Rescue and rehabilitation of cormorants after felling of trees at Tiger Circle, Manipal

By Dr. Vidya Pratap, Assoc. Professor, T. A. Pai Management Institute


The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, in its notification dated 10th February 2014 announced a new national highway no. 169A near Thirthahalli, connecting Agumbe, Hebri and terminating at Udupi. This highway was planned to go through Manipal in Udupi district. Manipal is a university town with more than 20 institutions and a 2200 bedded super-specialty hospital.

Manipal Birders’ Club:

This club was founded in 2011 with the aim to observe and record the presence of various species of birds (resident as well as migratory) in Manipal throughout the year. Over 50 members, ranging from school children to senior citizens regularly post pictures of birds observed in Manipal on Facebook and in the club’s Whatsapp group. Every Sunday at 6.30 am, club members visit any of the hotspots for birds and identify the birds seen in that locality. Then, one of the members uploads the list of birds observed onto eBird – Bird Count of India. Apart from Sundays, a few die-hard bird enthusiasts do bird watching in other localities in and around Manipal. The 2nd Sunday of February is marked as Manipal Bird Day. Non-members are invited on that day for birding and members of the club lead groups to various locations of Manipal and document the calls and presence of birds.

What happened and the impact on cormorants:

On the night of 5th Nov. 2019, the tree outside Sai Baba cancer hospital was chopped leaving over 50 cormorants of which 20 were fledglings. The woodcutters removed the chicks from the nests and left them high and dry on the footpath without any plans to relocate and rehabilitate the water birds. Dr. Freston, a member of the Manipal Birders’ Club noticed the stranded birds and alerted all the members through Whatsapp. Immediately, another member, Mr. Raghavendra reached the site. Fortunately, one of the members of the club, Dr. P.S. Harsha, Police Commissioner, Mangalore, immediately alerted the Udupi district administration and the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) of the state. He also requested the members to contact the Deputy Commissioner and the Deputy Conservator of Forest to urge them for urgent action. Meanwhile, Dr. Harsha himself spoke to the District Forest Officer who then contacted the Regional Forest Officer to assist in the transportation of the displaced birds. Cardboard cartons arrived and the cormorants (adults and fledglings) were packed into these cartons by the officials from the Forest Department and transported to the Manipal Lake.

Emergency declared:

The other members of the Manipal Birders’ Club woke up to the shock of having to suddenly handle more than 40 cormorants many of which were too young to fend for themselves. Though the members were bird lovers, they neither had the experience of taking care of the feeding of the young birds nor the resources to manage such a large flock. Birds had to be sorted into categories: injured, fledglings and adults. The adults and slightly older fledglings were let into the water or kept on trees. There was one injured bird that was sent through a volunteer from Animal Care Trust to Mangalore for treatment by Dr. Yashasvi.

Mobilizing resources:

The members had long discussions about where to keep the fledglings, what food to give, who will get the food, who will feed, how much to feed in each feed, how many times a day to feed, how to protect them from predators like snakes, bigger birds, dogs, snakes, etc.  Many of the cormorants did not have their flight feathers. Of the 40 odd cormorants that were transported to the Manipal Lake, 20 needed care. Of the rest some could fly, some could swim and thus, managed to adapt to the new surroundings. Members of the Birders’ Club realized that they would need the help of the Forest Department to get fish on a regular basis and feed the birds. They also need to carry a few things while they handle the birds during the feeding like gloves and masks. Members of the club, Mr. Tejasvi Acharya, Mr. Raghavendra Pai and I volunteered to take turns in visiting the birds, feeding and monitoring them. The Forest Department deputed one of their employees, Mr. Keshav to bring fish from the fish market every day and another employee, Mr. Maruthi to feed the fish to the birds twice or thrice a day. Meanwhile, another member, Mr. Nihal Mohammed arranged to get 2 cages.

Meanwhile, I got to know from the forest official that he was spending his own money to buy fish from the Udupi fish market and was spending ₹ 200 to ₹ 300 per day. On hearing about this, the members of the club immediately pitched in and over ₹ 11,000 was collected.

