Photo: Gorgeous birds.

Petulu Heron Colony

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If you were freaked out by Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, you may prefer to give a visit to the village of Petulu a miss as every afternoon thousands of herons and egrets (locally collectively kokokan) descend to roost in the trees that line a 400 metre stretch of road through the village. To add to the spook factor, the birds are believed to be the souls of the departed.

The political events during 1965 in Indonesia and the subsequent coup d’état which contributed to Suharto taking power (portrayed eloquently in Christopher Koch’s book as The Year of Living Dangerously) resulted in a mass purge of “suspected” Communists (PKI) (or anyone accused of being such) around Indonesia including Bali continuing through 1965 and 1966. As many as one hundred thousand people are believed to have been killed in Bali alone and the fields near Petulu were reportedly one such massacre site.

Settling in for the evening at Petulu Heron Colony. Photo taken in or around Petulu Heron Colony, Ubud, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Settling in for the evening at Petulu Heron Colony. Photo: Sally Arnold

Shortly after the killings, the birds are said to have appeared en masse for the first time and have continued to roost in the trees every evening since, and the widespread belief in Bali is that the birds are the reincarnated victims. However the folk of Petulu (and the brochure they hand out to tourists) portrays another tale, that the birds arrived as a symbol of prosperity and good luck after the village performed a special ceremony in the temple. The massacres have been swept under the covers of Indonesian history, even in myth. Two thought-provoking documentary films by Joshua Oppenheimer The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence explore this period.

Petulu lies about three kilometres north of Ubud along the north-south road leading to Gunung Batur, the telltale white splattered tarmac beneath the trees marks your arrival. During the day it looks like any other small quiet Balinese village, but in the dimming afternoon light it’s quite the spectacle, even for non-bird enthusiasts, to watch the birds flying over the paddy fields and returning to their nests, as the trees blossom with a multitude of snowy white plumes.

How many can you count? Photo taken in or around Petulu Heron Colony, Ubud, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

How many can you count? Photo: Sally Arnold

Regardless of reincarnation tales, the birds are considered sacred and are protected. To help care for them (and probably compensation for the birds eating all the fish and eels in the nearby fields), a small entry fee is charged to tourists: 20,000 rupiah for adults and 10,000 rupiah for kids. Viewing platforms at either end of the village offer a birds’-eye view, and during nesting season, you can see the chicks squabbling as their parents return to feed them.

For the keen twitcher, species that can be spotted include cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis, locally bangau), little egrets (Egretta garzetta) and plumed egrets, as well as herons including the Javan pond heron (Ardeola speciosa, locally blekok) and black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax, locally kowak). The breeding season is between November and March when you’re likely to see the birds earlier as many stay close to the nests and chicks.

Herons everywhere. Photo taken in or around Petulu Heron Colony, Ubud, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Herons everywhere. Photo: Sally Arnold

Warungs around the village sell drinks and snacks, bring an umbrella or hat, and avoid standing under trees if you are not keen on receiving “messages” from the birds.

Petulu is about a half hour cycle from central Ubud, or a good hour’s walk (all slightly uphill). If you go at sunset to see the birds, make sure your bike has a light for the return journey. The most pleasant route from Jalan Raya Ubud, is to head north along Jalan Tirta Tawar, taking a right at the signposted corner. Alternatively head north along Jalan Andong and turn left at the signposted corner.

Relax. Take a seat. Photo taken in or around Petulu Heron Colony, Ubud, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Relax. Take a seat. Photo: Sally Arnold

At the southern end of Petulu, not far from the turnoff, look to the small arena on your left as you head north. Here once or twice a week you can see caged feathered vocalist battle it out for prizes in birdsong competitions. If you’re keen on discovering other bird life around Ubud, join one of the Ubud Bird Walks.

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