I have a little pond in my house. The mango ,putranjeev and the champa trees that surround it have become so big that it gets very little sun in winter and the waterlilies have died back and are waiting for summer. The crows and the Seven Sisters jabber away on the branches and sometimes the strange, ungainly Grey Hornbill who looks like a leftover of the parts of different birds comes by. But my heart leaps when I see the Neelkanth, the beautiful bluethroated Indian Roller stop for a drink and then sit on the wires above.
This stocky bird with a large head and short neck is a palette of colours.. The crown, the lower wings and the tail range from turquoise to blue-green in colour. The throat and upper breast are purple streaked with turquoise. The back is a warm gray brown and the eyes are black. The bill is black, slender and curved. While the 13-inch Indian Roller is inconspicuous when resting, the sudden flash of its brilliant blue wings when it flies can be startling
When the world was being formed by the churning of the ocean, the poison that came out first was swallowed by Shiva and he was known as Neelkanth , or blue throated as the poison turned his throat blue. The Neelkanth is regarded as the bird of Shiva and hence its name. But it is held in equal reverence by farmers for its ability as a pest controller, specially in low rainfall areas. It eats insects such as grasshoppers and crickets , catching butterflies and moths in midair, lizards and frogs . It is found in the subcontinent from the foothills of the Himalayas down to the south in Sri Lanka and from Pakistan to Myanmar in the open country and light deciduous forest patches.
The Neelkantha usually perches on electricity wires and trees in the fields from where it can watch the ground in every direction. It prefers open country with scattered trees and avoids the jungles. It nests in a lined hole in a tree or building, and lays about 3-5 eggs. In February, the males perform spectacular courtship displays which involve acrobatic stunts such as nose diving and somersaulting in the air as they fly upward, then roll and fall through the air while wildly flapping their wings and screaming harshly. This is how they earned the name roller. Between March and May, four or five white eggs are laid in a hole in a tree, and the same nest cavity is used year after year. Both parents help care for the young. Young birds just out of the nest call incessantly, and swallow food brought to them with a loud, screaming gobble.
While they will not make friends with humans as readily as crows, they will follow tractors( as the egrets do) loking for insects that have been brought to the surface or dash into the smoke of a forest fire on a similar mission. They are fearless and will dive and roll at humans and other intruders if they get near their eggs.
For hundreds of years the bird has been regarded as sacred. In Bidar , farmers pray to it with joined palms. It is believed that sighting a Neelakanta is a good omen, specially during Dasahra. In fact a number of farmer communities go looking for the bird during these ten days .
If it was just a sighting that people wanted , the bird would live its full 17 years as it has adjusted to the constant felling of trees and the disruption of its habitat. But unfortunately it is this sacred nature of the bird that is making it lose its life. While it is the state bird of Karnataka the Latin name is Coracias benghalensis : originally from Bengal and it is in Bengal that the least number of Neelkanth remain.
This is what Thomas Claverhill Jerdon ( after whom the Jerdon’s Courser is named) writes “Before the Durga Puja,the Hindoos of Calcutta purchase one of these birds and at the time they throw the image of Durga into the river, set the Nilkant at liberty. It is considered propitious to see it on this date and those who cannot afford to buy one discharge their matchlocks to put it on the wing. “
Unfortunately the Neelkant is one more victim of Durga Puja amd Dashera in Bengal. It is trapped by poachers for weeks before the festival and sold in the local bazaars. It will be released at the end of Durga Puja to take the message of the devotee to the Goddess. The trapping is done by professional criminals who know that the rNeelkanth returns to the same nest again and again. They take out the small babies and trap the parents. 50% of these beautiful birds are killed during the trapping. 20% die in transport and the rest die after they are “ released” as they are all wounded , disoriented and starved . Thousands of Shiva’s birds lose their lives in this meaningless and vicious activity. The wildlife department of West Bengal turns a blind eye to Hathibagan where the birds are sold openly. Some communities do it in Gujarat as well for Navratri but that is now becoming less and less. In Bengal it is on the increase.
For the rest of rural India, this is how it is treated during the Dasahra “In the month of October falls the great festival of Dasahra, which is doubtless the autumn Saturnalia and celebrates the return of fertility. It is also called by Hindus Vijaya Dashmi, the day of the victory gained by Rama over his enemy. Every one looks out eagerly for the blue jay, nilkanth, or blue-necked, an epithet of Siva, whom the jay is supposed to represent. If the bird is seen a salutation is made to it and a pradakshina (circumambulation) is performed round the tree in which it is, as if it were a temple in which some god is enshrined. “
I wish we could treat all birds as good omens. It would bring us so much happiness and strength to face each day knowing they were protecting us – as indeed they do.
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