A brilliantly coloured bird turned our lacklustre tramping through the dark and damp groves of Lama pretty exciting and upbeat in a flash. We could clearly see the stunning crimson body of the bird although it landed on a reedy branch of a Lebbek Tree very high up. Straightaway we knew it was a handsome male Scarlet Minivet - by far the most splendidly attired bird of all the forests of Bangladesh.
The good bird soon flew off its high perch to sit on a lowly Woodier Tree near us. We tried to stay as hidden and inconspicuous as possible while fumbling with our unwieldy cameras and pleading with the feeble morning sun to shine through the autumn clouds. Without sunshine no portraiture of a magnificent male Scarlet Minivet would capture the pure vermillion colour in all its glory.
The lovely bird proved to be unseasonably cooperative; the sullen sun not as much. While flying from branch to branch in search of its favourite insects the Scarlet Minivet stayed within our shooting range for many precious moments. Usually the energetic and sprightly Scarlet Minivets keep moving through the high canopies of the forests and rarely dally at the lower levels for very long.
After a few breathless moments of following the male we started wondering where his mate could be! The adult Scarlet Minivets are usually found foraging in pairs; and we did not expect our gorgeous and gallant male on that ample hill of Lama to be a lonesome bachelor. We knew that the females do not care to dress in colourful garbs; and are not as easily found in the thickets as the colourful males.
The elusive female did not keep us waiting too long. Soon we found her foraging unobtrusively in a tree only a few feet away from the showy male. The helpful female broke her foliage cover and landed on top of a tender branch to be photographed against the grey sky. Soon she returned to the thickets; and the graceful yellow and grey feathers helped her blend with the forest immediately.
For a few precious minutes the Scarlet Minivet couple continued to move between the canopies of trees on the slope we climbed that cloudy morning. Unlike the invisible female, the rose-red male held our attention wherever he went. We wondered how safe it was for small birds like that to be so visible at the forest canopy frequented by falcons, harriers, hawks and other bird-hunters.
The alertness and the dexterity to fly through the thickets explained how the male Scarlet Minivet could stay at once visible and safe in the perilous forest canopy. The male knew when to sit on an exposed perch to mark its territory and when to dive into the thickets for safety. The astute male is known to use its very visible body as bait to distract the predators' attention from his mate!
Scarlet Minivets form strong pair-bonds and live near-perfect monogamous lives. They are the epitome of marital fidelity, not very common even in the bird world. Many genetic studies on the nestlings have exposed a lot of cheating among so many well-known monogamous species of birds. Scientists consider widespread cheating as a necessary protection against the debilitating effects of inbreeding.
In the world of birds the female is considered more 'responsible' for infidelity than the male since sex is not possible without the willing participation of the female. A male bird cannot promise goodies, pay off, coax, or coerce a female to have sex. The widespread cheating among birds is, therefore, considered to have been started and perpetuated by the adulterous females; not so much by the philandering males.
Scientists see the blind force of evolution working behind that infidelity among monogamous birds. When a nest has eggs fertilised by different males the chicks have greater genetic diversity than they would otherwise. When the chicks from the same nest form pairs, as they often do, their chicks are less inbred than otherwise would be. Therefore, the chicks of adulterous birds do better at the game of survival; and cheating lives on.
'Cheating is good for survival' may be genetically valid but not socially acceptable in any male-dominated human society. A charismatic Casanova may be tolerated; but a Draupadi certainly not. We recalled how in the famous nineteenth-century American fiction titled 'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorn the long suffering heroin Hester Prynne was convicted of adultery and had to wear on her dress the scarlet letter 'A' forever announcing her conviction.
The beautiful burgundy colour of the male Scarlet Minivet, on the other hand, signified fidelity and an abiding devotion to his family. While incubating eggs or chicks in an open cup-nest on a tree the unobtrusive female would sometimes attract the attention of a predator. The male has been known to use his bright crimson colour as a bait to attract the predators away from her and the nest even while risking his own life.
That has been the very point of such an attractive attire of the male vis-a-vis the drab camouflage garb of the female of this strikingly dimorphic species called Scarlet Minivet. His scarlet colour is, therefore, a badge of marital fidelity to the highest degree imaginable; not a sign of luridness, waywardness or unfaithfulness.
These observations, hopefully, would please the people who wish to see human mores and morals reflected in wildlife, however incongruous. But to be fair to all parties involved, we must admit that the genetic studies on the nestlings are yet to be done to discover the degree of infidelity among the female Scarlet Minivets. After all, they might also be interested in insurance against inbreeding!