We were delighted to see a handsome Hoopoe on an overhead cable awaiting sunrise in Purbachal. October is the month when many migrant Hoopoes fly in to join a few resident Hoopoes of Bangladesh. But the itinerant at Purbachal would not find a resident Hoopoe for a company there; we never saw one.
A thousand years ago, the Persian Sufi poet Fariduddin Attar witnessed the similar arrival of Hoopoes many times in his illustrious city named Nishapur. He made Hoopoe the central character of his long allegorical poem titled 'Makamat-ut-Tayur' or 'Conference of the Birds'.
Attar of Nishapur, with the power of the Muses, brought all the birds of the world together and made the bravest of birds take an arduous journey in search of the Creator of the world in his poem. And with the following salutation, the conference of the birds began:
Dear Hoopoe, you will be our guide:
It was on you King Solomon relied
To carry secret messages between
His court and distant Sheba's queen.
He knew your language, you knew his heart.
It was not hard for the Hoopoe at Purbachal to know our hearts; we merely wanted a spectacular view of the bird in flight. The Hoopoe promptly flew off to the grassy ground down below. We had a stunning view of its zebra-striped wings - the splendours that otherwise remain folded and tucked away.
Ah, the Hoopoe dutifully raised its enormous fan-like crest as soon as it landed on the grass! He certainly knew our hearts. We got a rare opportunity to photograph his magnificent crown for a very brief moment. The imposing crown remains folded like a Chinese fan at all other times.
That outstanding crown and the dazzling wings explain why our ancestors were so smitten by the Hoopoe. It was considered sacred in ancient Egypt and Babylon. Later on, the Hoopoe (also called Hudhud) featured no less prominently in the Holy Torah and the Holy Quran.
The Hoopoe of the Holy book was a bold creature that talked back to the mighty King Solomon. The Hoopoe told the King: "I have known what you have not." And the astute King conceded - he knew nothing of the enigmatic Queen of Sheba.
We were quite certain that the proud Hoopoe tramping the grass at Purbachal knew wildly more than we lay people would ever do. On the way to Bangladesh, he probably stopped over at the Dechencholing Palace in Punakha and could tell us every detail of the recent royal marriage of Bhutan's Dragon King.
People saw the Hoopoes cross the high Himalayan Mountains on their migration flights. During the first Mount Everest expedition, a Hoopoe was seen at 21,000 feet. We wonder how stunned the desert King Solomon would have been if the Hoopoe had told him all about the snow-crowned Himalayas.
What the prudent Hoopoe never told the noble King was a nasty family secret. The female Hoopoe has a horrible habit of pointing her rear end to an outsider and spraying a stream of foul-smelling faeces. Hoopoe is one rare bird able to use the stool as a projectile. Even one-week-old chicks can do that to a nest-robber.
In 2008, Israel selected Hoopoe as its national bird despite, or perhaps because of, the revolting habit of throwing a stool at perceived enemies! Since receiving the rare honour from Israel, the Hoopoes have not turned against Palestinians. They spray smelly stool equally to all nest-robbers, Palestinian or Israeli.
The female Hoopoe starts producing the smelly stool as soon as she settles down to lay eggs. She stays put in the nest-hole the entire time of laying eggs, incubating and chick-rearing. The male visits the nest frequently to feed her and the chicks. Anyone else approaching the nest gets some shit sprayed on the face.
Fortunately, the female and the chicks stop producing the smelly stool when they leave the nest. The nest-hole, however, continues to smell like rotting flesh for some more time. The female soon gets lovely new feathers and moves about gracefully; the putrid past is forgotten.
Soon the male, female and the chicks go their separate ways, sometimes to separate continents. Although the Hoopoes are not promiscuous during a breeding season, maintaining the pair-bond beyond one season does not go with their nomadic lifestyle. Hoopoe typically travels the world alone.
No wonder poet Attar of Nishapur made Hoopoe the leader of birds of the world in their vaunted search for 'Simurg' or the God. The Hoopoe took the birds on an onerous journey through the seven valleys called Quest, Love, Knowledge, Detachment, Unity, Bewilderment and Nothingness.
Only 30 birds survived the punishing journey, and the Hoopoe declared, "We are what we seek; '30 birds' are the Gods." Then the Hoopoe disappeared, and the poet did not say what happened to it. We, however, know what happened to the poet. He was hounded out of Nishapur as a heretic.
The Hoopoe at Purbachal walked gingerly on the grass and started probing into the soil with its long sickle-like bill. Obviously, he was searching for some living worms, larvae and pupae, not the God.
At the end of his search, when the Hoopoe flew up to sit on a bamboo stick and presented us with his proud profile, he did look like a god.