One of the greatest pleasures of our daily hikes over the hills of Lama was to come upon the flocks of Barn Swallows sunning and grooming on the overhead electric cables. We were always happy to take short breaks from our tramping to stare at the assemblies of boisterous birds enjoying the warm cable under their tiny feet and the autumn sun beating down on their fluffed backs.
Unnerved by our gawking, a few Barn Swallows sometimes would cease their sun-bathing and sit uptight or even take off in haste. But the majority of the lounging birds would not terminate their basking or follow the nervous ones in a hurry. And their sang-froid would often prompt the edgy ones to return to the flock sheepishly and reclaim their seats on the cable shame-facedly.
We wondered why such energetic birds as the Barn Swallows were lounging on the overhead cables for so long. Our best guess was that the birds were made indolent by the abundance of insects in that part of the hill. In only a few successful flying sorties the blessed birds were catching all the insects they needed for the day and, in full stomach resting on the cable happily.
Barn Swallows feed on all sorts of flying insects including ants, aphids and beetles etcetera. They fly interminably over marshlands, meadows, grasslands, pastures, paddocks and beels to catch those insects. To have enough for the day they usually have to fly nonstop from dawn to dusk, especially in the demanding months of the breeding period.
We have seen no Barn Swallow breed in Bangladesh although no one has yet ruled out that possibility altogether. Traditionally the swallows prefer to nest in areas farther north in Asia and Europe. The Barn Swallows migrate to Bangladesh and other warm places mostly in the dry seasons: the autumn and the winter months. In spring they return to their breeding grounds.
As the winter fades the male Barn Swallows leave the females behind and fly south to establish their breeding territories. After two weeks the females begin to fly southwards. Once reunited they start making mud nests on man-made structures like barns, bridges and buildings. That is why they are called 'Barn Swallow' and came to be known as the harbinger of spring in Europe.
We do not know when the Barn Swallow gave up its wilderness abode and started to live in human habitations. It has been proliferating along with human expansion for thousands of years. We know that the superstition against harming the swallow was common in ancient civilisations. Deliberate harm to a swallow or its nest was believed to bring injury to the perpetrator. Barn Swallow eventually became the national bird of two European countries: Austria and Estonia.
From the fables and the works of early authors we know how those companionable Barn Swallows were loved by the olden Europeans as much as they are liked today. In the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle the arrival of the Barn Swallow was cited in the following famous line:
'As one swallow does not make a spring, one good day does not make a fortunate man.'
In the European mariner communities the tattoo of swallow was considered a badge of honour; and the number of swallow-tattoos on a sailor's arm indicated his time at sea. A sailor would get to wear a single swallow-tattoo after every 5,000 nautical miles at sea. A sailor with the tattoo of three swallows would be esteemed as the blessed survivor of perilous voyages untold.
Mariners' use of the swallow as a symbol of long voyages seems quite justified to us today. Now we know that the swallows have been undertaking protracted migration flights long before humans evolved and undertook their epic voyages on earth. The ancient mariners knew nothing about the crisscrossing of the globe now we call bird-migration.
The migration was recorded first in 1920 when a Barn Swallow was ringed in England and found later in South Africa. Before that revelation the Europeans only knew that after the hectic breeding season the swallows suddenly disappear only to reappear like magic in the next spring. They theorised that in winter the swallow, like bears, hibernated in caves.
The Barn Swallow lives in all six continents of the world wherever people live. The range of this ubiquitous bird is estimated to be over 25 crore square kilometres globally. No other perching bird has as large a distribution as this agile aviator. The population of Barn Swallow is not declining anywhere on the globe except in a few places such as Bangladesh.
It is rather unfortunate that we see so few Barn Swallows in Bangladesh now. Only a few decades before, it was commonplace to come across swarms of Barn swallows flying over grasslands, paddy fields, ponds and rivers. Our indiscriminate use of chemical insecticides and pesticides has decimated the insect population the swallows fed on.
In our country, the Barn Swallows now live in good numbers only at some remote places like the hills of Lama we were privileged to trek. It is tragic how the swallows are nearly extirpated at the plains where people respectfully call them 'Ababil' referring to the phrase 'tai'rn ababil' from Sura al-Fiel of Holy Qur'an. In Arabic 'tai'rn ababil' means 'flock of birds'.
The Holy Qur'an referred to the story of Abraha, the King of Yemen, marching with a thousand elephants and 60,000 soldiers to destroy the Holy Kaaba only 50 days before the birth of Prophet Muhammad. Those elephants and the army were eventually crushed to a pulp by billions of birds dropping stones from their feet and bills. That was how the evil invasion was defeated and the Holy Kaaba was saved.
The initial vernacular translations of the Holy Qur'an in the Indian subcontinent mistakenly interpreted the words 'tai'rn ababil' as 'flocks of Ababil'; and the ubiquitous swallows came to be known as 'Ababil'. Like many subcontinental languages the swallow is 'Ababil' and the Barn Swallow is 'Pati Ababil' in Bangla.
If it helps Barn Swallows to thrive in Bangladesh, we will be glad to ignore the little error in translation and revere the Ababils as the progenies of the birds that once saved the Holy Kaaba.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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