“Now the island of Serendib lieth under the equinoctial line, it’s night and day both numbering twelve hours. It measureth eighty leagues long by a breadth of thirty and its width is bounded by a lofty mountain and a deep valley. The mountain is conspicuous from a distance of three days and it contains many rubies and other minerals, and spice trees of all sorts. I ascended that mountain and solaced myself with a view of its marvels which are indescribable and afterwards I returned to the King.”
That is the “Thousand and One Arabian Nights”- Sixth Voyage of Sindbad the Sailor, describing Adam’s Peak and the valley of gems in Ratnapura.
Over the centuries Sindbad, Ibn Batuta, Marco Polo, numerous other seafaring Moors and more recently Thai prospectors, all came to Ratnapura looking for the precious rubies, sapphires and moonstones.
There is another regular visitor to Ratnapura every year from time immemorial. It would stay overnight and leave by daybreak only to return in the evening again, until it decided to return to where it belonged and visit again the following year. The Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) is a regular winter visitor that migrates to the country and is very special in Ratnapura.
As day breaks in Ratnapura for the poor peasant gem miner and the timber tycoons with their loaded trucks, worshipping the deity Sumana Saman, it is ironical that they seek blessings to destroy the very environment that this deity is guardian of. This ritual is followed by the congregation of hundreds of white-clad gem buyers into the town, armed with flashlights sans the reflector to get light into the tiny stones for pricing. By 4 p.m. this trade fair ends and the crowds disperse for the day and by 6 p.m. the Barn Swallows, the night dwellers start descending on the town in their thousands.
Barn Swallows are silent when in their roost unlike other birds. They arrive inaudibly and settle down for the night over a busy town. In the good old days they may have roosted outside the town. Our colonial birders had no records of these roosts; perhaps this habit would have come by only after Ratnapura got electricity. Habits are passed through progeny and they still occupy the electrical wires on the old Colombo road section even though the town has expanded.
Why they choose Ratnapura town to roost in their thousands is a mystery. During the day it is quite impossible to see them around but they are present in their numbers in the Walawe Basin. Motoring in the Uda Walawe Park you would find a fair number following or leading you through the tall grasses, attracted by the insects that take off from the grasses in the draft wind following the vehicles. It could be all these birds in the Walawe Basin and in the southern plains that come over to Ratnapura to roost. No other urban location is noted as a Barn Swallow roost in this country. The attraction to Ratnapura maybe due to its high humidity present both day and night and its elevation opening to the vast flatland to the south, their foraging grounds.
People in the area take no notice of the birds’ presence save those interested in them. However, lately with the awareness of avian influenza there were concerns as to whether they should be eradicated. Timely intervention both scientifically and medically thawed out fears within the community, letting the birds alone in their habitat.
The barn swallow is the most widespread species of swallow in the world with a deeply forked tail and pointed wings ideally suited for long and swift flight. It is found in open country and generally uses man-made structures to breed. It has spread with human expansion in its breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere. A cup nest is made from mud pellets in barns or similar structures and it feeds on insects caught in flight. Its closeness to humankind is quoted in literature and religious works. It is the national bird of Estonia.
The long tail of the Swallow is said to indicate the quality of an individual bird and females prefer a bird with a long symmetrically laid tail with a darker reddish chest patch as their mate.
The Barn Swallow winters from September to April in Sri Lanka and is thought to be a bird that migrates in large numbers. They have been recorded in Ratnapura during these months for over 50 years now and there is no doubt of their return again in September. So if you pass Ratnapura after 6 in the evening or if you are hooked on birds visit Ratnapura town via the old Colombo road and you are bound to see the amazing sight of many thousands of birds sleeping together.
(The writer is a member of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka)