de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). Nurturing science at home LMD. September 2010. Page 139. Volume 16, Issue 12. ISSN 1391-135X.

In April 2010, on a monsoon Saturday, I was laptopping in my study when my attention was drawn to a Common Drongo feeding its young. I have had Common Drongos visiting my garden since I moved to a house close to the Colombo Golf Club ten years ago. I wondered whether it could be the same individual. My thoughts on longevity of birds had taken a new dimension after I had read the April 2010 issue of Bird Art & Photography. An article by Richard Facey arrested my attention with longevity records for two species of migrant birds which visit Sri Lanka. The 2008 Bird Report by the British Trust for Ornithology volunteers showed that a Bar-tailed Godwit had lived for a staggering 33 years and 11 months and a Grey Plover for 25 years. I pointed this out to Devaka Senviratne who with Deshan Tennekoon subsequently gave an illustrated lecture on Kalpitiya at the Fulbright Commission’s auditorium. I pointed out that the Bar-tailed Godwit may potentially have been coming to the Kalpitiya Peninsula for 33 years and it would have to make an adjustment if its familiar habitat was changed by development. It also shocked me to realise that the Grey Plovers and Bar-tailed Godwits I had been watching in the Kalpitiya Peninsula may have been visiting the peninsula for longer than I have been doing.

With mammals such as leopards and elephants, there is a growing consciousness that certain individuals may live in the wild for many years. In March 2010, I had listened to Rukshan Jayawardne’s lecture where he explained that he thought the famous Talgasmankada female had lived for sixteen years. Mammals can often be identified using facial or other unique physical characteristics. With birds, ringing (affixing a metal or plastic ring to their feet) is the only solution. Before radio tagging became possible, ringing was also the means by which the migration of birds was studied. Ringing remains important for studies of longevity and for understanding social and ecological behaviour.

Watching the drongos, I wished that I had succeeded in 2001 with my plans to initiate a program to train a few thousand people in bird ringing. Britain has 30,000 licensed ringers. My plan for Sri Lanka was to start with at least a few hundred trained ringers. Once they were licensed, as in Europe they could ring birds around them. So ten years ago I could have ringed the Drongos around my house. I may have known then that the drongo on the Aththikka tree that Saturday was ten years old. Or maybe by looking at the pattern of the colour rings I would have known that it was the grand daughter or grand son of the first drongo I had ringed around my house.

A flock of Yellow-billed Babblers also came on to the Aththikka tree. During the last ten years, I have also had a flock of Yellow-billed Babblers coming to my garden every day. After we grew a small mango tree, they even nested in it a few times. A study by a Ceylon Bird Club member using colour dyes sprayed on them has demonstrated that the entire flock takes turn to incubate the eggs. If I could have colour ringed them, even occasional ad hoc notes would have revealed something of their amazing life.

My point is that some amazing tales of Sri Lanka’s bio-diversity can be un-covered by wildlife enthusiasts at home, if, as in developed nations in North America and Europe we allow them. My plans to work with Professor Sarath Kotagama of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOSGL) to arm Sri Lanka with hundreds of trained bird ringers failed. One reason was the Department of Wildlife Conservations (DWLC) was administrative weak and also did not want to relinquish control. I also suspect biologists are not ready to arm the public at large to engage in scientific research. Time and time again I listen to scientists deliver pious sermons on the need to develop Sri Lanka. But any plans by me to take scientific research home to the general public as in the Western developed nations model or support for foreign research students to work in Sri Lanka and migrate know how, encounters resistance. Unfortunately, a few local scientists guard their patch and unwittingly strengthen the legislative red tape which ultimately works against them. In the UK, whether it is for birds or butterflies, tens of thousands of volunteers are mobilised to help with scientific research.

So we have a situation with bird ringing for example which would be analogous to the Ministry of Planning being in charge of providing a trishaw service. If they are too busy to run more than one trishaw a week a year that’s all the country will get. Of course this is not the case with trishaws. So why should we have a government department in charge of issuing permission for a once or twice a year or so bird ringing camp? They should be facilitating and encouraging conservation NGOs to train hundreds of volunteers and letting the trained ringers go out and do it.

Why should it matter to me whether people can ring birds in their garden without having to face mind blowing red tape? Firstly, I would like the freedom enjoyed by people in developed nations to share in the spirit of scientific discovery. Perhaps small discoveries like knowing that my drongo is still alive after ten years. But also because as someone who would like Sri Lanka to progress, I believe creating a scientific culture helps. People who engage in scientific study in their leisure time, bring to work a certain analytical and objective mind set. The kind of thinking which Sri Lanka needs, if it is to develop.