A Holiday Visit to Bali’s Feathered Friends

Human residents of Petulu, Bali, believe the 20,000 herons with whom they share the village are reincarnations of Balinese killed in the 1965-1966 anticommunist massacres. (JG Photos/Nadia Bintoro)

Most people associate Bali with beaches and a bustling nightlife. But after countless visits to this resort island, there will come a time when you run out of “hidden” beaches to discover and start to crave for a day out that doesn’t involve a temple excursion or another lounging session with cocktail in hand at a posh seaside club.

For a new experience, just look up. Beyond Bali’s mystical lands to the blue sky above as birdwatching may be worth a try during your next visit to the island.

The Begawan Foundation

Bali is home to around 280 species of birds, including the critically endangered Bali starling. 

To catch a glimpse of this striking yet rare mynah, slip into a pair of comfortable walking shoes, grab your binoculars and head to the Bali Starling Conservation by the Begawan Foundation. 

Amidst the lush bamboo forest of
the Green School compound, around 30 minutes away from Ubud, stunning white birds fly freely. They are the famous Bali starling or jalak Bali. Though it is regarded as a mascot of sorts for the island, the species has come dangerously close to extinction.

To prevent its population from dwindling further, Begawan Foundation — a non-governmental organization committed to reviving the Bali starling and other species of birds native to Bali — established a breeding center in Banjar Saren, on a stretch of land donated by Green School Bali. With thick, natural vegetation in a relatively untouched ecosystem, the center provides a perfect natural habitat to bring the myna back to Bali’s skies.

An endemic species to the island, the Bali starling is famous for its exceptional beauty. With its clear white feathers and stunning blue skin around its eyes, this bird has captured the hearts of birdlovers the world over.

As I walked into Begawan Foundation’s breeding cages, homes to 63 Bali starlings, several birds swooped down as if to say hello. Sadly, this friendly and trusting nature has been responsible for the rapid disappearance of the species, allowing poachers to easily ensnare them.

(JG Photos/Nadia Bintoro)

The Bali starling was first registered as an endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in 1970. At one point, only five birds were believed to be left living in the wild, which motivated the Begawan Foundation to take action with a breeding program.  The first step was to bring home the two last remaining Bali starlings from the aviaries in England.

The breeding complex consists of a compound of cages. The birds are first kept in communal cages, which allow them to socialize. When a mynah finds a mate, the pair is transferred to the “honeymoon suite” of enclosures that are especially used for breeding. 

When the resulting chicks reach maturity, they are released into the ecosystem. 

Several notable figures in the world of conservation have taken part in releasing Bali starlings to the wild, including the esteemed Jane Goodall and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Under the care of the breeding center, the species’s population grew from four to 97 birds between 1999 and 2005. To date, a total of 65 birds have been released into the wild. 

In 2005, most of the birds were relocated to Nusa Penida, an island southeast of Bali, where the captivating beauty of the Bali starling now decorates its blue skies. 

The enclosures and breeding center in Banjar Saren are open to the public, offering tours by the friendly and informative staff of Begawan Foundation. Visitors may see students of Green School Bali helping to feed the birds and clean cages as part of their extracurricular activities. 

In addition to Bali starlings, the center also hosts the quirky Rangkong bird, better known as the hornbill, which is also native to Bali, though its lookalike cousin can be found in Borneo as well.  

Both species offer only a small glimpse into Indonesia’s rich wildlife.

Petulu village

Bali has been known as a land of magic where miracles happen. But when that magic involves colonies of thousands of herons, things can get weird.

That’s what happens in Petulu, a sleepy village about 3 kilometers northeast of Ubud, every sunset. 

When the sun begins stretching shadows late afternoon, thousands of white herons appear in the skies, returning home to this village, where they claim perches atop trees lining Petulu’s main road. It’s almost like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

The herons’ homecoming happens like clockwork each day, the locals say, in a sight as familiar to Petulu as rush hour traffic in Jakarta.

Bizarrely, the birds only occupy the trees lining Petulu’s main road — and nowhere else in the village.

