We were thrilled to spot a Honey Buzzard soaring above the sweltering hills when an animated companion screamed with delight: "Raptor, raptor; check in the sky over that hill." That was how we spotted the first visiting bird of prey on our long trudge through tea-estates in Srimangal. Since morning we were scanning the sky to find a rare raptor such as an eagle, a baza, a buzzard or a harrier in vain.
In the tea-estates we always explored the blue firmament of autumn to spot the migratory raptors joining with the soaring locals such as Crested Serpent Eagle, Indian Spotted Eagle and Changeable Hawk-eagle etc. Nowadays, we continue to look up to the November sky over the shade-trees of tea-gardens; but rarely see a raptor soar in the air except for the two resident kites: Brahmini Kite and Black Kite.
In the past decades the population of raptors has been going down all over South and Southeast Asia; but in our country it has crashed precipitously. While only the two species of kites have been doing fine, the other 44 species of raptors of Bangladesh are going down the tube. We have destroyed nearly all insects, reptiles, rodents and most other creatures those birds of prey used to feed on.
Honey Buzzard is the only migratory raptor we can still see circling leisurely up in the sky over the forests, tea-estates and villages of Bangladesh. By spreading its large wings it can stay aloft effortlessly on the warm air perpetually pushing upwards. And while up in the sky enjoying the warming sunshine it keeps an eye over the movement of its favourite insects such as honeybees, hornets, wasps and cicadas.
The Honey Buzzard soaring high up in the sky reminded us of an amazing poem written from the perspective of a rather haughty hawk looking down upon the world below. The poem was created by the treasured twentieth century English poet Ted Hughes who visited Bangladesh in 1989 and, probably, watched hawks, harriers, bazas or buzzards in the sky on his Sundarban tour. Here are three powerful lines of his poem titled Hawk Roosting:
The air's buoyancy and the sun's ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth's face upward for my inspection.
Honey Buzzards inspects the earth mostly to check the traffic of aerial insects such as honeybees and hornets etc. As the very name suggests the Honey Buzzard loves to feed on honey, honeycomb and the larvae of bees, wasps and hornets. While buzzing across the sky the honest honeybees disclose their home-addresses unwittingly; and the wicked wasps and the haughty hornets do that quite arrogantly.
While most mortals including humans avoid the bees, wasps and hornets for their poisonous stings, the Honey Buzzards pursue them and attack their nests with impunity and steal the honey and the larvae. The dense feathers, thick skin around the eyes and the armoured toes protect them against the most formidable stings in the world. Besieged bees, wasps and hornets swarm a Honey Buzzard for nought.
Feathers of the Honey Buzzard are also covered with some white filaments that are believed to deter the stinging insects from settling on those. This makes the other birds such as honeyguides and the mammals such as bears envious of the Honey buzzards for evolving that additional chemical defence and gaining an edge over them in the business of raiding with impunity the colony of insects with stings.
We once saw a Honey Buzzard descend on a honeycomb hanging from a windowsill of a building in the Jahangirnagar University campus. The bird took a large part of the comb where the honey was stored and gluttonously guzzled on the honey as well as the comb. The ferocious beers, of course, attacked the bird and crawled all over its body in their vain attempts to find a place to jab in their stings.
The bees continued to swarm the Honey Buzzard even after it finished its banquet of beeswax dunked in honey. The bird sat calmly on a Mahogany Tree; and we continued to squat in the nearby bush wishing the bees to return to their nest and letting us come out in the open to photograph the bird. We knew that the angry bees would attack us if we stirred too early; and no part of our body is protected against bee stings.
Recently a bird-photographer was hospitalised at Badalgachi UP in Naogaon after being attacked by a throng of irate bees pursuing a Honey Buzzard carrying away a chunk of beehive. The gentleman suffered for a few days; but recovered soon enough. But innocent people, especially the young ones, do die of similar attacks by the irritated bees, wasps and hornets chasing after their eternal enemy - the Honey Buzzard.
Understandably, the stinger insects more often attack the honey-harvesters than the bird-photographers. In Indonesia the honey-hunters blamed the recurrent attacks by the giant honeybees on the roguish buzzards. The honey-hunters believed that after attacking the honeycomb, a wicked Honey Buzzard deliberately flies over the people in the forest to let the bees pursue them rather than the bird.
The increasing allegations of the honey-hunters of Indonesia were not left uninvestigated. Scientists studied those and found no proof of any attempt of a Honey Buzzard being pursued by the bees to fly more often towards the people in the forest. They concluded that the people in the forest were attacked more often by the giant bees because more people were entering the forests more often than before.
We, however, would not blame a Honey Buzzard even if it quite intentionally brought a horde of furious bees to a group of honey-hunters. The bees have survived the attacks of Honey Buzzards for crores of years; but are on the verge of complete collapse from human attacks, in only a few centuries.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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