Ashy Drongos have chosen the dangerous career of tackling insects with nasty stings even though they do not possess protective dense feathers or thick-skin around the eyes

A sleek blackish bird flew overhead as we tiptoed through the dirt-trail on the bank of a small lake in the Jahangirnagar University campus. An excited companion screamed: 'Ashy Drongo; Ashy Drongo'. His delight was justified; Ashy Drongo was the first migratory bird we saw at the campus that morning. Ashy Drongo was one of the two species of migratory drongos we regularly saw at the campus in the good old days.

The agile Ashy Drongo lunged low over our heads for no apparent reason and returned to the Jackfruit tree from where it sprang its aerial sally. But as soon as it settled on a thin branch of the tree we could clearly see a honeybee hanging from its bill. The sharp-sighted bird had spotted the bee buzzing over our heads, caught it and then sat patiently to let the desperate insect die after breaking its sting on the fortified beak.

The unerring aerial stalking and the seizing prowess distinguished the visiting Ashy Drongo from our resident Black Drongos. The Black Drongos are good at grabbing insects on the ground; not in the air. They are also not as adept as the Ashy Drongo at handling stinger insects such as honeybees, wasps and hornets. The Ashy Drongo sits high up in trees and boldly keeps a vigil on all aerial commuters including stingers.

We were delighted to find a beehive hanging from the cornice of a building and the vigorous bees commuting between the flowering Acacia trees. Our hearts turned heavy for the poor bee we saw hanging helplessly from the Ashy Drongo's bill. The sprightly multitude at the hive knew nothing about that ill-fated bee; and the hungry drongo would possibly kill quite a few more bees from that hive over the winter months.

We wonder, how many bees a hive could afford to lose before the queen-bee starts worrying seriously and abandons it! That number must be very large indeed; and certainly well beyond the toll an Ashy Drongo's attacks could inflict. At the same campus we once saw a beehive survive several debilitating attacks by a Honey Buzzard. The bees did not gather to mourn; but flew furiously to rebuild the hive after every attack.

All the beehives, however, disappeared the day a small gang of honey-collectors descended on the campus with a ladder, basket, machete and improvised smoke-torch. They brought down every hive leaving nothing for the bees to rebuild from. After the honey-collectors left the bees gathered for a while at ground zero and, perhaps, mourned for the lost bee-babies before flying away to where we could not guess.

Our bees, lovingly named Apis florea, lived alongside Honey Buzzards and Ashy Drongos for more than one crore years. But they have been threatened with extinction in the wild ever since humans started collecting honey as well as beeswax with abandon. Now the bees survive mostly as domesticated insects in our congested wooden boxes. The predators such as Honey Buzzard and Ashy Drongo are disappearing with wild bees.

Although the Ashy Drongo looks a lot like our very familiar Black Drongos it is also easily distinguished by several physical features and behaviours. It is a tad slimmer and somewhat ashy rather than deep black. It has bright red eyes and a bit longer and deeply forked tail. It is partial to the forests and wooded areas, and is rarely seen in an open field. It never perches on manmade structures such as electric cables and poles.

When the resident Black Drongos feed covetously from our farmlands, playfields and dumps, the Ashy Drongo never thinks of joining those meek brethren. It prefers the dangerous career of tackling insects with nasty stings although it does not possess the protective dense feathers and thick-skin around the eyes like the Honey Buzzard. Prudently it hunts the insect winging alone rather than attacking a colony as the buzzards do.

We were happy to see the Ashy Drongo hunting the fierce bees rather than coming down to the human muddle for a handout. We wished to honour the dignified drongo by quoting the following lines from a poem the nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote to compare Hope with an indomitable Bird:

I've heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

In spite of many differences the Ashy Drongos and the Black Drongos have one common weakness - their cravings for the nectar. We often see both species of drongos frequent the nectar-laden flowers of Bombax, Butea and Sunshine trees we call Shimul, Palash and Mandar. These trees flower profusely in spring, conveniently enough for the Ashy Drongo to fatten on the nectar for the migration flight in early summer.

In early summer the Ashy Drongos from Bangladesh would fly northwest to their breeding ground in the hills beyond Pakistan. Only four of the 30 species of drongos are migratory; and the Ashy Drongo is one of them with a strange twist to its migratory behaviour. Different populations of this species are in the habit of migrating to different regions of South and Southeast Asia with no good explanation for their choice of those regions.

The Ashy Drongos we see in Bangladesh in winter go to Afghanistan to breed in summer. They are the only Kabuli-alas still commuting between these two countries.

Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.

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