We were thrilled to run into a small group of tall, long-limbed birds craning their necks to peer at us as we walked towards the largest beel of Hakaluki haor. We could not believe what we saw through the binoculars. Those birds were Black-necked Storks - the rarest stork of Bangladesh - three at one place!
All three storks had grey-green feathers of the juveniles and lacked the striking black-and-white plumages, blue-black neck and brick-red legs of the full-grown adults. The lanky trios, striding the muddy bank of the beel, were newly fledged baby-birds just visiting Hakaluki haor in search of food.
However, the wide-eyed babies were five feet tall - easily the tallest birds we would ever see in Bangladesh. A few Great White Egrets waddled past the gangly storks, probably, to let us compare their sizes. We kept staring at them as the baby-storks dwarfed our largest egrets hands down.
We felt blessed indeed to come upon the three juvenile storks at one place. The last time we saw as many Black-necked Storks was at the Padma river bank near Rajshahi city two decades ago. We rarely see these storks nowadays. A single juvenile may be seen at Hakaluki haor or a char of Padma River in a good year.
In spite of its formidable bill, the Black-necked Stork is not a forbidding hunter. It feeds on sluggish creatures like turtles, crabs and molluscs, dead or dying fish, frogs, and lizards. Life of these lumbering scavengers was great in the days of plenty, but not so anymore in our over-exploited wetlands now.
Centuries ago, the Black-necked Stork thrived well in Bangladesh and the rest of the Orient, New Guinea and Australia. Now it lives mostly in northwest India and northern Australia. It continues to do quite well in Australia, but not so well in the Indian subcontinent.
The population of Black-necked Stork is less than a thousand and is decreasing fast in the sub-continent, although it stayed around twenty thousand strong in Australia. The sub-continental storks breed only in India's dry western parts and central highlands, where fewer chicks survive in the dryer years.
Black-necked Storks usually lay four to five eggs every year and take their chick-rearing chores seriously. They cannot, however, find enough food for the growing chicks if the monsoon is short. The legendary carriers of human babies are forced to raise fewer chicks of their own in bad years.
Bangladesh has six species of storks, including the Black-necked Storks. Five of the six species of storks are considered rare or very rare birds of the country now. It is rather hard for these large foragers to survive in our overcrowded land.
We may well be the last citizens to see these storks at all, however infrequently. Our children will probably know of these superb birds only from the fable in which the storks continue to bring babies to the expectant mothers.
Sheldon Silverstein, a 20th-century American poet, added an interesting twist to the stork-legend by making the diligent bird carry our dead too and recycle that to babies again. Charmingly he wrote:
You know the stork brings babies,
But did you also know
He comes and gets the older folks
When it's their time to go?
And flies them to the factory where
They all were made before.
The stork flies them back down to earth
As newborn babes again.
With a five-kilogram body and eight-foot wingspan, the Black-necked Stork could easily carry our newborn babes for aeons. For ages, the bird has also been serving as the ancestor and the totem of the Karinji people of Australia. So, we suppose that the stork gamely accepted the chore poet Sheldon added to the list of its services to humanity!
A weird traditional interaction with humanity the good bird might have hated was staged in Bihar in the past. The Bihari marital ceremony required the bridegroom and his party to locate and capture a wild Black-necked Stork or 'Loha Sarong'. That risky ritual ended after a person was killed in the melee a hundred years ago.
Like most large birds, the Black-necked Stork must run some distance before it can take to the air. That is why once surrounded by people, the bird could be captured. The people who ritually caught the stork were the first to notice its minuscule sexual dimorphism; the female has yellow eyes while the male eyes are black.
The great English ornithologist-painter couple of the 19th century, John and Elizabeth Gould, knew all about the difference in eye colour between the sexes. They tasted a little bit of the fishy flavour of the meat of the Black-necked Storks also.
At that time, the bird-scientists routinely shot down birds to collect the skins for scientific study and then dine on the flesh for survival in the wild. John Gould wrote that the meat of Black-necked Stork was 'too over-powerful to admit of its being eaten by anyone but a hungry explorer.'
That over-powerful flavour, however, was not enough to save the precious storks from the hunters at our haor basin and riverbanks in the 20th century. Being large and slow, the storks were easy targets and hunted down till they almost did not exist in Bangladesh anymore.
Fortunately, few people with guns in hand venture out openly at the remaining habitats of the storks now. Instead, dozens with cameras in hand descend on the rare storks when they show up anywhere in Bangladesh these days.
That is a welcome change of attitude towards the birds that brought us here in the first place. On social media, we can enjoy the yellow eyes of a female Black-necked Stork now and not be sickened by the over-powerful flavour of her meat.