A colourful bird froze in a clammy scrub along the gutter as we turned a corner during our morning walk menaced by an untimely drizzle. The bird, obviously, was an intrepid Orange-headed Thrush rummaging through shrubs and rubbles in an attempt to find its breakfast. It was very unusual for that forest dwelling bird to come to our neighbourhood in bustling Banani.
The nimble bird fluffs its feathers, perhaps, to shake the raindrops off its handsome orange head and breast. Happily, the light drizzle had ceased; and the slivers of sunlight were able to hit the scrub where the auburn bird silently stood. Its mottled ginger belly looked like an ornate little quilt spread out in the autumn sun in anticipation of its wintertime usage.
We were more than pleased to find such a pretty bird in our dingy housing area and did not wish to frighten the unusual visitor away. The bird stood perfectly still, as it usually does when it intends to avoid detection. We had already stopped on our track and continued to stand still wishing in all earnestness that the bird would ignore us and resume its search for breakfast.
The mystified Orange-headed Thrush would, perhaps, ignore us; but not the newspaper-vendor biking towards the scrub from the other side. The alarmed bird jumped out of the scrub on the perimeter wall and dropped into the expansive grassland beyond the wall. We knew that there would be no dearth of breakfast for the hungry bird in that soggy field of grass.
Orange-headed Thrush is an omnivorous bird that relishes worms and insects as well as soft berries. Earthworms, by far, are its most favourite food in Bangladesh; and it lives mostly off the worms in our Sal forests where berries are in short supply. In the forests and the village woodlands, we usually find the thrush walking on the ground in search of wiggling worms.
Although it remains the only common resident thrush of Bangladesh, we get to see fewer and fewer Orange-headed Thrushes as the earthworms disappear from our villages. In the days of abundance, however, people did not notice too many of them because it has always been a very secretive bird like most thrushes of the world.
Of the world's 181 thrushes, only three are residents of Bangladesh; and only the Orange-headed Thrush lives in Dhaka city. Another Bangladeshi resident named Blue Whistling Thrush is a rare bird and found only in the hill districts. The third resident thrush, Purple Cochoa, is a very rare bird of the Orient and spotted only a few times in our country including once in the golf course at Kurmitola.
Along with these three residents another 12 species of thrush live in Bangladesh in winter. Only a handful of people ever saw any of those stealthy visitors. Orange-headed Thrush remains the only thrush we may expect to see often in our neighbourhood. Being an Oriental species, it can never be seen in the backyards of the people elsewhere in the world.
In the spring, we may hear the Orange-headed Thrush more often than we see it. Like most thrushes it sings sweet, soft songs and sometimes mimics other songbirds of Bangladesh. Alfred Tennyson, a Victorian Poet Laureate, wrote the following charming lines about a thrush, the harbinger of spring in his country:
Last year you sang it as gladly.
'New, new, new, new'! Is it then so new
That you should carol so madly
'Love again, song again, nest again, young again.'
The Orange-headed Thrush breeds in early summer in Bangladesh when the passing showers send the worms crawling on the ground. Its nest is an ample platform made of straws, grasses and leaves. The young and energetic thrushes may nest more than once in one season, especially when the first nest is parasitized by the cuckoo.
The Jacobin Cuckoos and the Chesnutt-winged Cuckoos are known to lay eggs in the nests of Orange-headed Thrush. A single egg is laid by the cuckoo in the thrush-nest without damaging the thrush-eggs. The cuckoo-egg hatches first and the chick monopolises the food brought by the thrush; and the late-hatching thrush-chicks, sadly, die of starvation.
However, the energetic Orange-headed Thrushes have not suffered because of the sneaky cuckoos laying eggs in their nests for donkey's years. The thrush population has been falling with the recent loss of forests and woodlands in the Orient. In Bangladesh it suffers additionally from the massive destruction of worms and insects because of an overuse of pesticides.
Orange-headed Thrush is a popular cage-bird in several Oriental countries; and its population has recently been falling in some of those countries. Fortunately, Bangladesh has strict laws against trapping, trading and owning of wild birds; and very few thrushes have ever been caught here for the pet markets. The thrush can blame us only for our love of pesticides and our sloth in the field of forest conservation.
Hong Kong has recently demonstrated how closely the wellbeing of the Orange-headed Thrush is tied to that of forests and woodlands. The thrush was first known to have colonised Hong Kong in 1956. The thrush population has been growing steadily along with the growth and maturing of forests and woodlands of that little island.
Like the people of Hong Kong when we take care of our forests and woods the Orange-headed Thrush in Bangladesh may also sing: 'Love again, song again, nest again, young again.'
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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