· Egrets, herons, cormorants, and Asian openbills are the communal resident waterbirds of Bangladesh
· Establishing and promoting safe refuge for these birds in rural areas are our conservation successes
· Harmonious living with these waterbirds can restore tarnished human-wildlife relationship
· Cruelty towards waterbirds by Rajshahi Medical College and Hospital threatens this approach
It was a December morning of 2016. I was on my way to work, and stuck in a long tailback.
To overcome boredom, I cranked up the volume on my headphones and tried to look out through the bus window. Luckily, the Gulshan-Badda link road I was on, goes right through the Gulshan Lake, the bus I had boarded was driving right by the lake, and I was on a window seat.
A thin layer of mist hung over the surroundings, but it had begun to thin out. Then, suddenly, I noticed some tumult in the water. About ten little cormorants (choto pankouri in Bangla) were on their morning foraging rounds. And, they went into a feeding frenzy after spotting a shoal of fishes that were very likely weakened by nearly putrid and stagnant winter-time lake water.
But, right amid the bustle of the city, where did the cormorants come from?
Large rain trees surrounding the lakeshore were the answer.
In 2019, I spent a very different winter morning at a mangrove creek separating a village and the Sundarbans.
As our canoe delved deeper into the canal, we entered a large roosting colony of the Asian openbill (Shamuk-khol/Shamkhol in Bangla). These are large black and white birds with large, grayish beaks, and long, light pink legs. The birds were unmoved by our presence, although we were very close to them, thanks to the combined effects of high-tide and the relatively low-hanging canopy of mangrove trees.
The chilly morning, the curtain of fog, the still water, the mystic forest and the bird flock radiated together to create an impression of any expeditionary movie scene — as if we were passing through a primeval landscape.
Indeed, colonial waterbirds can be very fascinating.
What's in the name?
There are birds that live in large groups called rookeries or colonies during nesting season.
A bird colony is usually made up of a large congregation of individuals of one or more species. These species can closely nest or spend night (known as roosting) at a particular location. So, colonies can be nesting or roosting. It can be made up of a single species or multiple species.
Many birds are known to live in groups. The baya weaver forms nesting colonies. Sparrows, crows, parakeets, and even kites are known to spend nights in groups. A colony provides many perks. It has many eyes to spot potential threats and acts as an effective measure to drive them away.
Here, we are talking about a particular group of birds that have their life entwined with water. We call them waterbirds. These waterbirds can be associated with freshwater waterbodies and reservoirs. They can cling to estuaries, mudflats, and sea-shore – we call them shorebirds. They can be completely sea-faring – we call them pelagic birds.
Waterbirds, however, have one thing in common – they love to live communally. And, a large number of them migrate every year.
Most of the waterbirds of Bangladesh are migratory in nature. However, we also have resident waterbirds. We have egrets (boga in Bangla), heron (bok), cormorants (pankouri), Asian openbill (shamuk-khol, literally referring to their unique ability to snap open mollusk shells).
These resident communal waterbirds live close to humans. They are a sure sight at any greenery.
Pakhi Gram: A conservation success of Bangladesh
Of the stunted list of evidence-based conservation successes in Bangladesh, Pakhi Gram (village of birds) is a model that swims against the tide.
Currently, several villages that support colonies of waterbirds are being promoted nationally, featured in media, and supported by the Bangladesh Forest Department.
I made a quick search in Google. News on multiple pakhi gram surfaced. In one case, a pakhi gram has been monetarily subsidised by government agencies. It seems like these birds' villages glow like beacons of hope over the map of Bangladesh.
However, I found no information on how many such villages exist in the country. Similarly, there is no study on the status and trends in colony size, distribution, and active colonies of these species.
In contrast, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology by a group of Polish researchers showed that villages can be bird diversity hotspots in agroforestry landscapes. Presence of waterbirds can indicate a healthy aquatic ecosystem.
Furthermore, promoting birds' villages can restore the damaged human-wildlife relationship. Since long, Bangladesh has been a hotspot of human-induced wildlife mortality. I hope all the bird-conservation platforms would step forward to work with the pakhi gram initiative.
Atrocities at RMCH threatens everything
The Rajshahi Medical College and Hospital (RMCH) has recently made it to the news for its intolerance toward communal waterbirds.
In December 2020, the RMCH authorities chopped down large raintrees and debbarus that were roosting sites of openbills, egrets, night herons, herons, cormorants, etc. The authorities claimed that birds' droppings were a health hazard to the hospital premises.
In the face of a country-wide outcry, they, however, stopped tree-felling and promised not to cut any more trees.
But, just about a week ago, the RMCH repeated the same heinous act. This time, another big raintree was cut down to make way for a drain. Tragically, that tree was holding multiple active nests of Asian openbills. About two hundred nestlings died or made their way to kitchens of workers and hospital visitors. This act made all environmentalists utterly astonished.
On the contrary, an article published in the Scientific American, and the book entitled "Advances in Landscape Architecture" emphasise the presence of well-maintained woods in any hospital premises for the faster recovery of patients.
Being cruel to apparently common birds has deep-rooted problems. It goes directly against the Wildlife (preservation and security) Act 2012 that states destroying habitat of wildlife or birds as an offence.
Furthermore, killing birds and destroying wildlife habitats within a hospital compound may cause further deterioration to an already strained human-wildlife relationship.
Although Asian openbills might be common in Bangladesh, the scenario elsewhere is not similar.
In Southeast Asia, the species is relatively rare and under conservation focus. For example, Cambodia has spent years bringing the bird back from extinction. In 2003, a wet grassland of southern Cambodia had only 100 openbill nests, but this year researchers reported more than 2000 active nests.
The Asian openbill, as with the common communal waterbirds, has many potentials to empower a feeble wildlife conservation sector of Bangladesh. These birds must not be overlooked.
Fight to save a bird
Rejaul Hafiz Rahi, Rony, and Rabby – three bird-watchers from Thakurgaon – recently made a remarkable effort to save an openbill fledgling.
On one of their regular trips, they spotted a chick that had suddenly crash-landed on a paddy field. After observing the bird for a while, the trio understood that the bird was weak and could not get up on its own.
They decided to save its life.
First, Rony retrieved the bird from the sunbaked field, and then climbed a banyan tree to put it there. However, as the bird was weak, it fell from the tree again. But, the trio did not give up hope. They contacted the forest department personnel, who later started working for the recovery of the bird.
Efforts like this in contrast to the terrible deeds done by RMCH elevate the hope.