds. These include accolades from the Institute for Restoration of Natural Environment (2005), Green Honour (2006) from the World Wildlife Fund, a listing in the Directory of Environmental Resource Persons in Tamil Nadu (2008), recognition from the Rotary Club (2009) and a special mention in a brochure released by the brochure Ministry of Environment and Forests. Sometimes he attends schools on the occasion of a world environmental day to practise feeding storks with the kids and singing his poems, or introduces an exhibition in nature photography. In March 2011, he will receive an award for the best documentary (about his wife, titled Vallithai) at the South African Film Festival.

Pal pandi, the avian activist, is forever exploring new avenues to keep the sacred flame of his passion for birds alive. He often interacts with school students to spread awareness about an ecologically centred way of living. As we leave the sanctuary we notice 15-year-old Pasupathi lingering near us. Like most children in Koonthangulam, Pasupathi too bonds naturally with the birds. Yet one hopes that Pasupathi would have the undeniable advantage of education to further his zeal and commitment towards avian conservation. When that happens, Pal pandi would be as happy as the millions of winged visitors of Koonthangulam!