We were pleased to see two White Wagtails sprinting around a puddle created by the workers employed to make the elevated expressway over the railroad at Banani. It was a foggy October morning and too early for the workers to show up with their winches. The birds were running wildly and feeding on tiny insects on offer at that puddle-restaurant.
While we enjoyed watching those migratory Wagtails so near our home we questioned their wisdom for feeding out of that ghastly puddle. The site was overflowing with oil, grease and god knows what other contaminants! The tiny bits of chemical poisons picked up by the insects could accumulate in the vital organs of those insect-eating birds and kill them.
We felt more remorseful when we remembered that before the construction work began, there used to be a tiny waterhole fringed by wild-grass between the main-road and the railroad. That waterhole was probably the winter home of the two Wagtails. Perhaps on their first migration to Bangladesh as juveniles they found that waterhole; and have been visiting it ever since.
Possibly out of sheer nostalgia, the Wagtails came to visit their old winter-home even after that was mangled by men. And, perhaps, on their sentimental tour there the poor birds could not resist the temptation of snacking on the fast food on offer at the curbside. We hoped that the birds would move on and soon find a less polluted and less trodden place to settle in.
As the sun raked the fog, we were happy to train our cameras on the Wagtails sunning, preening, cheeping and dashing after the insects. They totally ignored the stray dogs arguing over the crumbs dragged out of a garbage dump nearby. The two Wagtails were also not troubled by the crowing House Crows attempting to pinch morsels from the dogs.
We had a unique opportunity to photograph the jolly Wagtails in the company of the rancorous street dogs. But those cordial moments between the birds and the beasts came to an abrupt end as soon as two lumbering workers wearing hard hats emerged out of a distant hut. The two Wagtails quickly turned tense, screamed 'tsee-tsee' and took off in a flurry.
We were sad but not surprised to see the Wagtails go. We know that wild birds do not react to human incursion with the calmness they do to that of other animals. The birds usually see us as vicious predators or creepy aliens; not as creatures they could coexist with. People wishing to watch, study or photograph birds must stay far away and as discreet as possible.
In a deceptively simple poem titled 'Wagtail and Baby' the great Victorian poet and novelist Thomas Hardy underscored that alienation of humans. The poem narrated how a baby understood the alienation when she saw a merry Wagtail unafraid of giant bulls in the field fly away in fright as soon as a human came near. Here is a part of that intriguing poem:
A perfect gentleman then neared;
The wagtail, in a winking,
With terror rose and disappeared;
The photos we took of the two White Wagtails looked like the dated snapshots from the era of black-and-white photography. The plumages of the Wagtails were all black and white and grey, and had no touch of colour. They looked very elegant and appealing all the same; and confirmed the adage that the two most attractive 'colours' in the world are black and white.
All Wagtails, however, are not black and white. There are 13 species of Wagtails in the world; and several of them don beautiful yellow feathers in the breeding season. Bangladesh has seven species of Wagtails; and only one of them lives here the year round. The other six species including the White Wagtail live in Bangladesh only in winter.
In summer the White Wagtails fly northwards to breed in cooler climes. Many of them travel as far northeast as Kamchatka and, even, Alaska to breed. We do not know if a Wagtail chick fledged at Alaska ever travelled as far southwest as Bangladesh! To find that we have to go to Alaska and put a few colour-flags on the legs of Wagtail fledglings.
Most of the White Wagtails wintering in Bangladesh probably do not go very far beyond the Himalayan highlands to breed. We once saw the Wagtail nesting in a fissure of the stone-wall of Khumjung Monastery in Nepal. We were thrilled to see the clever bird use that man-made structure as its nesting site. The chances of its survival improve as it adapts to man-made objects.
At Khumjung we could not help question whether the Wagtail incubating its eggs in the nest was wagging its tail or sitting motionless! The Wagtails are unusual birds that constantly wag their tails for no good reason; at least, for no reason we know of. Its English name 'Wagtail' and Latin name 'Motacilla' meaning moving-tail, obviously, refer to its peculiar habit of tail-wagging.
Thankfully in Bangla the Wagtail is called 'Khonjon' or 'Khonjona' which, unlike the English and the Latin, overlooks the bird's peculiar habit of tail-wagging. In the Baltic country of Latvia the White Wagtail is the national bird; and in the Baltic folklores, it symbolises dexterity and resolve. In the Latvian language the bird is called Balta Cielava; and hopefully, it does not mean tail-wagging.
For the coming winter the Wagtails of the Baltic region are migrating now to northern Africa. And on their southward journey they have to fly, sadly, over the war-torn Ukraine. The migrating birds may, however, be better off than the resident fowls that would not migrate and continue to live in the lines of fire.
We wonder how the horrors of war were impacting the birds that, in Thomas Hardy's words, were terrorized even by 'a perfect gentleman.'
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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