Dead fish vs live fish:

The forest official bought fish from the Udupi fish market and handed them over to the other forest official Mr. Maruthi who fed the young cormorants by opening their mouths and shoving fish down their throats. After a few days, it came to the attention of the members of the Birders’ Club that the feeds were either getting delayed or missed because of other tasks on hand. That’s when the members felt that it would be better to get live fish kept near the cage so that the fledglings can be fed on time. Club members, Mr. Tejusvi Acharya and Mr. Nihal Mohammad arranged to get live fish from Padubidri. Once this was done, members felt very relieved as the birds were getting their food on time. A plastic tub was arranged and live fish were put in it. The cormorant chicks were placed one at a time in the tub and were shown the live fish. Soon, most of them learned to catch their food themselves! A few needed to be spoonfed!

Storing live fish:

With 200 – 300 live fish being brought every 3 days, they had to be stored in oxygenated water for the next few meals. This required the club members to brainstorm regarding saving and keeping the live fish from other predators. Should we make an artificial pond using a big tarpaulin sheet as a base? This would cost ₹ 5000 – 7000. What about cordoning off a small portion of the lake using a net and keeping the live fish in it? We found out that the lake was leased out to a private hotel. We got permission to use a small part of the lake to keep our live fish. Just as we were finalizing on this option, Mr. Tejusvi Acharya got a brainwave. Why not convert one of the cages into a fish tank using a net. He had with him a new net that he had bought. By wrapping one of the cages with the net, a cost-effective container to store the live fish was created. This container was kept in the lake. The water from the lake entered the cage while the live fish remained inside the container!

Seeking medical help:

Just as the members felt that the birds were getting adjusted to the new environment and the new food, they witnessed the death of one of the fledglings. We wondered whether the birds were low on minerals and vitamins; whether all the birds were getting adequate fish since each bird was catching its fish by itself and we were not monitoring its intake; whether they had any infection or whether they were dehydrated. Dr. Prashant, a vet who was contacted, visited the site and examined all the live birds and took the nearly dead bird for closer examination. The bird died in his clinic. Dr. Prashant did a post mortem and found “Kurkure” (a fried snack) in its stomach. Immediately, members put up a notice on the cage requesting passersby. Dr. Prashant inspected the cage and advised the members to a) change the cardboard placed on the floor of the cage daily b) provide clean drinking water c) place dry grass on the cardboard and d) cover three sides of the cage with cardboard which will provide warmth. He administered antibiotics to all the birds and instructed the members to continue the same for the next few days.

A continuous learning experience:

We three members, Mr. Tejusvi Acharya, Mr. Raghavendra Pai and me, who were taking care of the birds were updating the other members about the status of the birds and sharing our observations, joy, anxieties, and queries by posting pictures and videos on a daily basis. For instance, posting the following picture of a young cormorant, I asked the members, “Is this a resting position or is it weak/sick?”

The caretakers learned about the cormorants’ stages of preening and exercising their wings which form part of their stages of development.

Another update to the members:

“Interestingly, one of the 2 birds released yesterday came back this morning when it noticed that food has been given. By that time, all the ones in the cage had just been fed and there was none for this one. But it was fine. We did not put it into the cage. It held guard below the cage. We feel it is old enough to take care of itself. Hopefully, it should be fine.”

Immediately, one member, Dr. Vrinda Rath responded by saying:

“They might be able to swim but that might not indicate that they’re old enough. They’re naturally good swimmers but may get exhausted easily and drown.”

Dr. Vrinda got in touch with Ms. Jayanthi who is an experienced wildlife rehabilitator at Avian and Reptile Rehabilitation Center in Horamavu, Bangalore. Ms. Jayanthi informed Dr. Vrinda after seeing a video of the cormorant fledglings that the birds were not yet ready for water in the lake, and that they should not be released as yet. The birds had not yet learned to fly, to hunt for food in the lake, to perch and dry themselves – without these skills they would not survive.


