The grey-headed swamphens are usually found in uncultivated paddy fields or swampy areas of wetlands where they roost and breed.
However, experts say that the bird is a protected species under the Wildlife Protection Act and that it can be declared as a vermin only by the Forest department of the state.
Bugged by the persistent invasion by these birds of their paddy fields, where a special salt resistant variety of rice called 'pokkali' is being cultivated, an Ernakulam-based association of farmers has moved the Kerala High Court urging it to declare this particular species of swamphen as vermin. Pokkali cultivation is a form of mixed farming, where five months are devoted to growing rice, another five months for prawn or fish breeding and remaining 60 days are a transient period between the two, the petition has said.
The state government, on the other hand, opposed the plea saying the bird was migratory and this was the first time such a complaint had come. It said the farmers ought to have first approached the forest department before approaching the court.
The court, however, asked the state government not to take such a technical objection, saying if the farmers did not have a problem, they would not have filed a writ petition.
The court asked the state government to inform it whether the grievance of the farmers, represented by advocates T R S Kumar, Mithun C Thomas and Akshay Joseph, was genuine and if not, then what was the motive behind filing the instant plea.
In July this year, the high court had permitted farmers to hunt down wild boars attacking farmlands in certain parts of the state and had asked the state government to declare the animal as vermin in those specific areas.
A similar relief is being sought by the pokkali rice farmers for their fields in Ernakulam.
Besides urging the court to declare the bird in question as a vermin as far as their fields are concerned, the farmers have also sought that they be protected from any action under the Wildlife Act if they kill, injure or trap the grey-headed swamphen while trying to protect their crop, which is primarily grown in Thrissur, Ernakulam and Alappuzha districts of the state.
The grey-headed swamphen is a water bird which commonly inhabits dense marshy areas, rice fields and wetlands in Kerala and it lives as a large community in these areas.
Experts, like Dr P O Nameer, say that while the swamphens are not an endangered or migratory species, they are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act.
Dr Nameer, the Dean of College of Climate Change and Environmental Science at Vellanikkara, which comes under the Kerala Agricultural University, said that while these birds have been found to cause damage to crops in various parts of the state, the loss to farmers was not as huge as was being claimed.
He said that generally the farming community would prefer to put all animals and birds in the vermin category.
Dr Nameer said if farmers have suffered losses, they can seek compensation from the government.
With regard to the instant case, he said the grey-headed swamphens were usually found in uncultivated paddy fields or swampy areas of wetlands where they roost and breed and therefore, if such areas are cultivated the birds might move out of the area.
The farmers, however, claim that a major reason for the intrusion of the bird into their paddy fields is ''scarcity of food and unsuitable habitat'' and they use it for shelter and reproduction ''due to the high coverage generated by the pokkali rice plant''.
In their plea, the farmers have said that these birds arrive after sowing of the seeds in June and remain there till harvest time -- which is in November -- and during the intervening period they wreak havoc on the growing crops by feeding on the buds and cutting the paddy stems to build nests.
It also results in bald patches in the fields, the farmers have claimed.
The activities of the bird have caused huge damage to the pokkali rice crops, whose cultivation area has dropped to less than 1,000 hectares in Kerala where in the past it was being grown on more than 25,000 hectares of land, the plea has said.