Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bird-life in rice farming

by Uditha Wijesena

Sri Lanka had been named the rice bowl of South Asia in the past. There is ample evidence to this from the landmarks of our ancient hydraulic civilization that exist even to this day.

At some point or other this agricultural society diminished. Many explanations given by historians and scholars to this regard are not very clear. However as tradition prevails and history repeats, the state gives prominence to rice farming within a hydraulic civilization, as in the past

Rice farming today has run into various problems, mainly in marketing and the cost of inputs especially fertilizer, pesticides and insecticides.

The scope of this article is to look into some aspects of the ancient rice farmers' pest control habits through nature, especially through birds.

It has to be conceded that rice varieties then were of the primitive parent species compared to the hybrids of today. The yields of the primitive varieties were low compared to the hybrids. This was not a problem as yields were sufficient to the then population. With the increase in population the International Rice Research Institution in Manila developed IR varieties.

One cannot compare the hybrid to the primitive as their resistance to disease and pests are low and a fair amount of insecticides are needed for pest control.

Rice farming then as now was confined two seasons Maha and Yala. Maha was dominant with the abundance of rain. In the past the Yala was not suitable for rice as the primitive varieties took over five months for ripening.

Thus only Maha season was considered for rice. Maha season starts with the NorthEast monsoon and the cropping is from October to March in the following year. This is also the bird migratory period in our country. (September to April in the following year.)

Pests that affected rice farming then and now seem to be the same excepting in the number of insects which might have increased. Pests could be classified as small and large.

Where small were the insects and the rodents, while large were elephant, deer, boar etc. Of the larger ones the elephant may not have been a threat then as now, for the forest cover was immense in the montane jungles with abundance of water and fodder and also their habitat was mainly the wet zone which they had to give away for tea plantation.

Deer and boar would have been taken care of by the controlled sport of hunting confined to seasons, (it was a Royal sport ref: Arahat Mahinda meeting King Devanampiyatissa at Ambastale) and the Veddah population that supplied the community with meat.

Bird life played a very major part in the small mammal and insect control further to many indigenous practices. The rodents were a menace during the ripening and the sowing periods.

The birds of pray took charge of them during the day while the nocturnal duties where entrusted to the owls and the jars. Large trees in the tank bunds served as excellent watch towers to them. These trees are ideal locations to watch raptors in the dry zone as they play this role even today though most modern day farmer are ignorant of this.
As mentioned before the bird migratory season coincides with the Maha season and a very large role was expected from the migrants in the control of the insect population. If one looks into the feeding habits of many of the smaller migrant birds, one will notice that most of them are insectivores.

From the early arriving Blue tailed Bee-Eater and the Barn Swallow with the migrant flycatchers and the resident Drongos, Kingfishers, the Coucal, Bitterns and Herons played a very prominent role in the control of insects for the ancient farmer.

This is an annual exercise for the migrant birds, providing them with the most vital source of energy needed for their long homeward journey that started with the harvesting in the months of March - April.

The farmer in return helped birds with perching facilities in these vast open paddy tracts. These were either a dead branch of a tree planted in the levees or a coconut husk spiked to a pole that was planted in the field.

During the night these perching facilities held a naked flame which attracted the insects to an inferno. This is practiced even now in very remote villages where tradition prevails.

Of all these pests that the farmer then and now face there was but one group of pest that he found impossible to cope with.

They were the feathered type birds.

Even though the birds helped him with insect control there were the other birds that fed on the ripening paddy. The ripening paddy attracted the parakeets in their hundreds and the many species of munias and also the numerous pigeons.

The ancient farmer was very fair in dealing with this problem in contrast to the present day farmer who seems to be very hostile.

The ancient farmer came about with a very generous solution to this problem. He gave away the best part of his crop to these birds to feast upon.

A portion of land depending on the total extent was selected very close to the tank that had the better share of water resulting in a better yield, and this section was left for the rampaging birds that were driven from the other areas. In time the birds would settle only in that area where they were tolerated, thus the crop in the rest of the tract was saved.

This portion was named the "kurulu paaluwa" (a set off for the birds) and all the farmers in the tract had to contribute in labour and inputs in this portion.

Unlike then, today's farmer is confronted with an ever increasing list of problems. It is very unlikely that he can leave a section for the birds.

The increase in population is demanding more land and the ever increasing cost of production. And to these parasitic birds; mythical practices of the society has made life difficult. The present day farmer is more hostile and is into the habit of trapping these parakeets and munias for sale.

If one walks to the Jathika Pola at Narahenpita one could see the numbers of munias for sale. They are sold at prices ranging from Rs. 80.00 to Rs. 200 a pair, only to be released at places of worship in Colombo and the suburbs to fulfill vows.

Of course one could argue that these birds do not die as a result. But the fact is, they are released to a totally new habitat and are vulnerable to a host of predators. It is high time the relevant authorities took action to stop this cruel trade. But then what would be the alternate vow? 

Published in the Sunday Observer  2007 - 10 - 28

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