Residents previously tried to herd the birds toward other trees in the back of the village, without success. But nobody bothers them now.

Like many things in Bali, these heron colonies are said to be holy. 

As locals tell it, herons didn’t always live in Petulu. Residents say the birds first began arriving in late 1965, around the time of the anticommunist purges in which 5 percent of Bali — and in some villages, half the population or more — was killed.

Some residents of Petulu say they still remember soldiers marching into the village, rounding up prisoners and forcing them to dig their own graves — after which they were executed with a gunshot to the back of the head, one by one.

The villagers believe the herons are reincarnations of the thousands of Balinese killed during the massacres, souls dispatched from the world without due rites or burials and therefore left to wander the Earth.

Around the time the herons first began appearing, Petulu staged a ceremony to welcome birds. It’s said that the priest leading the ritual procession fell into a trance from which he  learned that the herons had come to guard the village from pests and from negative events.

Since then, tens of thousands of herons began flocking to Petulu, spending their nights in the trees overlooking the village’s mass graves. And they never left.

(JG Photos/Nadia Bintoro)

The villagers still believe the herons are the supernatural guardians of the village. Locals say the birds have only rarely and briefly disappeared from the village — most notably just before the 2002 Bali bombings. 

Petulu hold a special ritual called Memendak Kokodan every six months to honor the birds and express their gratitude for being trusted as the herons’ home.

It’s easy to appreciate why these herons are regarded as holy: They’re stunningly beautiful.

It was almost sunset when I reached the village to watch the herons from a spot heralded as offering the best view in town. It’s a humble, makeshift cafe by the rice paddies that offers basic drinks and a broken telescope for bird watching.

As the sun’s last lights blazed a golden glow over Petulu’s lush ricefields, a flock of  herons flew in from the west and launched into a spectacular show of aerial acrobatics before, one-by-one, securing their own spot in the trees.

Although they all look white, there are actually three kinds of herons in Petulu.

The so-called “little egret” is, somewhat counter-intuitively identifiable by its tall height. A somewhat smaller variety is called the “cattle egret,” and has a brown neck. The smallest has a black patch on its neck and is called the “Java pond heron.” 

Regardless of species, these herons are all, first and foremost, Balinese: Ritual is very important to them.

The birds follow a regular, predictable order for build their nests in the trees. The largest herons build their nests at the top, medium-sized birds in the middle, and the smallest at the bottom. Petulu’s heron species do not interbreed, as if in observance of a strict caste system.

The sublimely surreal scene of
slumbering white feathers dotting the lush green trees has inspired generations of artists in Petulu, and after seeing it first-hand, it’s easy to appreciate why.

West Bali National Park

Located on Bali’s northwestern tip, this 190-square kilometer conservation area preserves breathtaking natural landscapes, beaches, reefs and islets for the enjoyment of nature-loving tourists and as refuge for the wildlife that calls the park home. 

Among them: 175 species of plant, 14 of which are endangered — such as bayur (Pterospermum javanicum), ketangi(Lagerstroemia speciosa) and burahol (Stelechocarpus burahol); as well as many endangered animals including Sunda pangolin, Indian muntjac, mousedeer (it looks exactly as you’d expect), leopard cat, black giant squirrel and Bali starlings.

Birdwatching enthusiasts can easily spot the Bali starling in the wild here. At Tegal Bunder, inside the national park, it is also possible to visit a center that rehabilitates Bali starlings and releases them back into the wild. You can also trek with certified guides to spot starlings in the wild.

Many of the starlings bred elsewhere are also being released back to this national park, making it the last stronghold of this endangered species. In June 2011, the park received 40 Bali mynas from the Surabaya Zoo and 20 from Taman Safari Indonesia.

Even if birdwatching is not your thing, the scenic landscapes of this national park are enough to astound. A variety of microclimates give rise to diversity of landscapes — savannahs, mangroves, mountains and mixed-monsoon forests — all within a day’s reach.

This special spot on Earth is left alone by all but a handful of Bali’s visitors, among them those who appreciate the wild splendor of birds flying free. 


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