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In among the trees dozens and dozens of spotted deer munched on their breakfast of leaves and grass.


This August morning, Ravi Shankar, the CPREEC field officer for Karnataka, in south India, was taking a group of college students into Devarayanadurga Forest, where they soon encountered the herd of deer.


The students were from the nearby Sri Siddaganga College of Arts, Science, and Commerce.


Their task for the day however, wasn’t just to stand there in awe of the deer, it was to clean up a section of the forest.


The younger sister of one of the college students had tagged along. No one could discourage her because she had been quite determined to join the outing.


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When they set to work to gather up some of the trash to make the area clean as part of their service project, she picked up more litter than anyone else. Late that afternoon, not tired at all from a hard day’s work, she was all smiles.


Villagers and water birds


Throughout the school year, Ravi Shankar leads groups of students on outings away from city centers, crammed with shops and motorcycles, and out into the green, beautiful world of nature.




In Kokkrebelur, a village near Mandia, in the state of Karnataka, the people have an extraordinary bond with water birds. In fact, “Kokkare”, the name of the village, means painted stork. Ravi Shankar took a group of students there to learn about the way that the villagers and the birds interact with each other. The whole village is a sanctuary for the birds. Instead of relating to the birds as a nuisance, they have long welcomed them and, over the centuries, have built up a close bond with them, viewing them as harbingers of good luck and prosperity. The villagers watch over and care for the painted storks, pelicans, and the other migrating species — little cormorants, black ibises, and herons.


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On this occasion, one of the baby storks had fallen out of his nest. When this happens, parent birds, unlike mammals, aren’t able to pick up and move the baby, much as they would like to. So, the villagers had picked him up and stepped in to become foster parents, feeding and caring for the youngster. Since he was still surrounded by his flock, he would have no trouble rejoining them later as soon as he was old enough to fly and could feed on his own.


Watching how much the villagers loved the birds was an amazing experience for the students. The village women even sang songs to the birds to welcome their return; they viewed them as friends and companions, as blessings sent from heaven.


The situation of wild birds is rather different in India compared to that in the U.S.


In the U.S. people are rightfully encouraged to leave wild birds alone, not to interfere with them, and especially not ever to try to tame them, so that the birds will always be well adjusted to their lives in the wild.


But India is a country of over one billion people. There are villages everywhere, and many villages are located right near or even inside forests, so the people and the wild birds are already living together in the forest. The ideal situation in India is just what is happening in this village – to have a very close bond between the people and the birds. The birds fly free, and yet they live close to humans and are comfortable around them. This is in keeping with the age-old reverence that has always existed in the culture of India for nature and wild creatures.


The Indian Forest Service encourages the villagers to live in harmony with the birds. In this area there are crops of sugar cane and also many large artificial lakes, called “tanks.” During the nesting season, nearby trees are overflowing with water birds. Because they can’t grow crops directly underneath trees filled with nests, the villagers are compensated with a fixed sum for each tree in which there are nesting birds, which provides a much-needed supplement to their income.


This is a wonderful example of co-existence. The trees too, which are the homes of the birds, are nurtured and cared for. The population of spot-billed pelicans is thriving and has doubled in recent years.


Forming a deep appreciation of nature




Spending a day keeping the forest clean and picking up litter formed a tie between the forest and the students. Now they will truly care about the well-being of the trees and the wildlife there.


Meeting the young pelican being raised by the villagers and watching people happy to be surrounded by thousands of migratory birds made a lasting impression on the students – a vivid memory of harmony with birds in the forest that will shape their future views of the natural world.