Come October, traders across towns and cities in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in South India ready their goods for the festive season. Some of these peddlers can be found near temples and pandals or traversing the streets with a box or sack in hand. While they fiercely guard the bounty within, they entice the faithful with the promise of that elusive, ephemeral thing called luck. A quick peek inside the enclosed box or sack can cost few hundred rupees, or more. A brown bird with a smattering of blue cowers inside. Starving and thirsty, it lies there huddled in exhaustion, as people throng to get a glimpse of it in the belief that this bird, known as the Palapitta or Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis) is a harbinger of good luck.
Photo Credit: Shreya Paropkari
The same Indian Roller presents a different persona in the wild. Native to the subcontinent, it inhabits agricultural lands, scrub forests and riverine habitat. It can be found perched atop telegraph wires, bare trees and bushes ranging between heights of 3-10 metres. It seldom announces its presence with calls and appears to gaze fixedly into the distance, as if lost in pensive thought. But suddenly, the Indian Roller will sally forth in the manner of an aerial sortie and emerge triumphantly with its quarry. Having finished its meal, it will resume what seems like its previous countenance of indifference when in fact it is scouring the grounds below for its next meal from a carefully selected vantage point.
For a bird that spends most of its time seated, the Indian Roller is so named because of its aerial acrobatics. All notions of a frumpy brown bird are set to rest when the roller sets sail on wings of azure and turquoise. During the breeding season, the male of the species transforms into a trapeze artist on wings and indulges in various aerial histrionics that range from swooping down from great heights while twirling and rolling to rapidly beating its wings and tail to show off its brilliant blue feathers. Its manic flight is punctuated by a series of loud harsh shrieks. After the breeding season, it reverts to its state of reticence. Being insectivorous birds, Indian Rollers act as bio-control agents against various crop pests and hence are important from an ecological standpoint as well.
Photo Credit: Kavya Chimalgi
What accounts for the difference in the countenance of the pitiable Palapitta of Dussehra and the raucous acrobat of the skies? The answer lies in cruelty that is sanctioned and pardoned in the name of superstition. In earlier times, people considered it lucky to see the Indian roller on Dussehra and many went out into nearby lands to sight them in the wild. With a consequent decline in the number of Indian rollers in increasingly urbanized landscapes, bird traders and poachers hit upon the cruel idea of capturing them and bringing them to towns and cities to make a quick buck. Blinded by superstitious belief, the public abets acts of cruelty against these birds, unknowingly or otherwise. Ironically, the Indian Roller is the state bird of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Orissa and yet, suffers much abuse.
About a month before the festive season commences, poachers set up camp in agricultural fields and other habitats where Indian Rollers thrive. They catch the birds using trapping poles, and then clip and glue their wings to prevent them from flying. They are then stuffed into cages or boxes and their feet are bound with wire or thread to restrict their movement. They are denied food or water during most of their captivity. By the close of the festive season they either die of stress, exhaustion and starvation or may even be killed. Some devotees also purchase these birds from bird traders illegally and release them with the hope of being blessed. Unfortunately, despite being released, these birds tend to be so weak that they stand no chance of survival in the wild.Indian Rollers are territorial and therefore, even if they are nursed back to health and set free from captivity, they may be threatened by competition from other birds when released into territory apart from their own.
This tradition of capturing and displaying Indian Rollers is strictly illegal. They are protected by Schedule IV of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the penalty for violating this act is a fine of Rs. 25,000 or imprisonment of up to three years or both. Anyone witness to any instances of cruelty against the Indian Roller can report the incidences on Humane Society International/India's tip line: 7674922044.
Photo Credit: Rohan Chakravarty/HSI
In the run-up to the festive season, Humane Society International/India has been making tremendous efforts to prevent the brutal abuse of these birds in the state of Telangana. HSI/India reached out to the Endowment Department, State Forest Department, State Animal Welfare Board and State Biodiversity Board, all of whom have extended their support to the campaign to stop the capture and display of Indian Rollers during Dussehra. In addition, they also conducted awareness sessions in city schools that focused on educating children about the ecological significance of the Indian Roller as well as the cruel impact of superstition on these birds. Following these sessions, about 300 schoolchildren came out in support of the these birds by designing posters and sending postcards to Telangana Chief Minister, K. Chandrashekar Rao, imploring him to protect the state bird.
While festivals may be a time for fun, no celebration justifies the torture and abuse of animals. Indian Rollers are wild animals and hence belong in the wild. If you must spot this bird, go out birdwatching in its natural habitat and do so responsibly. You may just be lucky to get a glimpse of one careening and somersaulting in open skies. Don't be surprised to find your heart doing the same!