From an unwieldy bamboo pole, a sphinx-like bird was watching us as we tiptoed on the wet grass in Keraniganj, expecting to flush an elusive quail. We stopped advancing the minute we noticed the unyielding red-eye of the bird in front of us. It was a plucky male Plaintive Cuckoo sitting oddly exposed on a bare bamboo stump.
The Plaintive Cuckoos, like all cuckoos, usually wish to stay undercover and well hidden. For reasons unknown, the intrepid bird on the pole decided to take a holiday from the role of a regular cuckoo. It continued to sit motionless even when we brazenly went so close as to see its crimson eyes and the fresh breast-feathers moulting from grey to orange.
We stood still and raised our cameras to snap a few eye-level photos of the handsome bird. But the cuckoo suddenly became tense and decided that the time of adventure and exhibitionism was over for him. He took off and flew low over the grass to sit in a Dholkolmi shrub far from us.
The plaintive Cuckoo is perhaps the most secretive of the four species of widespread cuckoos in Bangladesh. It often lives in our farmland, beel, grass-field, orchard, park, scrub, jungle and earth-fill. The secretive bird has managed to stay unknown and unnoticed successfully in every human neighbourhood, including our claustrophobic city.
Soon we found a hepatic female Plaintive Cuckoo sitting still on a crumbling bamboo machan not far from the Dholkolmi shrub where the male was sitting. We hoped that she would like to pair up with that remarkably intrepid male. These cautious cuckoos do not form lasting pair-bonds; instead, they mate for a brief breeding season only to live alone for the rest of the year.
The three cuckoos as widespread as the Plaintive Cuckoo in our neighbourhood are the Koel, Common Hawk-Cuckoo and Indian Cuckoo. They are the most familiar cuckoos of Bangladesh and have popular Bangla names: Kokil, Chok-gelo and Boko-thako. However, the Plaintive Cuckoo remained an unknown bird and had no Bangla name until we started calling it Koroon-Papia, meaning 'sad cuckoo'.
The song of the Plaintive Cuckoo is a mournful, panting whistle: Pee Pee Pee Pipipipipi. It does not, however, sing as loudly or frequently as the other three familiar cuckoos. After singing its infrequent but long and sad song in our neighbourhood, it manages to stay undetected mainly because of its smaller size, guarded movement and laid-back lifestyle.
Plaintive Cuckoo is as big as the ubiquitous Red-vented Bulbul but certainly not as sprightly or indiscreet. Stealthily, it enters and exits our gardens, hedges and shrubs to gently pick up the caterpillars and other crawling insects. The gentle bird takes good care not to cross anyone's path while doing its daily chores.
While foraging in our neighbourhood, the Plaintive Cuckoo carefully avoids the attention of Tailorbird, Prinia and Cisticola - the smallest birds of Bangladesh. These tiny birds habitually raise the alarm and mob the cuckoo. Although many times bigger than those tiny mobsters, the cuckoo prefers to flee and not fight.
There is a very good reason why the Plaintive Cuckoo acts so timidly when mobbed by Tailorbirds, Prinias or Cisticolas. Those birds happen to be the cuckoo's foster parents, and they are needed every summer to incubate cuckoo-eggs and raise cuckoo-chicks. After a female cuckoo lays its eggs in several nests of these little birds, they do the incubation and chick-rearing.
In summer, every adult female Plaintive Cuckoo hopes to find a few nests of Tailorbirds, Prinias, or Cisticolas to be used as her nurseries. It's tricky to clandestinely find those tiny nests, often dangerously close to the ground. It is trickier still to lay a large egg in each of those tiny nests without entering any. But once those awkward acts are done, the rest is easy and smooth for the cuckoo.
The Tailorbird, Prinia and Cisticola dutifully incubate the oversized eggs of the cuckoo and feed the giant chicks even though they have to sit on the chicks' heads to drop food into the mouth. After the demanding chores of raising giant chicks, the exhausted birds try to keep the Plaintive Cuckoo away from their nests in the subsequent breeding seasons. The little birds, however, have never really succeeded in doing that over tens of millions of years of their existence on earth.
Our ancestors did notice that only a few spiteful little birds hated the very likeable songsters called cuckoo. A famous Jataka story stated that the jungle animals missed cuckoo-songs and turned vicious after the envious little birds chased the cuckoo away. Eventually, when attacked by those angry animals, the little birds came to regret their jealousy of the cuckoo. That was the Jataka-way of teaching people not to be envious!
Aesop's fable, on the other hand, offered a theory of aesthetics through a story about the cuckoo. In that story, the bees criticised the cuckoo's song for being monotonous; the cuckoo stated that whatever the bees did at the hive was repetitive too. The wise bees said that their work, being household chores, had to be repetitive; but the cuckoo-song meant for amusement could not afford to be repetitious.
A fair point made by the bees - only so long as we naively think that the tuneful cuckoo sang for the entertainment of the birds and the bees etc. In fact, a singing cuckoo has no one in mind except a female cuckoo; his purpose of singing is not to entertain her but to stimulate hormones in her oviduct.
The body of a female cuckoo would not undertake the gruelling task of developing an egg unless a male announced his availability by singing earnestly. Without his song, she could not be sure that an able male was at hand; and certainly, she looked forward to laying no unfertilized egg on any summer day. The cuckoo's song, therefore, is as much a household chore as the bees' buzzing, dancing or comb-making.