We were thrilled to learn that a flock of bar-headed geese landed near Dhaka recently at a wetland deserving no better name than 'a wayside waterhole'. The waterhole did not hold the flock for very long, apparently, because it had little to offer in terms of food or security for the geese.
We used to see those graceful geese in the capital every winter only 35 years back. Then, they vanished from the city and Dhaka district all at once.
We saw the last of them at the wetlands of Mirpur Zoo in 1988. That was their last visit; there has been no news of bar-headed geese at or around Dhaka since then.
We know of many proud capitals of the world with small wetlands created or maintained to host swans and geese seasonally. Those agile and elegant birds have a great capacity to attract throngs of human admirers, especially children. The caged, cagy and tame birds of the zoos do not have that appeal.
Our city planners, however, cared little to preserve or fashion wetlands for migratory ducks and geese in our capital. The city, once wetland-rich, has been filled with scoured sand to turn it into a jungle of bitumen and concrete with no wild places left for the citizens to have an occasional touch of the wilderness.
Would it not be great for our children to see the Bar-headed Geese that just arrived from an enigmatic Tibetan plateau by flying over the high Himalayas! We could tell them something about the grace and the grandeur of Himalaya-crossing of the geese. We cannot do that standing in front of a miserable caged goose at a zoo.
Happily, we still get to see flocks of bar-headed goose in at least one city in Bangladesh. It is the Rajshahi metropolis.
As the water level falls, flocks of graceful geese strut the newly emerging 'chars' of Padma and nibble on the incipient blades of grass a short distance from the embankment protecting the city.
Those chars have been spared by the town planners because they are too near the international border. The geese, however, do not have the chars entirely to themselves.
They share it with villagers who are given temporary leases of the emerging land for cultivation and cattle-grazing.
To the farmers and cattle-herders on those chars, the geese and their admirers are nothing less than interlopers. However, as the water level continues to drop and the chars turn less suitable for the grazing of geese the birds leave the Padma for the coastal islands where tide-water keeps grasses green forever.
The flocks of Bar-headed Geese grow larger at the intertidal areas of coastal islands such as Bhola, Monpura, Hatia and Nijhum-dwip as the chars of Padma and Jamuna turn dry and dusty. The estuarine islands of Bangladesh continue to be the prime winter home of the geese.
In spring the bar-headed geese turn vocal and the males start honking and showing off to their potential mates. But that is only a prelude to an earnest courtship which must wait till the geese return to the Tibetan plateau and the summer sun defrosts the highland.
The bar-headed geese nest on the ground and need vast areas free of prowlers and predators for months to incubate eggs and rear chicks. There is no such place in Bangladesh for a single pair of geese, but Tibet easily has room for thousands of breeding pairs.
The high plateau of Tibet has been the traditional breeding ground of the bar-headed geese. But to go there from Bangladesh the geese must fly over the highest barrier on earth, the Himalayas.
And that is not frightening to them at all. They have already done that at least once after birth to come to Bangladesh.
In fact, every bar-headed goose is likely to fly over the Himalayas 50 times in its expected life of 25 years. The goose has developed the great ability to fly at extreme altitudes with ease. A goose fitted with a transmitter recorded flying as high as 7,270 metres over the Himalayas.
A bar-headed goose was even observed honking as it flew over the Mount Makalu peak, 8,481 metres high. The best mountaineers gasp to breathe atop Makalu, and a goose goes honking! The reports of some Everest summiteers claiming to have seen geese flying overhead may not be all hallucinations.
The bar-headed goose weighs about three kilograms but has lungs much larger than any bird of that size. The haemoglobin in its red blood cells binds oxygen very strongly, and it breathes deeply when oxygen density drops. Great adaptations for routinely flying at altitudes no other birds ever do.
Jessica Meir, an astronaut, raised several chicks of bar-headed Geese and trained them to fly in an oxygen controlled wind-tunnel. She monitored their hearts, lungs, metabolic rates etc. Her experiments suggest that the geese could fly over mountains as high as Everest.
The population of this high altitude flyer is not low and, probably, growing. Over the past two centuries, the goose has been introduced to many places beyond its traditional home, South and Southeast Asia. The introduced birds have been flourishing in Great Britain and a few other countries of Europe.
In Tibet the bar-headed goose is considered sacred and not eaten; although sometimes their nests are robbed and the eggs are eaten. With an estimated 25,000 females laying eggs at the Tibetan plateau a few geese-eggs omelettes eaten by some mortified monks may not be so worrisome.
A female bar-headed goose may lay two to eight eggs. How many eggs she actually lays depends on how well it could feed in the winter months. That is why our wholesale destruction of her feeding ground in Bangladesh is so much more distressing.