In winter the question people frequently ask me is, "Have the migratory birds arrived yet?" While we are at our sports ground I often take the opportunity to reply, "Yes, one of them is sitting right in front of you." It never fails to startle and amuse my interlocutors. People do not expect to see migratory birds in the middle of a crowded city like Dhaka. But the migratory birds do live in congested cities as much as they, just like us, hate it. All birds except the House Crow abhor the city's concrete, crowd and noise; but love the abundance of food it offers. The crows seem to love everything about the city.
Neighbours stare in disbelief when I tell them that for the last three years the sports ground of Banani DOHS has been hosting a migratory bird. It is a slender and an often overlooked bird named Brown Shrike; not something like a meaty duck that could attract popular attention with no help from birdwatchers. Brown Shrikes live south of the great Himalayan Mountains in winter, and travel north up to Siberia in summer only to breed. God told them, "Go to Siberia and procreate." Although born and raised in the frozen Tundra, these birds love the tropical south and many of them make Bangladesh their winter residence.
If you take a close look at our bird in Banani you will see a series of fine scalloped lines on its flanks. These are the adornments of a female bird; the male does not have these decorations. Our bird was an adolescent when I saw her here first in 2018. I guess, on her first southward migration flight she fortuitously found her way to Banani and chose this trampled grass-field as her winter home. The grateful grass-field returned the favour by supplying her with enough insects for six months. Since then she flies Banani-Siberia-Banani every year to live here from October to March and spends the other six months of the year on the way to and at the breeding ground. She has probably explored no other routes and may never need another in her short life.
You may note that the bird is donning a black mask as becomes every bold shrike. It is a bandit-mask over the bird's eyes; not the sort we dutifully put on our nose and mouth these days. The mask helps diminish the sun's glare as the bird continually stares at the ground looking for sneaky beetles and bugs the whole day. The bandit-mask also sustains the popular myth about the shrike being a fierce and ruthless bird. In her famous verse titled 'The Shrike' poet Sylvia Plath likens the bird to an enraged female. Here are her two dark lines:
So hungered, she must wait in rage
Until bird-racketing dawn
At the break of every bird-racketing dawn our shrike is always present at the grass-field. Although she feeds only on insects crawling on the ground she hates to sit in the soggy grass more than a second. She likes to scan the land closely from a low perch like the railings, poles etc. from where she dives to the ground to catch a prey and carry it back to the perch to devour it. Her favourite perch is our 'No Smoking' sign; and I cannot help admire how she has managed to keep it unsoiled so far.
Our shrike is happy to live a lonely life in Banani as every honourable shrike does at their winter quarter. She is seeking no company right now and protecting her grass-field against any incursion by another shrike, male or female. At times she shrieks sharply and chases off trespassers as innocuous as a few sparrows romping in the grass. No wonder she is called shrike, a name derived from the English word 'shriek'.
It will be a very different story in the months of March and April. Summer is the time when shrikes fall in love, fly north and find a nesting site in the fast-defrosting Tundra. Our shrike will probably meet a handsome male brave enough to fly over our sports ground and court her in spite of her initial assaults. Then, together they will commence the migration flight to the northeast of China, Mongolia or Russia.
The shrike-couple will continue to be together till their chicks fledge and disperse. In September their southward journey will begin again and she, exhausted and famished, will return to our sports ground. Her mate will go wherever he has been wintering before. One patch of grass often does not have enough insects to sustain more than one shrike. The wise shrikes, therefore, live bachelor lives at their winter quarters.
It will be cool to see our shrike return from Siberia and sit happily on her favourite perch in the sports field again in October. She has accomplished this great feat thrice before, and may succeed in doing it a fourth time. But nothing is guaranteed; a very large number of birds perish on their incredibly long and gruelling trip called migration.