The populations of most species of birds except those who thrive on human-produced waste are declining in Bangladesh. But the Purple Sunbird seems to be doing pretty well without help from humans
A tiny bird trying to frighten the bumblebees away from the bursting crimson flowers on a small tree brightened our afternoon all at once. It was an oddly coloured male Purple Sunbird, and he was quite unwilling to share the nectar of 'his' flowers with the bees.
Although the bird was about three inches long his girth was no wider than a bumblebee's. And the nectar-soaked tongue he kept sticking out impolitely was no wider than bumblebees' proboscis. No wonder the bees refused to run scared and visited the contested flowers again and again.
The bird repeatedly raised the newly minted metallic blue feathers of his head to scare the bees off. The magical hue of his scaly feathers matched the charming blue-black glow from the pewter body of the bees. The flowers exploded in laughter at the tussle between the two petite pollinators.
We could clearly see why the bird wanted all the nectar for himself. He needed a lot of fuel to replace his dowdy feathers of winter with the plumages of vibrant colours for the spring. In winter he had olive and yellow feathers like the females. Those dull colours would not at all serve a male in the upcoming breeding season.
A male sunbird must drop all old feathers and grow new colourful ones before summer. And as spring knocks on the door, the little fellow is moulting feverishly. Much of the olive feathers of his back have been replaced with glowing blue and purple plumage, and half of his yellow belly has already turned limber black.
We moved a little closer to the flowering trees, snapped a few photographs of the magnificent bird and backed off. It would be best to move on before a crowd of curious people gather around us. But before we took off another sunbird flew in and sat on a flower.
A female - we thought, because the bird had the olive back and yellow belly of a female. But then the bird also had a black line on its belly and purple shoulder which no female could ever have. It must be a male that was just getting on with the wave of seasonal moulting - we amended our thoughts quickly.
The newcomer took a quick sip of nectar and flashed its wet tongue. That was, probably, too rude and offensive to the other male we saw first. He sharply rebuked and chased away the newcomer who did not stand his ground and quickly darted off, possibly because he lacked the colour of aggression.
Purple is the colour of aggression in the world of the Purple Sunbird. When a male gets his full attire it looks black from a distance, but a closer look reveals its sapphire blue and deep purple colours. In this dress, the male is more alert, confrontational and possessive of his territory.
In purple dress, the males are also more focused, tuneful and chivalrous. Every male marks its territory by singing from the trees it 'owns'; and shows his appreciation to the visiting females by fluttering the wings and spreading the purple tail. Spring is the season to find a mate and summer is the time to procreate.
While moulting, the male Purple Sunbird grows some shocking orange pectoral feathers that he prudently hides under his sombre black wings. The orange pectorals are displayed only to an interested female who may appreciate his matchless choice of colours - black, purple, blue and a dash of orange.
The female Purple Sunbird also moults to get a new dress in the spring. But unlike the male, she retains most of her sombre winter colours, olive back and yellow belly. A lovely white stripe above her eye is the only cosmetics she puts on in honour of the rejuvenating Goddess of Spring.
Unlike the showy male, the female Purple Sunbird wishes to remain unseen and unnoticed - more so in the breeding season. The female alone commutes between trees a thousand times a day to collect dry leaves and cobwebs to make her pendulous nest. Alone she incubates her eggs for weeks in predator infested land.
The male Purple Sunbird dutifully sits hidden in the trees near the nest but does not go in to incubate the eggs simply because God did not give him the brood patch to do the job. He eagerly joins the female to feed the chicks as soon as the eggs hatch.
Purple Sunbirds seem to be doing fine in our capital city as everywhere else in Bangladesh. They can survive wherever there are a few flowers and a few insects left for them to feed on. The brave bird is as comfortable in the human neighbourhood as in the wilderness.
The entire community of sunbirds feed on the profusely flowering Shimul, Polash and Mandar trees in spring and the Raintrees in summer. In winter we see the sunbirds more on the flowers of Porgacha or the epiphytic plants growing on top of large trees.
In our neighbourhood we often see the sunbirds feeding on the flowers of banana plants. In winter we see them nearly every day on the flowering Sajna or drumstick trees. Sunbirds probably are the leading pollinators of these and many of our other fruit-bearing trees.
Purple Sunbird is a brave bird and appears to be quite unafraid of humans, possibly, because no one cares to hunt such a tiny creature. Smallness seems to be helping the bird in many ways to survive in the land entirely overtaken by humans, their pets and feral creatures living off the offal or handout from humans.
Sunbirds are living well with no help from humans. We know that the populations of most species of birds except those thriving on our waste are declining in Bangladesh. But Purple Sunbird is thriving pretty well in our neighbourhood and elsewhere in the country.
To our Purple Sunbird we say bravo, live on little jewels, small is truly beautiful!
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam.
First Published in The Business Standard
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