THE HERONS OF PETULU


Every day in the late afternoon, a remarkable, natural phenomenon occurs in the tiny Balinese village of Petulu (five kilometres north of Ubud), as thousands of white herons fly in to roost for the night.

It’s a spectacular sight as the huge flocks of birds arrive in a steady throng, filling the sky, flying in formation, wheeling, drifting, sailing and finally landing in the tall palms and old bunut (fig) trees, where they squabble over prime perches, turning the tree tops white like snow and splattering the roadsides with their droppings.

Village tradition dictates that the herons, which are considered sacred, may not be disturbed while they roost. Only if they fall to earth or become caught in a tree may they be captured and turned into a delectable treat wrapped in a banana leaf. Visitors, meanwhile, can sit at a simple viewing platform beside the rice fields and drink cold Bintang beers or soft drinks while they watch the roosting activities. Such a predictable gathering of these large and beautiful birds is a spectacle not to be missed. In the morning the herons will fly off again in search of food.

Three species of herons roost at Petulu: the Little Egrets, the Cattle Egrets and the Javan Pond Herons. They are known collectively by the local people as ‘Kokokan’ – and their numbers have been estimated to total up to 20,000. The nesting period is usually around October and November and there is a certain order in how these three species build their nests in the trees, with the largest birds at the top and the smallest at the bottom. By February and March the chicks will have become fledglings and have started to fly.

The villagers of Petulu believe that the herons are manifestations of the souls of the Balinese who were killed – and buried without due rites – during the anticommunist massacre in Indonesia in 1965/66. In Bali alone, 100,000 people were killed within two weeks. After the atrocities, the surviving residents of Petulu held an elaborate cleansing ceremony in the village as a remembrance for the murdered, and to safeguard the survivors, petitioning for protection and blessings. Less than one month after the ceremony the herons mysteriously arrived in the village for the first time in history, they had never been seen before in Petulu. The little egrets and the cattle egrets arrived first and the Javan pond herons followed a year later. The villagers considered them as a blessing from God and then held a ceremony of welcome for the birds. During the ceremony, the priest fell into a trance and learned that the herons were there to guard and protect the village and the crops from pests, disease and negative events. At first, the villagers captured some of the herons for food and as breeding stock – but more than 50 people who did so were visited by scary spirits, and therefore quickly released the birds. It is strange that they have only ever occupied the trees on the stretch of road, which leads to the temple – and in front of the houses. They never go behind the houses, an area which in Hindu tradition is reserved for things less sacred or unclean.

The villagers of Petulu still pay homage to the birds twice a year on Saniscara Kliwon Landep by holding a special ceremony for them called ‘Memendak Kokokan’ in which they express their gratitude for being trusted as the place that the birds have chosen to live and lay their eggs. The villagers say that since the arrival of the herons, the village has enjoyed prosperity and has become a tourist attraction. There is a post with a ‘Donations Box’ at the entrance to the village for visitors to contribute to its further prosperity. The local people also claim that the birds disappeared from the village not long before the 2002 Bali bombings, and similar incidents have occurred several other times, suggesting that the disappearance is a portent of something bad. After the 2002 portent, the villagers attempted to ‘call’ the flock by holding a ritual at the temple and a week later thousands of birds flew back to the village.

Little Egrets
The Little Egrets are the graceful, white birds of wet rice fields; this small heron has a white body, black legs, yellow feet, and fluffy snowy plumes on its crest and neck during the breeding season. Generally they are solitary and silent birds; however they do make harsh alarm calls if disturbed at their roost sites.

Cattle Egrets
The short, thick-necked Cattle Egret spends most of its time in fields foraging at the feet of grazing cattle, head bobbing with each step, or riding on the backs of the cows to pick at ticks; this stocky white heron has mainly white plumage, a yellow bill and greyish-yellow legs. During the breeding season, adults develop orange-buff plumes on the back, breast and crown. They fly with their necks folded in an S-shape.

Herons 2

Javan Pond Herons
Most commonly seen and associated with rice fields, the Javan pond heron is identified by its pale, golden yellow and brown head, crest feathers and neck, cinnamon breast, and black back. It flies to roost in groups of twos or threes with slow, short wing beats, and feeds primarily by standing motionless, usually solitary, in a low crouched posture with its head retracted.

 

Getting there:

From the traffic lights at the statue in north Peliatan just before the west entrance to Ubud, continue north on the main road to Tegallalang and Tampaksiring, which is lined with hundreds of shops selling woodcarvings, souvenirs, household wares and crafts. After four kilometres, look out for the sign on the left (west) to Petulu, which is about two kilometres, up a gradually rising narrow country road.

Alternatively, go north out of Ubud on Jalan Suweta towards Junjungan and the turn off to Petulu is on the other side of the village on the right.

The birds arrive home between 5pm and sunset.

 

 

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