While walking on a bed of dying hyacinth we had the good fortune to see a Greater Painted-snipe, an unusual denizen of the City and a strange bird of the world. As we looked at its beautiful painted eyes, elegant cherry neck and arty brush-strokes on the feathers we knew it was a female; and applauded the unknown Englishmen who named the bird Painted-snipe.
We were strolling on some lowland in Nazirpur, several kilometers west of Rayer Bazar across Buriganga River. We had taken the Basila Bridge and driven several kilometers to be in the floodplain between Buriganga and Dhaleshwari Rivers. Part of our purpose was to see what kind of birds had refused to part with the floodplains of Dhaka imprudently strangled by our town-planners.
A great quantity of water-hyacinth that covered much of the floodplain in monsoon was stranded on dry land in spring and struggling to remain green and alive in vain. Beyond the crumbling hyacinth, people had reclaimed some land to cultivate water-paddy. The elegant female painted-snipe stood on the borderland between the decaying hyacinth and the incipient paddy.
Painted-snipes are very secretive birds and usually do not venture out in the open in broad daylight. Their large eyes have good night-vision which allows them to do their daily chores at dawn, dusk and moonlit nights. Although they can fly very well they live their lives close to earth as they feed, fight, court, nest and sleep on the ground.
Naturally, painted-snipes take great care to hide from humans and other predatory animals walking around. But much of those caution, stealth and restraints take a back-seat during courtship - the time when a gallant female goes courting a coy male. Yes, this remarkable species of bird has completely reversed the traditional roles of the sexes.
In the world of Greater Painted-snipe the females are larger and more colorful and the males are smaller and unadorned. More incongruously the female has a booming voice and hums to charm the male; and the male takes care of all household chores like incubating the eggs and taking care of the chicks.
Painted-snipes do help the farmers by keeping down the worms, snails and insects in the fields of water-paddy. That is why we want to tell the fascinating story of the avian Draupadi to our farmers and, even, to our town-planners
On our trek over the stifled floodplain we saw a somber male painted-snipe being pursued by a gorgeous female with her beautiful eyes radiating love and passion. 'A soft explosion of twilight in the eyes' is how the English poet Ted Hughes described the bird's glowing eyes in his poem titled Snipe. The perceptive poet did not have an opportunity to see a dazzling female painted-snipe but he saw many look-alike snipes in his hometown at North Tawton in Devon.
The enamored pair of painted-snipe soon moved to the nearby paddy field seeking refuge from my imprudent camera. Fields of water-paddy are good feeding grounds of these birds since their main food are aquatic insects, worms and snails. The paddy field there probably had enough food for the two birds and their future brood.
The determined duo, hopefully, would find some place to nest at the field's margin less frequented by people, cattle and stray dogs etc. They would need twelve trouble-free weeks to breed successfully: three weeks for the female to build the nest and lay a clutch of three or four eggs; and nine weeks for the male to incubate the eggs and care for the growing chicks.
Once we saw a painted-snipe chick with its nervous father at a swamp many years ago. I went to photograph that precious chick in Jahangirnagar University but did not return a happy man. It was dreadful to watch the scurrying little baby-bird with sheer terror in its eyes. Could we ever know how it felt to be a flightless baby-bird on land teeming with predators like snake, mongoose, monitor-lizard, jackal, dog, cat and an army of human scavengers called Tokai! We did realize that the ignorant chick was no less terrified by lumbering photographers like us who meant no harm at all.
Predictably the breeding success of these ground-nesting birds has always been very low. In the face of an awful breeding failure the survival-trick they developed was polyandry - the female laid several clutches of eggs in several nests owned by several males; and each male did his best to incubate the eggs and protect the chicks without participation of the female.
It is a story of an avian Draupadi predating Mahabharata by millions of years. In this story, however, there is no male as mean as Duryodhana, and no internecine war; but the life of a female is no better than that of Draupadi. We wonder how harried a female painted-snipe may feel while courting several males a year and leaving her precious eggs to the sole care of those bumbling males! Probably she, like Draupadi, would like to live the whole life with her first love, the indomitable Arjuna; but her duty does not allow her to stay monogamous and remain devoted to one husband only.
We treasure this bird not so much because the female is a veritable avian Draupadi but because it is one of the 11 species of birds whose scientific names have the Latin epithet bengalensis, benghalensis or bengalense, showcasing their relations with Bengal. The Greater Painted-snipe has an enviable distinction of being named Rostratula benghalensis by none other than Carolus Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature and the founder of modern ecology.
More importantly, painted-snipes do help the farmers by keeping down the worms, snails and insects in the fields of water-paddy. That is why we want to tell the fascinating story of the avian Draupadi to our farmers and, even, to our town-planners.