Unreal Nature

August 4, 2012

Our Dowry

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:00 am

…  the daughter of the family who owned the piece of land on which their nest stood would be old enough to marry. They would then probably cut down the tree to pay her dowry.

This is from an essay, ‘Boubous: Two Stork Stories’ by Andy Dobson which I am finding in the collection, Concrete Jungle edited by Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman (1996). The following is about the Greater Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilus dubius)*:

Guwahati, Assam November, 1993: We’d come to Kaziranga Lodge to search for breeding greater adjutant storks. Two Indian biologists had reported finding nesting birds in a number of villages along the edge of the Bramaputra river. If we could confirm their reports, it might be possible to get them funding to further their survey of the birds. It had proved hard to get into Assam, as parts of the west and north of the district were subject to guerrilla activity. We’d been driven out to see our first nest early on the first morning. We’d crossed the Bramaputra by a long bridge that linked islands in the river just to the south of Guwahati, the capital of Assam. The stork nest was  high in a tree behind a small village, several miles from the river. The Himalayas appeared 70 or 80 miles away as we drove into the village. It’s probably the largest altitude change on the planet, the river is only a couple of hundred feet above sea-level, the Himalayas rise to nearly 30,000 feet. The stork looked down from the nest 80 feet up in the tallest tree around. After 10 minutes, another bird appeared and circled around as I tried to take photographs. Eventually it settled by the nest and the birds greeted each other by raising their beaks and lowering them while clattering the bills together.

A crowd had gathered around us and an elderly woman from the village asked us if we’d like some tea. We were told by one of the crowd that she was a guerrilla; we returned to her house where a poster in one of the two rooms explained that the adjutant storks were part of Assam’s culture and should be protected. The woman explained to us that the pair of birds we’d seen were safe for now, but eventually the daughter of the family who owned the piece of land on which their nest stood would be old enough to marry. They would then probably cut down the tree to pay her dowry. “Couldn’t we set up a fund to pay the dowry?” I asked. “There are many such girls in Assam,” the women replied.

We drove back into town after visiting several other villages and locating a small colony of 14 birds on the edge of one village. “It would be nice to see if I can get some pictures of the birds at the local garbage dump,” I said as we drove towards the city. “I remember there were always many there when I was a child,” said Professor Bhattacharjee. We got to the dump half an hour before sunset. It covered a large area to the east of the town, smoke rose from several small fires around the edge of piles of garbage, lean-to tents were built into the sides of several piles of garbage. I climbed onto the roof of the car to look for storks. The inevitable black kites wheeled around the dump, constantly alert for any food source. Each time I located a stork-sized object in the falling evening light, I’d realize it was a human child combing the garbage for dinner. Eventually, I located a lesser adjutant lurking on the edge of the dump. Some children also noticed it and threw stones in its direction. I realized there were no greater adjutant storks here, and there probably had not been any for some time. Humans seemed to have out-competed them in their quest for garbage.

[photo from Wikipedia]

[* (from the beginning of the above) Greater Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilus dubius): the most massive and ugliest of the Asian storks, standing 120-150 cm [about 5+ ft.] to the top of the head when erect. It often appears shorter, owing to its hunched stance. … It was named “adjutant” because it walks with the deliberate, measured gait of a military adjutant.

This is perhaps the most endangered of all the Asian storks. In the early years of the 20th century, the greater adjutant was a very common bird in Indian cities during the non-breeding season, and they gathered in great numbers to breed in southern Burma. Today, the bird is uncommon to rare in many of its former haunts and the Burmese breeding grounds are said to be deserted. If the decrease of the past 50 years continues at the same rate, the species might cease to exist in another few years.]



  1. I’m sure that photo is of Jasper Stocks, head teacher of the boys’ school I attended in my mid teens …

    Comment by Felix — August 4, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

  2. The legs (those knees!), the turn of the neck, and the scrumbly baldness remind me, strongly, of any number or people — especially as seen in baggy swim trunks (gents), or aproned and pinchingly girdled one-piece suits (ladies) as they toil (with dignified difficulty) out of the swimming pool.

    Comment by unrealnature — August 5, 2012 @ 7:45 am

  3. [grin] Vivid mental images which will remain gruesomely with me for some time… :-)

    Comment by Felix — August 5, 2012 @ 7:48 am

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