A brave waterhen brightened our morning by tip-toeing towards us in Kolatia as we stood quietly by a ditch covered by water-hyacinth. The smog-cloaked streets of Keraniganj were crowd-free and silent, thanks to the cold wave. The secretive bird, probably, awaited such a morning to explore the edges of that deformed ditch.
We were more than captivated by the innocence and the elegance of that simple bicoloured bird. We wondered what made the waterhen on a smelly ditch seem so gorgeous.
Was it its clean white face, or its watery dark eyes! Could it be the hesitant steps of its gangly orange feet! Or, could it be its utter vulnerability?
The waterhens are shy birds by nature, and in Dhaka city, they have been turning ever stealthier as the commotion around their shrinking habitats keeps on growing louder than the Krakatoa eruption. Now we rarely see those beautiful birds close up, although we know that quite a few of them continue to live in our city.
Somewhat like the celebrated walk of Jesus Christ on the Sea of Galilee, the waterhen walked on the water of Kolatia with calm, confidence and composure. The bird, however, had only a few elongated toes and no feet to place on the water. It took great care in stepping on the floating vegetation and cared to rely on no miracle.
We saw the waterhen peck on the floating leaves to pick up some insects as they wandered. No wonder the plants did not mind being stepped on by such an attentive cleaning crew. The plants submerged when stepped on but merrily bobbed up as soon as the bird's toes were lifted.
The sun was beginning to shine through the mist, and our photos of the approaching waterhen appeared livelier. Hastily we sat on the dusty road to look smaller and less threatening to the Jesus of Kolatia, who had already started looking at us rather suspiciously.
A passerby came checking what we were up to and loudly expressed his concern about our soiled clothes. The waterhen turned about and made a run for the other bank of the ditch. From there, it kept looking back with fear in its eyes at the small crowd that was gathering around us.
The waterhen, when threatened, usually sprints for cover in the floating vegetation or the bush at the edge of the water. It is, generally, very reluctant to fly even though it can fly very well. To escape a land predator, it flies vertically up by beating its powerful square wings.
Being an inhabitant of the open water and mud, the waterhens have to be stealthy, silent and vigilant to survive. Silence is so important for their survival that they frequently use sign language to communicate, and they do that by jerking their beautiful cinnamon tail.
The male waterhen, however, has to break its silence and caginess for about a month every year. He must sing loudly from an exposed perch day and night to establish his territorial claim and induce females to mate and lay eggs.
The monotonous, repetitive and rasping song of the waterhen is not very pleasant, especially at midnight, to human ears. That should not surprise anyone; the bird certainly does not sing for us. We can easily hazard a guess that the female waterhens find the song quite appealing.
The waterhen couple makes their nest high up in trees near the water they call their home. Their chicks, just like our domestic chickens, are not fed and must feed on their own from day one. After hatching, therefore, the chicks have to drop down to the ground and follow their parents to the water to embark on some serious feeding.
The day-old hatchling, a mere ball of fluffy black wool, generally takes the fall from its nest pretty well. The problem arises when the falling chicks are noticed by people, monitor lizards or crows, etc. The parents, therefore, initiate the fall of the hatchlings in the early morning before those predators are on the prowl.
The waterhens forage mostly at dawn and dusk when cold-blooded reptiles such as monitor lizards and snakes are not very active. Dawn is the time when they take a long walk to check the health of the floating vegetation and clean it off attentively.
Weed-covered ditches and derelict ponds are the ideal habitats of the waterhen. The bird once lived in every village of Bangladesh, and every little waterhole had a pair of waterhen. It was an iconic bird of our villages. While its English name 'White-breasted Waterhen' is long and clumsy, its Bangla name is simply 'Dahuk'.
The waterhens love to live near humans, although they do not hobnob with them too much. They spend hours silently walking on water but quickly hide in the bush when people show up. Unlike other neighbourhood birds like herons, starlings or drongos, the waterhens do not venture too close to people.
Regrettably, the waterhens are no longer common in the villages of Bangladesh. Most village ponds have either been drained or filled up to build houses or cleaned and sanitised to culture fish or prawn. waterhens do not at all subsist on clean, insect-free water.
There could be other reasons for the disappearance of the waterhen from our wetlands. On YouTube, we found a few recipes and cooking lessons titled 'Dahuk pakhi recipe' and 'Dahuk birds cooking', etc. Clearly, there are quite a few people in Bangladesh eager to write the recipe for cooking a waterhen.
We wonder, could no one write the recipe for looking at and appreciating a waterhen?