Our hesitant walk on the elevated walkway made of rotting planks at Harbaria was rewarded suddenly by a flock of colourful Green Pigeons landing on the canopy of the Mangrove Trees at the turn of the trail. Most of the birds merrily merged with the lush green foliage and became indiscernible as soon as they landed. Only a few remained visible to us that sat with slices of grey sky in the background.
We saw the big oval orange spot on the breast of the nearest bird and were sure that it was a male Orange-breasted Green Pigeon. The beautiful greenish yellow male with a broad pink patch above its bright orange breast-spot easily surpassed the best paintings of Green Pigeons, Fruit Doves and, even, the Gouldian Finches by the legendary nineteenth century bird-portraitists Elizabeth and John Gould.
Very few people get to see the gorgeous pastel pink and glowing orange colours of the male Orange-breasted Green Pigeons nowadays since these reclusive and distrustful birds take great care not to come near humans, especially in Bangladesh. All six species of Green Pigeons including the Orange-breasted had earned the reputation of being delicious and were hunted down ruthlessly in the past centuries.
Now, we do not see these Green Pigeons in our cities and towns although being fig-eaters they could easily thrive on the abundant fruits of the road-side Ficus trees like Bot, Pakur, Ashatha, Jagadumur etc. The weary birds seldom visit human neighbourhoods today. The largest population of Orange-breasted Green Pigeons of Bangladesh lives in Sundarban nowadays. Fruits of Hental and Keora are their main food in the Mangrove.
A pair of fretful Orange-breasted Green Pigeons were sitting high up on a bare Gewa branch and watching us and the monkeys that followed us for handouts. The Pigeons looked more distrustfully at our outlandish cameras than us or the rowdy monkeys. Although dressed much less prominently than her mate the female Green Pigeon seemed more nervous and ready to flee. We would not dare raise our cameras at them before they relaxed a little bit.
Orange-breasted Green Pigeon lives only in a few countries of East and Southeast Asia including Bangladesh. Centuries before, Bengal was probably the best place to encounter this bird since in some European languages it is called 'Bengali Lombgalamb' meaning Bengali Leaf-pigeon. Sadly, a bird the Europeans named 'Bengali Pigeon' is rather unknown to the Bengali and quite rare in Bangladesh outside Sundarban today.
It is hard to look at the delicate contours and sublime colours of the Orange-breasted Green Pigeon and picture our ancestors thinking only about the taste of its meagre meat. Most bewildering is the fact that our forefathers did not even try to turn this elegant creature to a cage-bird. They knew how easy it was to keep pigeons as pets! And anyone could see that a Green Pigeon was infinitely more beautiful than a domestic pigeon.
It would not, however, be a pleasant sight to see some cage-bred Orange-breasted Green Pigeons being bought and sold in shops. But, people would at least be able to enjoy, appreciate and love the blissful colour and form of this unmatched beauty the Europeans thought of naming 'Bengali Leaf-pigeon.' After all, we cannot cherish something we know nothing about.
Today one has to take hushed walks in the Sundarban hoping to come upon a flock of Orange-breasted Green Pigeons by luck and see their exquisite colours only from a distance through binoculars. Sadly, its bicolor bills, red-rimmed eyes and the many shades of yellow and green could not be appreciated from far except with the help of some contraptions like the binoculars.
The Green Pigeons are mostly Asian birds. Of the 31 species of Green Pigeons of the world 26 species live in East and Southeast Asia. Of the remaining five species of Green Pigeons one is endemic to Madagascar; and continental Africa has the other four species. Of the 26 Asian species Bangladesh is fortunate to have six. Europe and the new world have no Green Pigeon.
Besides the Orange-breasted Green Pigeon we sometimes get to see the Yellow-footed Green Pigeons in Sundarban. We would not be surprised if we saw the two species flying together in a mixed flock in the mangrove by the Harbaria khal. Being frugivorous these birds did not need to compete too hard for food and could happily share fruiting trees in times of abundance.
In an earlier visit we did witness a small dispute between two male Orange-breasted Green Pigeons. We saw a flock of some thirty Green Pigeons descend on a rain drenched Keora Tree by the Harintana Khal. The two males on a Keora branch were furiously pecking and noisily slapping one another with their wings. They were probably showing off to the perceptive females.
The little fight between the two Green Pigeons was certainly not over the access to food because the branches dangled countless Keora fruits. Sundarban has enough Keora fruit for a million Green Pigeons besides the billion other takers. But Keora fruits are not always there. What limits the Green Pigeon population in Sundarban, possibly, is the availability of fruits round the year.
Planting more Ficus trees like Bot, Pakur, Ashatha, Jagadumur etc. in the villages at the northern margin of Sundarban could help the Orange-breasted Green Pigeons that are now living mostly in the Mangrove.