Under their wing

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In a remote northern province, a family has dedicated itself to protecting our avian cousins 
   
Hundreds of birds of different kinds make nests on the top of bamboo clusters

More than 20 years ago, Ngo Van Be made a bid to take care of a two-hectare garden frequented by storks in a remote area of Hiep Hoa District in the northern province of Bac Giang.

He won the bid easily because he was the only one interested.

People then said that the whole family, Be, 62, his wife Vu Thi Gai, 61, and two sons, were crazy to leave their house in the district's Vu Nong Village and live in a dilapidated thatched cottage in the midst of the garden, protecting the birds and having them multiply for no profit.

One of his sons stayed on in Vu Nong.

The villagers expected the family to leave the garden, which stands on the banks of Cau River, to move out soon.

Be's family has not only stayed put for more than 20 years, they have worked hard and ensured that the garden and the birds have flourished. 

Their thatched house, standing by a collapsed brick kiln, surrounded by ponds has not changed, because the family's focus has been on the birds.

There are around 100,000 birds of several kinds, including storks, grey herons, night herons, white egrets and ardeolas.

Be said that many years ago, the land, which gets flooded in July and August, and attracts the greatest number of storks in March, was wild with bamboo clusters and grass more than a meter high.  No one knows when and why the birds had made this piece of land their home, he said.

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At first, it was managed by a local agriculture co-operative in the district's Bac Ly Ward, but since people don't consider taking care of the stork garden their business, the birds and the garden was almost abandoned.

Be and Gai, however, fell in love the minute they saw the scene of thousands of storks taking flight.

For them, taking care of the two-hectare bird sanctuary has been a labor of love. They make no money from it, subsisting on breeding fish in ponds that they dug themselves and on the sandalwood trees.

Bird house makers

Sometimes Be receives guests and takes them around the bird sanctuary. He carefully leads the visitors between the bamboo clusters, telling them not to look up at the birds' nests for too long because it is possible that regurgitated food can drop down on them.

"The stork's nest is simple. It is made of several branches knitted together on tall bamboos. Just a breeze can ruin the efforts of mother stork, with the babies vomiting the food she has given them."

The whole garden gets messy with vomited shrimps every afternoon when the storks fly back to their nests. Many chicken and ducks raised by Be and his family have died because eating too much of this seafood. So the birds have the garden to themselves now. 

Gai, Be's wife, said birds, especially storks are very sensitive. The slightest move will prompt them to fly up and make a lot of noise to warn the entire flock. 

After many years, Gai can tell the difference between normal calls among the birds and warnings that kestrels are about to attack their nests or that there are hunters present. 

In addition to bamboo for the birds to build their houses, the family has also planted sandalwood trees as their "playground", where they plume and preen feathers after a hard working day.

Dry branches of the sandalwood are collected by the parent birds to make nests. However, Gai is an enthusiastic collaborator.  She helps by collecting the wood and breaking them into pieces which are as small as chopsticks and 25 centimeters long. Then Gai scatters the "chopsticks" on the ground for the birds to pick up. The wood she makes every year is enough to fill her whole kitchen.

Sometimes, Gai asks her relatives to collect wood from farther away to meet the birds' demand so that they do not  have to fly too far to find the materials, which reduces their chances of being hunted for food.

Rainy, stormy days worry the old couple a lot. Many nests are destroyed and several birds are killed by the typhoon.

Even on normal days, it is easy for baby birds to fall down from their unstable nests. Most of the baby birds that fall die, because they are bitten by insects, and do not have food to survive.

Hard work

Be said he has never got any money or support from the localgovernment since he took over the stork garden two decades ago.

The local government has also not given him permanent rights to use the land, requiring him to resubmit his bid every 10 years.
However, that is not his main concern, which is to stop people from killing his birds.

On rainy nights, he and his sons do not sleep, keeping watch against hunters and poachers targeting baby birds.

Both his sons live in houses located at two different corners of the garden, also for security purposes.

At noon, the couple and their dogs do not usually have a siesta. Their TV set's volume is always kept very low so that they can hear the birds and know if they are agitated or not.

Some hunters stand at a distance that is far enough for them to run away easily if and when Be spots them, but their guns can still prove lethal, he said.

When caught red-handed, these enemies of the storks claim that they are shooting "at flying birds, not your birds."

As a result, there was a time the number of the birds in the garden decreased, before the family managed to beef up security and ensure a recovery.

Be is worried, though: "Recently, there are more and more people who own shotguns and homemade weapons which are prohibited by the government. I wonder if the law is effective in my hometown."

 ELSEWHERE

There are around 20 stork gardens in the country. The big ones in the north are Dong Xuyen, Hai Luu, Dao My and Chi Lang in the provinces of Bac Ninh, Vinh Phuc and Hai Duong respectively.

Dao My has been taken care of by retired teacher Dang Dinh Quyen, who has been awarded certificates and prizes for his efforts to protect the birds and the environment. It is among the most famous sanctuaries, home to around 10,000 storks and 2,000 other kinds of birds.

However, due to financial difficulties old age and poor health, Quyen decided to sell the garden in 2008. To encourage him to keep the garden, the local government of Lang Giang District promised to give him VND450,000 (US$23) every month to support his family from September 2008 to December 2009 as well as money to repair the garden's fence. What transpired since is not clear, but Quyen still maintains the sanctuary.

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