Maintaining a log of the birds’ intake:

Experienced birders suggested we maintain a log of each fledgling’s intake for two reasons: a) to monitor each fledgling’s daily intake and b) to prepare a case study that can be used for rescue/rehabilitation tasks. Mr. Tejusvi Acharya numbered each of the fledglings using a tag and the caregivers started maintaining a log of the intake of all the birds. Samples of the log are given below:

A new challenge every day:

Every day brought its own challenges – a sick fledgling, a slightly older bird returning even after release, no live fish, inability to get fish from the fish market, the forest officials busy with a VIP visiting their workplace and hence, unable to support us, one of the caregivers falling ill, the other caregiver going out of town, outsiders feeding the young birds, outsiders putting the released birds back in the cage and dark clouds threatening to rain. Constant support from the rest of the members and continuous brain-storming helped us to find alternate resources to resolve issues at hand.

Encountering death every day:

As the two logs shown above indicate, there was a sudden reduction in the food intake by the birds. Every morning, when I noticed one bird dead in the cage. It was heart-breaking. A bird (Bird No. 8) that had eaten 12 fishes by itself on the 14th was dead on the 16th! It was unbelievable. What went wrong? Was it too much food? Was there an infection? Here is my message regarding Bird No. 8 to the club members on 16th November 2019:

“This morning, as I was leaving home & heading towards the lake, my thoughts & prayers were for this little one. Having witnessed death every morning since the past 4 days, I was dreading this morning – I was fervently praying – please God, let all the chicks be alive today. When I removed the cardboard cover over the door of the cage, my eyes went towards this one & I was so happy & relieved that it was alive. That’s when I immediately messaged to the group that all were alive. This one was the last one to be taken out of the cage & seeing it move towards the tub, my confidence in its survival went up. But the moment one small fish was fed to it, it just sat down, almost collapsing. We didn’t proceed further. I just carried it & kept it close to me to keep it warm. Held it for about 20 mins & it was soon gasping…”

Messaged at 11.01 am

“My clothes are still smelling of this one… can’t believe it is no more when I can still smell its presence…”

Messaged at 11.03 am

Bright and joyful moments:

Of course, there were lots of fun and happy moments. Certain moments are unforgettable: the times when the birds would hear my voice and respond to the opening of the cage by getting up and coming close to the door of the cage; when they started following me on the footpath hoping to get some food; when they would return to the area of the cage even when released at the opposite side of the lake, that is, more than 200 metres away from the cage and when they were very happy to have a bamboo stick in their cage on which they perched!

Releasing the birds:

After about 18 days of daily care and close monitoring, Mr. Tejusvi Acharya, Mr. Raghavendra Pai and I felt that it was time the young birds learn to live on their own. So, each of us took turns in releasing them into the water. Initially,

Bird No. 3 in particular, was smart enough to fly all the way back to the cage without getting into the water!

Here’s my message to the club members about its return:

“We had left it 50 metres away from the cage (after a bend in the walking path) – so the cage was not easily visible. But really unbelievable to see it in the evening perched under the cage (its favourite place)!! As I was walking towards the cage this evening, I could see from a distance a cormorant under the cage. I thought someone has opened the cage & let Bird No. 7 out! What a surprise it was to see this alert and very intelligent bird quietly sitting & waiting for the free meal!! And it really ate!! 29 fishes in a minute!!”

Here’s my message to the club members regarding its release:

“The big hook bird flew more than 75 metres in the air and touched water near our live fish container. Now, it is somewhere close by but I can’t see it. The other bird is swimming far away. So hopefully both will have a night out!”

“No, see who’s here!!”

Saying goodbye is not easy:

Finally, it was time for both parties (the cormorants and the caregivers) to bid goodbye to each other. For me, it was not easy. I had become very attached to these young birds since I was closely monitoring their growth for over three weeks! One fine bright morning, we released all the birds and ensured that the cage is removed from the site.

A fine closure to the entire episode:

A few days after their release, a few regular walkers mentioned to me that they had seen the last set of birds swimming together as a family in the lake! This, I felt, was a befitting closure to this mission of rescuing and rehabilitating several young cormorants! May they continue to thrive and prosper!

TAPMI Manipal
The student city of Manipal, Karnataka plays host to the T.A. Pai Management Institute, fondly known as TAPMI. With academic rigour and experiential learning at its core, TAPMI’s Post Graduate Diploma in Management Programs are approved by All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) since its constitution.