Our afternoon trudge through a tick-infested trail of Kurma forest was rewarded with the rare view of a Racket-tailed Drongo commuting over the canopy. We could see only its darting silhouette against the glare of the midday sun. And that dark silhouette overhead was enough for us to identify the extraordinary bird and appreciate its absurd pair of racket-shaped feathers trailing behind it.
We tiptoed to the tree where the Racket-tailed Drongo with its strange tail seemed to have landed. It was a challenge to tote our clumsy cameras through the thickets close enough to that tree without making our presence known to the super-suspicious bird. From many previous failed attempts to photograph the elusive drongo we knew how watchful and alert that wary, crow-like bird was.
The jigsaw pattern of strong light and shade in the forest did afford some cover to our sneaky advances through a thorn-ridden trail. Eventually, we spotted the stately bird sitting upright with its flashy crest arching over the head and an incredibly long tail hanging down to touch the bush below. That magnificent bird of Kurma forest had the longest tail we ever saw a Racket-tailed Drongo possess.
Like all other drongos of the world the Racket-tailed Drongo has a long and deeply forked tail. But unlike other drongos the central stems of its two outermost feathers extend like two long sticks at the end of which grow racket-like barbs. Those feathery rackets hang quite a distance from its body; and look like two little black birds forever following the Racket-tailed Drongo when it flies in the sky.
That flamboyant tail reminded us of a poem the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote to his friend, poet William Wordsworth. Self-deprecatingly it began: 'In stale blank verse a subject stale / I send per post my Nightingale; / And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth, / You'll tell me what you think, my Bird's worth.' The following concluding lines of this quirky poem simply befit our Racket-tailed Drongo:
Yet, sure, no wonder it should breed,
That my Bird's Tail's a tail indeed.
Indeed, the ornamental tails of the Racket-tailed Drongos are not donned only in the breeding season. The outlandish tails are their perennial dress and used by both sexes, quite unlike the seasonal decoration of the male Peacock. Of course, the extra-long tail-feathers often get damaged or broken as the birds dart through the thickets; but those get replaced soon with fresh feathers through periodic moulting.
No one has a good answer to the question of why both the male and the female Racket-tailed Drongos sport the decorative tail feathers around the year. But we were not too worried about the lack of scientific explanation for the 'useless' ornamentation of that distinctive bird at Kurma forest. We were simply too happy to enjoy the flight of that fanciful bird followed relentlessly by two shapely rackets.
There are only two species of Racket-tailed Drongos in the world; and in Bangladesh we have them both. The larger one named Greater Racket-tailed Drongo lives in our forests permanently. The smaller species named Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo migrates from the east and lives in the forests, woods and gardens of Bangladesh over the six rain-free months starting in October and ending in March.
Bangladesh has six of the 30 species of drongos of the world. The five of those drongos, including the two Racket-tailed Drongos, are all furtive forest dwellers; while the sixth, the Black Drongo, is omnipresent and a very well-known bird of the Indian subcontinent. The secretive Racket-tailed Drongo, on the other hand, has always been considered to be a mythical bird possessing some magic power.
Conferring a kind of avian sovereignty, the Racket-tailed Drongo was named Bhimraj or Bhringaraj in Bangla and several other languages of the Indian subcontinent. People thought that Racket-tailed Drongo is an embodiment of the immortal bird 'Kalavingka' mentioned in the ancient Buddhist texts. Kalavingka sings while roosting on Dharma; and is called Kooncho in Japanese, meaning 'a sweet-sounding bird'.
Racket-tailed Drongo is truly a talented singer and an expert mimic. It can be very loud as well as soft. Because of its loud whistling calls it is called Kotowal or police in India. It often mimics the calls of Babblers, Laughingthrushes and Yellownapes. We have seen it persistently follow the foraging Laughingthrushes and Yellownapes in our hill-forests, and capture the flying insects escaping from those forages.
We have seen some Greater Racket-tailed Drongos sometimes falsely give alarm calls when there was nothing to be alarmed about. How to explain the deceptive alarm calls of the Drongo! A few behavioural ecologists studied it and concluded that the clever Drongo raises the false alarm to send the foraging Babblers and Yellownapes to scurry off leaving the exposed insects behind only for the Drongo to feed on.
But that explanation does not seem very convincing to us. The Drongo mostly feeds on the flying insects trying to escape the Babblers and Yellownapes that usually probe leaf-litters and tree-trunks typically for the grubs. The Drongo, therefore, benefits more when those foragers are probing; not when they are alarmed and have stopped probing.
We think the playful Racket-tailed Drongo gives the false alarm as a prank somewhat like the proverbial 'cry wolf'. Behavioural ecologists probably, will not agree with that explanation. They need 'utilitarian' explanations for all bird-behaviours and reserve the capacity to play pranks and make sheer mischief only for humans and a few mammalian species.
We certainly have no qualms about the playful nature of the Racket-tailed Drongo. More than once we have seen it drop a small stick in the air and dive down to catch it before it falls to the forest floor. What could explain that behaviour better than 'play'! 'Exercise'! Not very likely.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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