A couple of birds came screaming towards us as we stopped by a roadside tea-stall at Laskarpur in Sayestaganj. Were the birds really screaming at us! No; they were simply going round and round gleefully pursuing one another around a few Palmyra Palm trees we call Taalgach.
The Palmyra grove had grown at the edge of a beel through which passed our highway. Being on high ground, we had the rare close-up view of the birds that usually fly some 15 metres high up in the air. While the birds were flying round the Palmyra fronds they were also zipping past us on the highway.
With a pair of long swept-back wings, every bird looked like a boomerang menacingly hurtling at high speed through the air. When its fast fluttering flight seemed sure to crash into the Palmyra fronds, it uttered a trilling call 'tiriririree' and executed a sharp turn to go for the million and one round of the day.
Those tireless flyers around us at Sayestaganj, of course, were the Asian Palm Swift, a very distinctive bird of Bangladesh. But the people at the tea-stall did not know it for a bird; they were quite incredulous when we claimed so. A defiant elder declared the bird to be 'Chamchika' [pipistrelle]!
We understood the reasons why the people of Sayestaganj did not count the Asian Palm Swift as a bird. They had never seen it coming down to hop on the ground, forage for food, sit on a tree, socialise, mate, nest, or do any other stuff the birds usually do around the people of our villages.
The Asian Palm Swift, in fact, does all those things as a true arboreal creature should - on the wings. It catches tiny insects in flight over the fields of grass or paddy. And it meets, socialises and mates on the wings high up in the air, well beyond the indolent scrutiny of any smart Alek of our villages.
Only to rest, sleep and nest, the Swift has to enter the drooping leaves of a Taalgach. It grips the hanging leaf of the Palmyra with its sharp claws to rest and to take shelter from rain or storm. The folding fronds of Palmyra happily hide the birds from elements and people crazy enough to check out Taalgach in a storm.
The Swift catches some wind-swept debris like dry grasses or leaves to make its nest. And with its sticky saliva, the bird builds a tiny cup-nest on the side of a palm-frond. Soon the female Swift lays a few eggs and with the saliva sticks the eggs to the shallow nest on the side of a swinging palm-frond.
That is how the Asian Palm Swift has been living for the past six and a half crore years, doing every chore of its life on the wings except for the brief episodes of rest and procreation when it happens to hang by its claws. It is actually a lame bird with no use for its miniscule legs and cannot stand-up, walk or run at all.
The Swift is so well adapted to its arboreal life that it is happy to fly non-stop at all waking hours of its life. The bird's 20-years lifespan is unusually long for such a tiny bird. So, in that lifespan of some seven thousand days the Swift usually logs a mileage equal to seven round trips to the moon.
We get to see these nearly legless and supremely restless flyers all over the country, mostly unnoticed and, thankfully, unmolested by people. It flies in small flocks over our paddy fields, stubbles, fallows and swamps the whole day, and rests by hanging from the palm fronds at night.
The genetic study of the Swift told us that although they look alike there are two separate species of Swifts thriving on the palm trees of the two continents: the Asian Palm Swift and the African Palm Swift. Besides these two, we were lucky to see a third species, named Malagasy Palm Swift, on the island of Madagascar.
With a dull brown plumage the Palm Swift is not a spectacular bird to look at. Since it wings perpetually at about 100 km per hour at a great height, it is rarely registered as an adorable bird such as a sparrow or a weaver. It is not surprising that none of our poets ever wrote a poem about the Palm Swift.
The English poet Ted Hughes can, however, be blamed for no such neglect or an inattention to such an ethereal and iconic creature of the firmament. To him a swift is but an arrowhead of a fast-moving scream. He wrote:
… …. …. …. … … … … The swifts
Materialize at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. 'Look! They're back! Look!'
And they're gone
On a steep
The Palm Swifts of our continents of Asia and Africa did not colonise the Americas. The Americas are populated by the Chimney Swift; a very inappropriate name for a bird that made its nest in hollow trees only some five centuries ago, before Columbus and his European colonists started building chimneys in North America.
Unlike the contented Palm Swifts of Asia and Africa, the Chimney Swifts cannot live in any one of the Americas in all seasons but must fly 15 thousand kilometres non-stop each way with every change of seasons. What an ordeal for such a tiny bird!