Covid-19 is in town. To keep my lungs intact, I hunker down and practice social distancing. Piles of books keep me company. Fortunately, books do not poison the lungs; they only infect the minds. A book of Gabriel Garcia Marques shows up on top of a pile.
Marques wrote 'Love in the Time of Cholera' some 40 years ago. The English translation by Alfred Knopf came my way years later. Since then, the book has been sitting patiently in this pile to be read in the time of Covid! Is there a sense of irony in the pile of books!
Covid-months drag along. Some mornings I drive to Purbachal, just to be outdoors. I brave the mist and tread the empty streets. Through the haze, I see doves and drongos crouched over bare stumps sticking out of the fog. Bulbuls and Mynas huddle on the electric cables, all fluffed up and praying for sunshine. They know nothing of the pandemic and are obliged to follow no social distancing protocol.
On one such morning, I was walking the lonely steers with vegetables growing on both sides. Suddenly I saw a colourful woodpecker fly across the street and landed on top of a bamboo pole very near me. It was a Black-rumped Flameback. Locally we call it Bangla Kaththokra. It is one of the most colourful birds of Bangladesh.
I stood very still and was enjoying the closeness to this spectacular bird. I knew he was unlikely to sit very long on such an exposed spot. I, like a mime, s-l-o-w-ly raised my camera for a shot, all the while worried about scaring off the wide-eyed bird.
The bold woodpecker happened to care nothing about me and did not take off. He cried out loud, a trilling song: Ki-kikiki, Ki-kikiki. This was not an alarm call. He is alert, but not alarmed.
From his full head of red feathers, I knew he was an adult male. With the head-feathers erect, he was obviously showing off to other woodpeckers. He sang again: Ki-kikiki, Ki-kikiki. 'Is he calling a rival male to settle a territorial dispute!', Has he forgotten that it is hazardous to sing from a visible post like this?', I thought to myself. I thought I would soon witness a fascinating event of the enigmatic woodpecker-world.
Although I was wrong about the territorial fight; but I sure witnessed a fascinating event. Like magic, I saw another woodpecker fly in and sit smack on the same post, face to face. The new-comer did not have a full head of red feathers. That means it's a female!
The new-comer is visibly edgy. She clasped the pole tentatively. With a tense body and restrained neck, she appeared ready to take off right away. It would probably have taken less than half a wrong move from the male to send her dashing back to the woods.
The male woodpecker was nervous. So was I. But he knew exactly how to make an apprehensive female comfortable. He sang reassuringly: Ki-kikiki, Ki-kikiki. The song calms her down in seconds. Her neck extends and her body relaxes. Her feet touch his. Moments pass, she does not fly away.
I thought 'Am I witnessing the most delightful love affair at this unhappy time of Covid!' From the edginess of the female, I supposed that the two woodpeckers are not an old pair. Most likely, it was their first meeting or an early stage of pair-bonding. They were like Florentino and Fermina in their early days of Love in the Time of Cholera, as Marques chronicled.
To prove me right, the two birds started kissing; first cautiously, then passionately. Kissing is an integral part of loving and love-making in the bird-world. Birds of a few families like the Pheasants do not kiss; but most other birds like woodpeckers, kingfishers and parakeets do.
For nesting and getting at the grub, woodpeckers often have to chisel hardwood; and they do possess the right bills for the job. My favourite poet Emily Dickinson had noted that well and wrote these lovely lines about the woodpecker:
His bill an augur is,
His head, a cup and frill.
He laboreth at every tree,
A worm his utmost goal.
It's amazing to see the same sharp and tough bills speak the delicate and sensitive language of passion and love. In the mating season, male and female woodpeckers affectionately touch and hold each other's bills even though those are honed to be the sharpest possible cutting tools.
At the end of the kissing sessions, the newly-formed woodpecker-pair fly off together into the woods. For some moments, I felt like I was on a ring-side seat at an opera, experiencing the dramatic first meeting of the Romeo-Juliet of the bird-world. I hope no busybody will separate these beautiful lovers as the father of Fermina separated her from Florentino. In the bird-world, fortunately, fathers do not interfere with the daughters' lives.
I resumed my lonely walk feeling warm and content. I wonder, it may not be such a bad deal to be born a woodpecker unless some thoughtless earthlings destroy a whole lot of woodlands and forests. But then, haven't we been doing exactly that!