Being a forest dweller and an insectivore, the Laughingthrush has been facing double jeopardy in its homeland in Asia: the relentless deforestation and the overdose of insecticides. The estimate of Birdlife International shows that the global population of Laughingthrushes has been falling in recent decade

We were unnerved for a moment when we heard an odd laughter from dead leaves on the ground of a hill-forest in Lama. A pile of dead leaves seemed to be giggling! We quickly hid behind tree-trunks and strained our eyes at the patchwork of light and shade on the forest floor. We found a flock of Necklaced Laughingthrush cackling and rummaging through leaf-litters. The rufous feathers kept the birds indistinguishable from fallen leaves.

We could see a dozen furtive birds walking on the ground and turning up dead leaves in search of worms and insects. It was a mixed flock of two species of Laughingthrushes: Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush. The birds from one group called 'ho ho who who'; and those of the other group piped in 'hoki ki ki ki'. It was like a bunch of jolly children running through leaf-litters and laughing.

Although Necklaced Laughingthrushs live in all the hill forests of Bangladesh, we rarely get to see them. They are shy and stealthy birds keen to keep a great distance from us, intruding humans. Both the male and the female of those two species of birds dress in all-rufous feathers in all seasons and stay concealed on the ground as well as in the tree canopy. We only see them briefly, often a little while before they spot us and disappear.

The Laughingthrush, however, is easily heard if not seen. They are usually quite vocal and animated. They are named the Laughingthrush because of their penchant for frequent loud calls, although they are neither 'laugh' nor belong to the Thrush family. Their loud chorus may sometimes sound like cackling from a distance but does not resemble human laughter as much as the call of a few other birds such as Kookaburras and Parrots.

We have no doubt that vocalisation plays a very important part in the lives of Necklaced Laughingthrushes. They live their lives in complex societies of more than one species as equals, without becoming dominant or subservient to one another. Their chicks probably learn very early to be affable and sociable to the chicks of other species of Laughingthrushes. Humans happen to know how hard it is to accomplish that level of gregariousness and civility, even within a single species.

The natural fluency with which most birds express, converse and sing is truly exceptional in the entire animal-world. Only the great apes, monkeys and cetaceans seem to have some of that aptitude among the mammals. Pablo Neruda, the celebrated Chilean diplomat, poet and Nobel Laureate noted the precision with which the birds conversed. In a charming poem titled (in an English translation) 'Ode to Birdwatching' he wrote:

You can hear them

like a heavenly

rustle or movement.

They converse

with precision.

They repeat

their observations.

They comment

on everything that exists.

The song of Laughingthrush at Lama did not sound exactly like our laughter; but probably served similar purposes: to express joy and celebrate success. Through binoculars, we saw a foraging bird toss some fallen leaves, find a writhing grub, gulp it and happily call 'hoki ki ki ki'. The other birds foraging nearby immediately responded 'hoki ki ki ki' to share in the happiness of the lucky diner without claiming any part of his meal.

As the happy flock of Laughingthrush walked farther away from us we broke cover and resumed our slow trudge. Right away the flock flew out of the forest floor to the safety of the bamboo grove and Ficus canopy. The Laughingthrush may frequently descend to the leaf litter to find food but it does not forget that the forest floor is a dangerous place; and the dense foliage of the mid-canopy is where they hide, rest, roost and nest.

Necklaced Laughingthrushes are members of a bird-family named Leiotrichidae. The family has 152 species of insectivorous birds mostly living in small groups in the moist forests of the tropical region in East and Far East Asia and Africa. The common English name of 71 species of these birds is Laughingthrush. Of those, two species are named Necklaced Laughingthrush for their distinct black circular mark on the neck and breast.

Eleven members of this family live in Bangladesh; and four of them are Laughingthrush. Its Bangla name 'Penga' is far shorter and much less misleading than the English name 'Laughingthrush'. The word 'mala', meaning 'garland' has been added to Penga to call Necklaced Laughingthrush a 'Malapenga' in Bangla. The Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush and the Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush are simply called Boro Malapenga and Choto Malapenga.

Being a forest dweller and an insectivore the Laughingthrush has been facing double jeopardy in its homeland in Asia: the relentless deforestation and the overdose of insecticides. The estimate of Birdlife International shows that the global population of Laughingthrushes has been falling in recent decades; although the sturdy birds are not yet doing so poorly as to need drastic protection. All we need to do is speed up afforestation and slow down the usage of chemicals in agriculture.

In our short foray through the forest in Lama we were blessed to meet that mixed flock of the two species of Laughingthrushes foraging and conversing happily with one another and, perhaps, sharing 'comment on everything that exists'.

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

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