Ashy Woodswallow used to be a common sight everywhere in Bangladesh only a few decades before. The population of that intrepid and gregarious bird has fallen drastically over the past decades

Our daily ramble on the hills of Lama offered the recurring spectacles of Ashy Woodswallows sallying high up in the sky to catch some airborne insects. The hill-tops were the feasting place of the Woodswallows as much as of the Bee-eaters, Martins and Swifts of Bandarban. Those birds did not care to have their banquets anywhere other than in mid-air.

Even without looking up, we often knew the presence of the Woodswallows overhead from their indulgent, infantile calls 'nyeh nyeh'. Everything about those little birds was babyish. They sat huddled on the overhead cable touching each other; and told long stories to one another, perhaps, a captivating bird-world version of the 'Thousand and One Nights.'

The Woodswallows did not sit on the cable crowding, preening and telling stories to each other forever. Every now and then, they would put a pause button on their stories of endless nights and take off to the clear blue autumn sky. They loved to float on the clean, warm air and look for some impulsive bumblebees or crickets to cruise between the hills.

We recalled a great verse from the nineteenth-century English poet William Wordsworth in which he passionately sought to follow a little bird high up in the sky. The poet was thinking of a Lark that flew high not to feast; but to sing. Unknown to our poet, the Woodswallows do have their banquettes in the sky; and his lines befit these aerial feeders much better:

Lift me, guide me high and high,

To thy banqueting-place in the sky.

With its plump body and baby-voice the Woodswallow did seem lovable; but its sharp eyes and formidable steel-grey bills called into question that first impression. The fluffy little bird obviously was not very kind to the dragonflies, bumblebees and butterflies. We saw a Woodswallow catch a dragonfly and devour it while merrily flying and calling 'nyeh nyeh'.

That reminded us of the family tree of Woodswallow and the fact that its closest relatives were the Butcherbirds of Australia. Ten of the 11 species of Woodswallows of the world lived exclusively in Australasia. The one we have in Bangladesh is the only non-Australian species. This lonely species, Ashy Woodswallow, lives in East and Southeast Asia only.

Ashy Woodswallow used to be a common sight everywhere in Bangladesh only a few decades before. We used to see troupes of them thronged together on the overhead cables wherever we went. The population of that intrepid and gregarious bird has fallen drastically over the past decades. It is seen now in smaller numbers and only in remote places such as Lama.

Our senseless annihilation of all sorts of insect-lives including bees, butterflies and damselflies has been starving the Woodswallows and many other insect-eating birds in Bangladesh. We have nearly eliminated 300 species of insectivorous birds from all our farmlands, gardens, orchards, lakes and rivers. We have accomplished all of that simply through our persistent use of pesticides.

For a small bird, the Ashy Woodswallow is remarkably robust and fit to dodge or fight back the attacks of the bird-killers like Hawks, Harriers and Falcons. It has a pair of very sharp eyes, dexterous wings and the brain to use those in evading aerial attacks. It is also equipped with rather strong beaks and talons to fend off many a fateful attack.

The vertebral column of the Woodswallow is built somewhat differently. Some of its thoracic vertebrae are fused together to give it a lot of extra strength and stability. Only a few families of birds in the world have that structure named the Notarium. It probably helps the Woodswallow continuously flap its wings over a long period without rest.

That explains why the Woodswallow, unlike most small birds, chose not to stay hidden but live its entire life flying high up in the sky and resting on exposed places. It also nests high up on an exposed spot, often, on the electric pole. And for the entire period of incubation and chick-rearing it shoulders the gruelling task of fending off attacks by marauding crows and kites.

Ashy Woodswallow is also able to handle poisons that many insects accrue by eating poisonous plants. The Woodswallow readily takes many of those poisonous insects, such as the Common Crow and the Milkweed Butterflies that other birds avoid. That ability to safely ingest the poisonous insects has not made Woodswallows immune to the chemical poisons people formulated.

Mother Nature had equipped the Woodswallow to survive many menaces of life under the open sky ruled by hulking giants and dreadful assassins. Fossil of its ancestor from the Miocene epoch tells us that for two crore years, the Woodswallow has been playing the game of survival pretty well. It, however, has not learnt how to live when its food is poisoned and mired by men!

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

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