We had a delightful day listening to an endless song relayed by birds from tree to tree all along the road from Bhangura to Berhaulia in Pabna. We were as pleased with the never-ending song as the chirping school children who hiked with us.
The children were eager to tell us that those invisible singers were sneaky green birds they knew pretty well. A few plucky children tried to spot one of the singing birds for the newcomers like us. But none of the heartless birds cared enough to break its foliage cover and show up to oblige the eager children.
We knew that the singers were the Blue-throated Barbets and had seen them many times before. But we wished very much to see one in Bhangura following a pointed finger of an excited child. Eventually, when our walk was done, and no bird was sighted, we were as disappointed as the disconsolate children.
Blue-throated Barbets are stealthy birds, albeit common inhabitants of the village groves. They are very vocal in the spring and early monsoon. Hiding high up in the tree canopy, they sing the whole day so profusely that people usually tune out their incessant jingle and get busy minding their own business.
Every so often, for the village children, it becomes their business to see the unseen singers. But the business of finding the Blue-throated Barbets is tricky because they fervently wish to stay unseen in the foliage cover; their green and blue plumage greatly help them fulfil that wish.
Blue-throated Barbet is a good-natured and frugal bird; it lives along the Himalayan foothill. Although abundant in Bangladesh, it is rare in central and southern parts of the subcontinent and is absent at higher elevations in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Beyond the Himalayas, it lives only in a few countries in Southeast Asia.
The Blue-throated Barbet feeds primarily on berries but takes some insects in the breeding season. It loves the figs, especially the one we call Jagadumur or Khoska that grows wild and in great abundance in Bangladesh. In fact, the Barbet planted many of those fig trees by scattering the seeds around.
Being mostly green, fig-eater and furtive, the Blue-throated Barbet has perennially managed to stay undetected and unmolested in the human neighbourhood. The narrow cavity it digs high up in the tree to breed successfully prevents the nest-robbers, human and non-human, from stealing their eggs or chicks.
People become aware of the presence of the Blue-throated Barbet usually because of its loud song in spring. From the tree-canopy it sings full-throated 'Tuk-o-rrrrook, Tuk-o-rrrrook, Tuk-o-rrrrook'. The song goes on throughout the day for months; when one bird stops, another promptly takes over.
No wonder at many places in the Indian subcontinent, the Blue-throated Barbet has been named with the distinctive notes of its familiar song. For example, in Assam, the Barbet is called 'Tuktukra'. With an interesting twist to that note in Cachar, it is called 'Doo-tukra'.
But in Bangla, Hindi and Nepali, the Blue-throated Barbet is called 'Basanta', perhaps because it is the most enduring singer of the village in Basanta or the spring. The other sonorous singers, such as the cuckoos and doves, usually become more vocal as the monsoon progresses.
In some villages, the Barbet's 'Tuk-o-rrrrook' is translated in Bangla as 'Khoka-hok', which means 'let a boy be born'. That happens to be a very desirable message to be repeated around the home of a villager expecting a child.
The female Blue-throated Barbet often sings a duet at the concert where the male remains the lead vocalist but not the sole singer as in most other species of birds. The duet articulates a pair of Barbets' love for each other and expresses the desire to keep the other Barbets out of 'their' trees.
Blue-throated Barbet has two inflated throat sacks to sing luxuriantly and roll the 'r' of 'Tuk-o-rrrrook'. Singing is the key part of the Barbets' courtship since they neither do display flights nor dance. Digging a nest-cavity is the second essential part of courtship besides their endless singing.
Although Asia, Africa and the Americas have as many as 107 species of Barbets, Europe has none. So our favourite English poets wrote no eulogy on Barbet's passionate song, although there are endless odes to many other singers such as Nightingale, Cuckoo, Lark, Blackbird etc.
The only English poem on a Barbet we have come across is written in the subcontinent, not England. The poem titled 'The Barbet' is written by a living Odia poet named Sarojkanta Dash. His staccato lines pleasingly follow the pace of a Barbet's song:
The barbet goes …
In the scorching sun goes
We did hear countless Barbets sing tirelessly during our hike on the sweltering spring day in Bhangura. Did they not take time out even for an afternoon siesta so common in the bird world! Probably not; we could discern no lull period in their constant chorus of 'Tuk-o-rrrrook'.
We wondered how often Bengali poets extolled or even noted the passionate singing of the Barbets! Well, not very often. We could find a single line on Barbet in the complete works of Jibanananda Das, our poet of Nature.
The line, strangely, states that 'Two Barbets laughed aloud: ho-ho-ho'.
We are happy with the gleeful Barbets of Jibanananda; but sad about the missing Bangla odes to their passionate song. The ardent singing of the Blue-throated Barbet somehow went unsung by the poets in Bengal.
Besides the Barbets, we have a glut of great singers such as Iora, Dove, Koel, Robin and several species of Cuckoos in the spring in Bangladesh. That, perhaps, explains why the delightful song of the secretive Barbet has not managed to catch the attention of very many of our poets.