A very foggy, lacklustre day at the Satchhari National Park abruptly brightened for us when a gorgeous Green Magpie alighted on a tree by the water-whole in front of us. Soon a second magpie came cackling and crashing through the thicket to perch on a swaying bamboo and peered suspiciously around. We continued to sit under cover and prayed hard for the magnificent Magpies to descend to the water-hole for a drink or shower.
Those crow-sized and charmingly attired birds we call Green Magpie are masters of stealth and habitually take good care to keep a great distance from us. We usually do not get to see any, even when several of them are noisily chasing one another in the forest. They stay well hidden in the foliage at the tree-top and keep an eye on all intruders down below. Perhaps they know how cute they look; and impishly stay concealed when we try to watch them.
The bright green plumage helps the Green Magpie stay invisible in the canopy, where it ascends to whenever people are around. Spotting its coral-red bills is the only way to find it high up in a tree. The Magpie flashes its chestnut wing feathers with conspicuous white tips only when it flies. Its other striking details, such as the black mask and the red eye-rings, are not noticeable at a distance.
It is, however, an unforgettable experience to get a glimpse of the Green Magpie up close. Its graceful carriage, sublime colours and playful nature make any short encounter memorable for us. And the sprightly bird always makes sure that all its encounters with us are short. The wise Green Magpies do not wish to make themselves as familiar and commonplace as their close cousins such as Crows, Treepies and sundry Magpies.
The Green Magpie is a carnivorous bird and hunts insects, spiders, worms, larvae and small reptiles in the forest. Regrettably, it also raids the nests of small birds to steal the eggs and, sometimes, the hapless chicks. We believe that those raids are rare and do not take too big a toll on the small forest-birds. Green Magpies spend more time socialising than hunting; and are not known to be brutal or greedy.
The two Green Magpies we had the good fortune to look at for a few minutes clearly seemed more interested in prattling with each other than eating or drinking. We recalled a modest poem on the Magpie written by a nineteenth century Australian poet and environmentalist, Judith Wright. Here are a few beautiful lines from her poem titled Magpies:
Their greed is brief; their joy is long.
For each is born with such a throat
as thanks his God with every note.
We thanked our god for that unusual opportunity to watch and photograph the two wonderful Green Magpies for a few minutes. We saw those gems in the Satchhari National Park and elsewhere a few times before but only for a few fleeting moments. This splendid species of bird lives in only a few hill-forests of Chittagong and Sylhet divisions. It is a bird solely from the tropical forests of South and Southeast Asia; and is found nowhere else in the world.
The official name of our Green Magpie is 'Common Green Magpie' since three other species of Green Magpies also live in Southeast Asia. Of those three species the 'Indochinese Green Magpie' lives mostly in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam; and does not stray as far west as Bangladesh. The two other species are island dwellers and named after the islands they inhabit: one is called 'Javan Green Magpie' and the other is called 'Bornean Green Magpie'.
Crows, Ravens, Magpies, Treepies and Jays are the birds of a unique avian family. All 42 species of this family have been growing famous for their astonishing intelligence and memory; and the Caledonian Crow has been branded as the smartest bird in the world. We are fortunate to have five species of that intelligent family of birds in Bangladesh: two species of Crow, two species of Treepie and the Green Magpie.
No wonder the distinctive Green Magpie was considered a bird of good fortune in ancient China. To the Manchurians, the Green Magpie was a sacred bird. The Mongolians, interestingly, believed that the Green Magpie controlled their weather systems. Eating a Green Magpie was forbidden over a large swath of China and Indochina where bush-meat of all sorts remained a good part of the diet.
In Korea, remarkably, the Magpie symbolised the good-natured 'common man' while the Tiger represented the unkind aristocrat. In traditional Korean paintings, the fearless Magpie is seen facing off against the ferocious Tiger. While the Magpies have certainly fared better than the Tigers in the wild, the common man has not done better than the elite of the urban jungle in Korea or anywhere else in the world.
Suddenly the two Green Magpies flew from the trees and came down to the bank of the darkening water-hole. Two birds cackled loudly between them for some time as we watched, huddled on the other bank. The jolly birds soon jumped to the edge of the water and started splashing like two chuckling children. We had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch and photograph the two fully clothed bathing beauties in the fading light of the day.
The jolly Magpies played with water for quite a while. Their joy was long indeed! We wished it could last longer. It did not. The forest was growing darker; it was time for the birds to fly off to their night roost. We also left, as happy as the birds were. It was blissful to watch the Green Magpies shower, shake, preen and laugh unrestrained. Our only complaint was about the poor light that prevented us from recording those wonderful moments for our friends.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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