We stopped dead after we entered a small grove of shaggy trees over an old cremation ground at Arakul in Keraniganj when a low cloud suddenly began to pour. We saw a stunning red-headed woodpecker sitting on the mossy trunk of a tree right in front of us. With its Dinosaur-like claws, the mighty bird held the trembling tree firmly and with its round black eyes watched the swaying canopy fretfully.
It was a Greater Flameback, a great bird to recompense our birding Friday thoroughly marred by foul weather.
We stood still for a while, and like some adept mime-artists, raised our cameras to the woodpecker in slow motion when a strong gust of wind began to drive the rain away.
The beautiful bird continued to hold the tree close to its body lovingly and appeared lost in some profound thoughts. The tree seemed rather unmoved but a few raindrops fell on us from its canopy like some tears of overwhelming delight.
Although named a Greater Flameback, the tapering crimson crown of the bird was clearly the most distinctive part of its adornment than its golden back.
The crimson crown, however, is a decoration only of the male. Its female sports a strange black crown spotted with white. We hoped that a female would soon show up in that quiet grove of the cremation ground if the rain did not return.
Minutes passed; no female showed up. After a few minutes, the male flew to the next tree and hugged its trunks tenderly. For a brief period, we watched the lonely woodpecker fly from tree-trunk to tree-truck without ever pecking at anything. Maybe the recurrent shower had forced the ants to stay indoors and the washed-up trees had nothing to offer to the rapacious woodpecker.
Woodpeckers peck on trees not for food only. In summer they chisel holes in trees to make their nests. During courtship, the male woodpecker uses the pecking sound to serenade the female. In spring the male pecks on every hollow trunk because the female likes the deep sound a natural hollow produces.
While most birds sing to their mates, the woodpeckers peck. The drumming on wood is the woodpecker equivalent of the regular bird-song. Every species of woodpecker has its distinctive repertoire of drum-beats.
Woodpeckers' pecking sound, tuk-tak, tuk-tak, symbolised the heartbeats of Mother Earth to the people of many indigenous cultures in America. Those people had the great fortune to live among several very large and distinctive woodpeckers of the world such as Magellanic Woodpecker, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker.
Fascinatingly, the two American continents along with Africa, Asia and Europe have more than 250 species of woodpeckers belonging to a single mega-family. The family has been named Picidae after the word Picus, the Latin term for the woodpecker. Surprisingly, Australia and Antarctica have not been colonised by any adventurous Picus yet.
In Bangladesh, we are fortunate to see a great variety of woodpeckers, from the world's largest: the Great Slaty Woodpecker, to the smallest: the tiny Piculet.
The Greater Flameback happens to be our second-largest woodpecker. It is a rather robust bird and continues to live in our village groves and orchards in spite of our wanton use of pesticides. Besides the villages, it lives in all our forests; especially the rambling mangrove of the Sundarbans.
Our folklores always portrayed the woodpecker as an honest, plucky and righteous character. In one famous Jataka fable, the woodpecker saved a lion's life by bravely entering its mouth and removing a piece of bone stuck to its throat.
In another tale, the woodpecker pecked the precious stones from the sculptures of a king and offered those to the poor farmers and fishers. That woodpecker perhaps was the first communist in the world.
In Ovid's poem, Picus was a handsome Roman youth devoted to his beautiful wife before a nasty witch named Circe turned him into a woodpecker. Picus, being fiercely faithful to his wife, rejected Circe rudely; and the irate witch cursed him to be a woodpecker. Here's how Ovid saw the princely Picus turn into a strange bird of the wood:
"Angered at his sudden transformation to a strange bird, he pecked at the rough oak wood with his hard beak and wounded the long branches. The feathers of his crown and nape took on the colour of his crimson cloak, and what had been a golden brooch, pinning his clothes, became plumage. Nothing was left to Picus of his former being, except his name."
Ornithologists studying woodpeckers today tell us that Picus has definitely learned the lesson not to be overly faithful. Promiscuity in the woodpecker families is not uncommon nowadays.
In fact, the Acorn Woodpecker of North America is pretty famous for communal breeding. Infidelity seems to be an insurance against genetic cul-de-sac resulting from inbreeding. The wise woodpeckers know that the genetic diversity among offspring is good for survival in the long run.
The inquisitive woodpecker in the sodden grove of Arakul kept moving from tree to tree without pecking at anything. We guessed that the bird was prospecting for a suitable place to dig its nest-hole. Perhaps the bird was observing the rainwater running down the tree-trunks to select a nest-site that would stay dry after a downpour.
Surely, he did not like to see a day when his mate would emerge from the nest-hole to report that the eggs were inundated.
As we expected, a female Greater Flameback eventually showed up. She flew out of a Gamari tree and sat on the trunk of an Ashoka tree at the far end of the grove. The rain had stopped and people started venturing out on the street by the grove.
We promptly marched out of the cremation ground leaving the grove to the woodpeckers. Not many quiet groves like that were available in Keraniganj for the large woodpeckers to nest.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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