Our desperate desire to take a walk after days of untimely rain, squall and gloom was rewarded by a flock of Green Pigeons flying low over our head as we trekked an empty road at Purbachal. In the feeble sunlight flashing through a patch of clouds, the birds' soft yellow breasts were molten gold.
We knew that the Green Pigeons continued to live in our capital although they were rarely seen. The stealthy birds took great care to stay invisible. Their yellow-green plumages merged with the foliage perfectly; they stayed very silent and swallowed berries whole without raining seeds or peels on people down below.
You are unlikely to spot the Green Pigeons unless you happen to see them commuting between trees. Those beautiful green birds love to stay very still in the greenery for hours and watch the humans look up in the trees intently and then move on mumbling among them "No, there are no birds."
We were lucky to see those rare birds overhead on that luminous morning, probably, because of a welcome break in foul weather. Although the Green Pigeons usually dive into foliage and quickly become invisible on landing, they continued to stay on top of a roadside tree to enjoy the sunshine.
We had a rare opportunity to photograph the largest flock of Green Pigeons in the capital in recent times. Fortunately, the mist rising from the ground somewhat cloaked us and our cumbersome gears. And we stayed frozen to let the rare flock of wary birds worship the sun to their hearts' content.
The flock was made up entirely of some two dozen Yellow-footed Green Pigeons – the only species of Green Pigeons that continues to survive all over the country. Bangladesh has five other species of Green Pigeons that have been growing increasingly localised and rarer. We hardly ever saw one in the capital.
The Yellow-footed Green Pigeons were commonplace in the Banyan and other fig-trees of the city till 1980 when our town-planners began to take down those mighty trees in droves. The birds were forced to pile up on the remaining fig-trees of the town and become easy targets of hunters and trappers.
The Green Pigeons had a dreadful reputation of yielding to Bengali cooking and delicious dishes. The birds were sold at pet markets and street-corners at a premium. It did not take long for the Green Pigeons to vanish from the city, and the terrible trade in pigeon flesh came to a quick end.
In many urban areas of Bangladesh we heard stories about big branches of fruiting Banyan trees bending under the weight of many thousands of Green Pigeons feeding. Although we never saw such a spectacle, we believed the stories because we saw many fig trees yielding berries that could easily feed a million pigeons.
Recently in Clevedon tea-estate we were fortunate to observe several flocks of Green Pigeons landing on three fig trees at sundown to roost. We counted over 2,000 birds roosting in those trees that evening. We hope there are many such groves in the remote tea estates of Bangladesh.
Remote places are the last hangouts of the Green Pigeons in Bangladesh now. Once known as the common urban birds, they are absent in our cities and towns and have been growing rarer in the rural orchards and gardens.
That sharp decline from a great abundance within the short period of a hundred years reminds us of another pigeon that went from a great population boom to bust just a century before. It was the Passenger Pigeon of North America, once considered the most numerous bird of the world, estimated to be three billion strong.
John Audubon, the great birdwatcher of the 19th century saw a flock of migrating Passenger Pigeons passing overhead continuously for three days. From that unearthly abundance the population of the wild pigeon became zero by the year 1900. The last caged Passenger Pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
That was a unique event in which the population of a bird fell from three billion to zero within 50 years. From a genetic study the scientists speculate that the population boom of the Passenger Pigeon was, probably, what caused the bust and eventual extinction!
The legendary population boom of the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon in our part of the world was nowhere near that of the Passenger Pigeon; and the bust we are witnessing will, hopefully, not hit zero very soon. But there are many alarming parallels in the stories of the two species of pigeons.
Only a generation before ours, people thought that the Green Pigeons were so abundant that the people could not hurt it by eating a few birds here and there. Then in a generation the pigeons have become scarce and several species are on the road to extirpation in Bangladesh.
The 31 species of Green Pigeons of the world live only in a few regions of Asia and Africa. Of those Green Pigeons 11 species are confined to single-island such as Taiwan, Timor, Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Sumba, Sao Tome, Rykyu, Madagascar, Flores, Buru and Andaman.
The six species of Green Pigeons in Bangladesh, fortunately, are spread over larger areas, and even if they are extirpated here will not be lost from Asia. That, unfortunately, is not a very comforting thought for a Bangladeshi birder.