Eid Holidays gave us a rare opportunity to leave home and venture into the nearest surviving forest some 30 km north. By sunrise we were happy to leave the vehicle and tramp the soggy floor of the Sal forest in Gazipur. The recompense we coveted was a photograph or a gratifying view of an Indian Pitta, a shy bird that fed on the worms creeping along the soggy forest floor.
Indian Pitta was a common bird of our village greeneries and bamboo groves once. That was when villagers were innocent of chemical pesticides; when earthworms and every other kind of worm freely crawled on the ground and the leaf litters. Then the pesticides came and sent those worms packing to purgatories. With the worms went the pittas of the villages.
We know how much our agricultural output has increased through the use of synthetic pesticides; but not how much damage it has done to our soil, water, fish and fowl. It is easy to count agricultural outputs; but not so easy to measure the loss of fecundity of the soil in terms of the abundance of earthworms, crickets, butterflies and pittas etc.
Now, only in the forests, we get to see this cute bird with a tiny tail named after the Indian subcontinent. In summer it breeds in Bangladesh and several northerly and hilly parts of the subcontinent. In winter it migrates to the southern parts of India and to Sri Lanka in search of worms on the damp soil down there. It shuttles between north and south twice a year without ever leaving Indian subcontinent.
We ambled on a sodden trail in the Sal forest near Rajendrapur till we heard 'wheeet-tieu, wheeet-tieu' - the distinctive song of an Indian Pitta. We tip-toed along the constricted trail and soon had a decent view of a handsome male singing from a high perch. The bird flew off to another tree when it saw us. We turned about to leave alone the songster who was obviously late in wrapping up his singing routines.
Every male Indian Pitta starts singing as soon as he returns to his birthplace at the onset of monsoon. He marks a small foraging area by singing along its boundary and hopes that a prospecting female would consider that area fecund enough to feed a pair of Indian Pitta with their brood. If that really happens he pours his soul into singing till their courtship ends in her laying of eggs.
We do not know why we have no Bangla 'interpretation' of the unique song of pitta as we have 'chokh-gelo' for Hawk-Cuckoo and 'bou-kotha-kou' for Indian Cuckoo. Indian Pitta's eternally repeated note 'wheeet-tieu, wheeet-tieu' is interpreted in Sri Lanka as 'evith-giya, evith-giya'. That is meant to be the bird's complaint against peacocks for stealing its tail. It is so befitting for the bird with nearly no tail.
The pitta's song fades out when the incubation begins. Incubation and chick-rearing are hard work and better done quietly. Every pair of breeding pitta runs a silent race with the monsoon. They must rear their chicks before the monsoon takes off leaving the forest floor dry and bristly for the worms to flourish. The male singing here at Rajendrapur this late in July should wrap things up rather fast.
We left the pitta at Rajendrapur to its devices and strolled through a small patch of Sal forest in Pirujali. The forest here is hollowed out by the land-starved people of all sorts, poor and opulent, farmer and fishmonger, industrialist and intellectual. Warily we walked through the vestiges of Sal trees hoping to see a flash of green, blue, buff, orange and red that only a flying pitta can produce.
Our effort was more than well rewarded. Soon we spotted an Indian Pitta with an earthworm coiled around its stout bill. Obviously, the bird was not feeding on the worm; but carrying it to its chicks hiding somewhere on the forest floor. We stood still with our eyes glued to the ground where the fledglings usually await the parents to come with tasty morsel.
Being in camouflage clothing we blended well with the foliage. We could allow ourselves the pleasure of watching and photographing the chicks for a few seconds before gently leaving the degraded grove. We did not wish to see the doting parent drop the worm and fly away frightened. We would not be happy with the photograph of a fledgling that did not survive because of our indiscretion.
The Indian Pitta chick did not have any of the dazzling colors of its parents; and was dressed very wisely to remain invisible on the ground. With hungry mongoose, monitor lizards and feral cats on the prowl the floor of this forest must be far more hazardous than the pitta's rotund nest in the tree. But to fledge the chicks must come down to the sodden earth and be acquainted with the soil that fed them.
We left Gazipur happily and carried home a comforting thought that the Sal forest, however degraded, continued to be a fine nursery for the Indian Pitta. We did see a good number of earthworms on the forest floor that were abundant in the village groves of our country no more. We hoped that the fledglings of Indian Pitta would continue to fly out of the Sal forests in our neighborhood for many more years.