This amazing bird is often called GCG, an abbreviation of its long English name, Great Crested Grebe. For its uncanny ability to walk upright on water we call it Jesus-bird. In winter, these glorious birds live in large rivers like Padma, Jamuna and Meghna and great lakes such as Hakaluki, Haila and Tanguar haor. But, dismayingly few of them were there in those three great lakes when we went looking for them in January and February. Eventually in March we came upon a good number of Jesus-birds in the shallow, murky water of Padma by the Rajshahi City.
It was indeed heartening to see the congregation of a dozen Jesus-birds on the Covid-quietened Padma River. With the dark chocolate flight-feathers firmly folded, the russet heckles hung loose from the neck and the spiky hair piece erect atop, they looked gorgeous. These are not their regular winter plumage. This is the designer outfit the Jesus-birds wear during their short breeding period, April to August. Rest of the year they are mostly content to use the pale, sleek and somber attires good only for diving underwater and pursuing small schools of frightened fish.
With the days growing warmer and longer the school of fish seems to have slipped out of the minds of Jesus-birds. They are now busy with the more pressing business of swimming vigorously past one another and complement each other on the newly tailored nuptial suit. At the slightest provocation, they turn into marathon runners and gallop energetically over the glowing water. At the end of the run, they take to the air and glide like some fancifully designed white and brunette kites. It is a rare privilege to get a ring-side seat at the pre-connubial gathering of a dozen Jesus-birds in Bangladesh.
These ritual gatherings prepare Jesus-birds for the long journey from Bangladesh to their northerly breeding places in Europe and Asia. Soon they will be all gone. One day after sunset they will take off from this familiar char of Padma to commence the first leg of their northward journey. They will set course by the last glow of the sun long gone under the horizon. Once that glow vanishes, the Jesus-birds will navigate by looking at the moon and the star-clusters. Poet Henry Wordswoth Longfellow captured the magic of such a flight in his poem titled Birds of Passage:
'And above, in the light
Of the star-lit night,
Swift birds of passage wing their flights'
Jesus-birds like to breed where the water carries much less silt than our braided rivers flowing through the Himalayan Mountains would ever do. These magnificent birds prefer to stage their mating display where water is transparent and blue. Only in clear water a Jesus-bird can see and precisely match every dance sequence, gesture or 'mudra' executed by its partner. That's how an amorous pair of Jesus-birds manages to execute the most enchanting synchronised swimming in the wild. The Olympic event by the name Synchronized Swimming or Artistic Swimming is, at best, a poor human adaptation of the mating display of these magnificent birds.
The elaborate dance routine of Jesus-birds starts with a dive to pluck some vegetation from the bottom. The foliage picked up from water serves the same purpose roses do for humans. The Jesus-bird offers the foliage to its partner while standing perfectly upright on the water. The legs set to the very rear end of the birds' body serve well to perform this routine perfectly time and time again. The culmination of the birds' mating display comes when a pair stands upright side by side and majestically walks on water together. No Olympic team of synchronized swimmers can ever dream of performing any of these routines.
This prodigious ballet artist of the bird-world has not always been served well by those outstanding skills and splendid attires. The bird was hunted all over Europe for its head-plumes with which stylish hats and lady's underwear were decorated. The bird came very close to extinction in the UK in the 19th century; and the senseless slaughter stopped only through the determined efforts of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The bird population has bounced back and it is not a rarity any more in the wetlands of much of Europe.
Besides the ability to walk upright on water the Jesus-birds are famous for their propensity to carry the chicks on their back. An average family has two chicks; and each parent gives its favorite chick piggy-back rides. A chick may come down to the water to feed on small fish from time to time; but it soon returns to the parent's back for warmth and safety. While riding piggy-back a lucky chick may also get an occasional handout from the parent in the form of a small serving of edible bird-feathers.
In our part of the world, we do not get to see the Jesus-birds do the mating dance or carry their chick piggy-back because they do not breed so far south. That may not be such a big loss since every year many of these birds prepare to fly back to Bangladesh as soon as their chicks fledge. Every winter we can hope to see these wonderful birds come down to our rivers and lakes and carry on with the other interesting chores of their lives so long as the wetlands of our country remain clean and fertile.