Along with English, teacher K. Selvaganesh has instilled a love for birds and trees in his students at the Cinchona Government High School in Valparai
Harikrishnan, a student of Cinchona Government High School in Valparai, can identify over 50 species of birds just by their calls. Another student has hands-on data on the nesting behaviour of Malabar barbet, an endemic bird of the Western Ghats. Their other schoolmates can talk at length about the feeding habits of Malabar whistling thrush that nests in one of the trees on the school campus. “We have over 80 birders in our school. We have recorded over 130 species of birds at our campus,” beams K.Selvaganesh, their teacher. Selvaganesh, who teaches English, along with his students, won ebird’s Great Backyard Bird Count challenge, 2017. They contributed 360 checklists of birds, the highest number in the bird count challenge, and recorded 111 species . They could do this because their school is located at an altitude of 1100 mts in the south of the Western Ghats, Anamalai Hills, and is a hotspot of birds, both endemic and migratory.
Selvaganesh got interested in bird watching during a trek in his college days. “ It was to Mulli Hills near Athikadavu. For the first time, I saw the Green bee-eater with borrowed binoculars. I can never forget the sight. The bird sat on a a dried tree branch, it flew off to catch an insect and came back promptly to the same place. In the same trip we were suddenly distracted by a sound, something like a helicopter, circling around our head, and that’s when I saw a Great hornbill landing on a tall tree.” He learnt a lot about birds on that trip, like how the great hornbills are are hunted for their beaks to make ornamental gifts. “Another threat is deforestation. It builds nests on semi-enclosed tree cavities in tall trees. They have nowhere to go when the trees are cut,” he says.
After the trek, Selvaganesh bought himself a pair of binoculars, a copy of Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds, and started bird watching at Ukkadam Lake and in areas near Saravanampatti where he lives. “ My first job was at the Government School in Muthugoundanur near Kinathukadavu, surrounded by agricultural lands. I spent time after school hours watching birds there.”
Later, when he started working at Cinchona School, he says the students got curious when they saw him with his binoculars. “I showed them the birds around our campus. And, we started birding together. It became an everyday ritual where we would go as a group in the mornings and evenings observing birds.”
Selvaganesh pored over books on Nature written by Theodore Bhaskaran, S. Kandasamy’s Saayavanam, Richard Grimmet’s Birds of the Indian Sub Continent, Cho. Dharman’s Koogai and P. Jeganathan’s blog uyiri.wordpress.com “The Tamil blog is a must read. It is P. Jeganathan, a scientist at Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in Valparai who introduced me to ebird. I went on bird watching trips with him to learn more.”
To encourage his students further, he created a group account for his school on ebird which is buzzing with entries of new birds sighted by them. “The Chief Educational Officer was impressed with our work. Now, nearly seven government schools in places like Arasur and Marapaalam are into active bird watching.”
He says being part of ebird, a forum where the public can contribute to science, has been rewarding. “We rely on it for any data on birds, especially the distribution map and seasonality map. We keep reading that house sparrows have gone extinct. But, you learn on ebird that they are distributed across the world. It’s time we started talking about shrinking population of Black-and-Orange flycatcher, an endemic bird seen only at an altitude of 1500 mts. It faces the threat of habitat loss as private tea estates are eating into the reserve forests.”
Selvaganesh conducts workshops on birding and on ebird for school teachers too. He says any clean-up exercise has to be approached scientifically taking into account the life forms it supports. For example, open dry grasslands in Pachapalayam near Coimbatore is the habitat of the Indian Courser. “Once you start converting it into greenery, the bird species might go extinct. Similarly, de-silting of lakes. The marshes on the bunds is where shore birds and water birds roost. We build awareness on these topics. I hope that when our students grow up to hold responsible posts, they will know better than to disturb the environment.That is the change we want to see.”
His students have also studied migration of the Grey wagtail, a winter migratory bird that comes from the Himalayas. “We noticed that the Indian blackbird and the Ashy drongo came to our campus only on particular months, when the Erythrina flowered. The students are slowly learning about the trees as well. For example, when the fig trees start bearing fruits, we can see fly catchers coming out in good numbers to feed on fig wasps. Students take ownership of trees and start recording the flowering and fruiting seasons and how the seasonal rains affect the trees and the arrival of birds. Their on-field knowledge makes them aware.”
Selvaganesh likes to refer to his students as scientists. “My students contribute scientific data. I see a lot of positive changes in them. They are more attentive in class and patient. Some of the students who would at one time hunt down these birds, now take notes about them and care about them instead. It has made them responsible. That, is a big achievement.”