We gasped when a startled chicken-like bird hurried away from us on a desolate char on the Padma riverbank. We had travelled from Rajshahi city by boat for two hours to that sliver of land bordering India hoping to find that orange-faced 'chicken'. And we could not believe our luck when the pretty bird popped out of the dry grass right next to our track. It was a Grey Francolin, an elusive and very rare bird of Bangladesh.
We saw the Grey Francolin in Bangladesh for the first time in 2017. That was in Majardiyar, another bordering char of Padma in Rajshahi. Since then, the bird has been seen only a few times there and in other bordering areas. But in 1852, the renowned English ornithologist Colonel Robert Tytler shot a Grey Francolin right in Dhaka. It must have been widespread in Dhaka in those days.
In the 165 years between Colonel Tytler's and our times, people transformed the prime habitats of Grey Francolin, abundant fallow sandy lands, into farmlands and settlements. Our ancestors also corralled the pitiable and destitute birds to feast on. In 2008, sadly, we had to declare the handsome bird 'a former resident' in the Encyclopedia of Flora and Fauna of Bangladesh.
It was, therefore, wonderful to rediscover Grey Francolin in 2017; and a pleasure to find it once again in the first week of 2023. To us, it was the right gift from Mother Nature for the New Year. Although the shy bird hurried away from us, we could watch and photograph it on the open field for quite some time. It was not like the short and electric encounter of Majardiyar char.
The gorgeous barred body of the Grey Francolin merged well with the dry grass of the char and gave the wary fowl the nerve to forage for seeds and insects out in the open. The bird zig-zagged in weeds and dead grasses, all the while waving its ample bottom and looking questioningly at us every now and then. We were gawking, of course, and knew no good way to hide our joy.
We rejoiced in the following observation of John Kipling on the gait of a Francolin or Partridge: 'a rapid and pretty gait that suggests a graceful girl tripping along with a full skirt well held up. The Indian lover can pay his sweetheart no higher compliment than to say she runs like a partridge.' And that was the comment of the Kipling senior, an Anglican clergyman in India and the father of Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling! Brilliant.
The male and the female Grey Francolins both have swaying bottoms, graceful gaits and look pretty much alike. The male, however, is a little bigger and has two sharp spurs on each leg, unlike the female. The males challenge and fight each other in the breeding season; and their spurs often turn into vicious weapons. In the wild, however, most of their fights for breeding rights do not end in severe injuries or death.
The story was quite different with the captive Francolins and Partridges in the Indian subcontinent in the past centuries when cockfights between pet birds were common. People preferred deadly attacks and bloodied arenas; they sharpened the birds' spurs and attached deadly little knives with their strong legs to achieve that goal. Fortunately, those nasty entertainments have died out and been outlawed in most parts of the subcontinent.
Grey Francolin is a bird of the Indian subcontinent out and out. Outside the subcontinent, it existed only in Iran. It did not even occur in the Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar, where it was introduced later and is pretty well established now. The Francolin has also been introduced to several places in the USA by bird-fanciers and pet-traders. It is now seen in all the Hawaii islands.
Ornithologists have baptised the Grey Francolin after Pondicherry of South India by making the bird's specific name pondicerianus. It is, however, called Teetir in Bangla as well as most other Indian languages. That name has come, obviously, from the birds' sharp, loud and repetitive calls 'teetar teetar kateetar kateetar' and the duets sung together by male and female 'kateela kateela'.
Grey Francolins love to grovel on the ground. They feed, frolic, fight and make love on the ground. They take frequent dust-baths on the ground to get rid of the mites that feed on their handsome feathers. They leave the ground only at dusk to sleep high up in thorn-bushes well out of reach of jackals etc. They descend to the ground again at dawn to resume their simple lives on dirt and grit.
Grey Francolin lays eggs in a shallow nest made of grass on the ground. The mother-bird does not worry too much about scorpions, snakes and rats since she is quite good at attacking, dismembering and eating those sneaky creatures. She faces challenges in incubating and raising chicks on the ground frequented by predators such as dogs. She can often face off a dog, but not a pack of hounds.
To conserve the habitat of the rare Grey Francolin in Bangladesh, the Forest Department had planned to proclaim bird sanctuaries at a few chars of the Padma riverbank bordering India. We hope the plan translates into action before these precious birds disappear from Bangladesh again. We do not wish to visit Hawaii to see this lovely bird that called Bangladesh its home for centuries.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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