Our walk on muddy tracks through the village groves in Mawna was rewarded with the clear view of a magnificent Monarch wearing a regal blue dress and spiky dark crown. It was a male Black-naped Monarch in striking sapphire feathers and a befitting black crest to charm the female.
Black-naped Monarch is the only bird in the village groves of Bangladesh with such stunning azure feathers. No wonder scientists named it Hypothymis azurea. But only an adult male attains the striking azure colour in the breeding season.
Soon a female Black-naped Monarch showed up before us only to intensify the majesty of the male's regalia. The female had only a light blue head but lacked the beautiful indigo wings, back and tail of the male. The thoughtful female dresses somberly in grey-brown feathers and prudently stays far less noticeable than the flamboyant male. While sitting on her eggs for weeks, she has to remain invisible to the predators.
In the sopping mango grove, both the male and the female Black-naped Monarchs flew frequent sorties to catch airborne insects. Very deftly they flew between the tangles of wet branches of the fruiting trees. We watched the female fly out far more frequently and vigorously than the stately male, and we wished that she was more successful than the male at hawking the insects they feed on. To make the eggs, she would need a lot more food than the male to maintain his colourful dress.
In June, the Black-naped Monarchs were rather late in the business of breeding if they had not already chosen a suitable fork of a tiny tree in some low bush. The female would need weeks to gather big stacks of cobwebs, moss and fungi for constructing her cup-nest with little help from the male.
The male Black-naped Monarch, however, guards the nest when the female flies off to collect the nest-building materials. Later on, the male joins the female to feed the hatchlings. But females alone do all the rest of their household chores.
Interested scientists studied the elastic, spongy and extremely light-weight cup-nest of the Black-naped Monarch. Some studies found that the fungi in the overcrowded nest of the Black-naped Monarch yielded antibiotics that protected the chicks from bacterial infection.
We remembered that Dr Alexander Fleming discovered the first effective antibiotics in 1928. But the astute Black-naped Monarchs have been using antibiotics for millions of years. If the scientists had studied the birds' nests a hundred years before, they would not have even understood the role of those precious fungi.
While Black-naped Monarchs were protecting their chicks against bacteria, the smart butterflies were protecting their offspring against the birds. For many million years the Monarch Butterfly, like many other butterflies, has been using the poison-sap of milkweed plants to protect their offspring from the birds such as Monarch.
While raising multiple chicks in their antibiotics-laced nests, the Black-naped Monarchs probably hated the Monarch Butterflies for lapping up the poisonous milkweed-sap to make them unpalatable. How good was it to raise a larger number of chicks if they could not get a generous supply of insects to prey upon!
We are quite content to lean on neither side of that evolutionary arm-wrestling between the birds and the butterflies. We are delighted to see both the monarchs – Monarch the bird and Monarch the butterfly – live on in this part of the world known as the Indian Subcontinent long after the colonial monarchy folded in 1947.
We remember how the Indian Rebellion we call Sipahi Biplob was gaining momentum in this month of June a hundred and sixty-five years ago. The rebellion did not end well for Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Monarch of India. The monarchy was claimed by Queen Victoria in 1876.
Soon we heard a sharp grating call: 'which which wheet wheet wheet' from a surviving Sal coppice as we plodded the mud-tracts in Mawna. That was a Black-naped Monarch singing. We trudged faster hoping to spot, watch and photograph the singing bird.
The male Black-naped Monarch does not have a sweet voice, but it sings by pointing its beak to the sky and with its bills wide open to show off its beautiful yellow mouth and throat. Very few birds have such colourful mouths to show. We did get a rare ring-side seat to watch and photograph the Monarch sing.
We lumbered along, contented to see that Black-naped Monarchs continue to dwell happily in our villages. They were the monarchs of this land long before the Mughal and British monarchs arrived and continue to be the monarchs long after those invading monarchies perished. Long live the Black-naped Monarchs.