We may thankfully sing the old Christian hymn “Humbly we adore thee, pelican” now that a Spot-billed Pelican is visiting Bangladesh after over a century. The bird has been photographed recently at the riverbank of Padma in Rajshahi.
Pelican is an elegant bird packing a hefty five kilograms of flesh and bones in a rotund ball of white feathers. Centuries before, pelicans were commonplace in the Padma-Jamuna estuary and all the other wet lands strewn in that flood-plain. Those prodigious birds that fed mainly on fish eventually disappeared as the fish in those wetlands declined.
Pelican is an artless fisher; not a crafty hunter. The only fishing tool it has is its enormous throat pouch. It can scoop gallons of water in its pouch and swallow the luckless fish that may be trapped in it. It is rather like a fisherman trying to fish by picking bucketful of water from a wetland. It worked only when the water was full of fish. There was a time when our wetlands had fish aplenty and the blissful pelican proliferated. Then in this land the people became plentiful and over-harvested the fish to near extinction. The population of the hapless pelicans declined with the fish. Now it survives in some places in the neighbouring countries where humanity is yet to rob nature of all its wealth.
Although there are only eight species of pelicans in the world they have been around for over 20 million years. Of the world's eight species the wetlands of Bengal had three; namely, Great White Pelican, Spot-billed Pelican and Dalmatian Pelican. Those gregarious birds were often seen fishing in droves and nesting on large trees in colonies here centuries before. In the recent past people sometimes have seen the Great White Pelican in Bangladesh; but not the Spot-billed Pelican in a century. That is why the espying of this single pelican over Padma is a notable event. The question remains how long the Padma of today will be able to support this ingenuous fisher that endeavors to catch fish by scooping mouthful of murky water!
Being a slow, conspicuous, confiding and meaty bird, the pelican was a favored game to hunters and trappers in this part of the subcontinent. Besides the paucity of fish, persecution by humans contributed to its demise in Bengal. Pelicans are not, however, universally persecuted. It is not Kosher or Halal to the Jews. In much of the Christian world the pelican is revered, celebrated and pampered. A myth portrays the mother pelican feeding the chicks by drawing blood from its own body in time of food shortages. St Thomas Aquinas honored the mythical pelican in his hymn, “Humbly we adore thee”. Since then the pelican has been a symbol of martyrdom in the western world.
The legend, hymn and symbolism partly explain why the biggest population of pelican of the world is found in the two continents of America today. The other part of the explanation is the conscious efforts to conserve nature. In spite of a substantial damage by the killer chemical DDT, the pelicans have been recovering pretty well over the past three decades there. Although the oil-spills continue to kill some pelicans, its population there is over a million now.
The single pelican swimming the waters of Padma deserves our adoration too. The bird is likely to be a fledgling fresh from its breeding ground in Assam. Fledglings usually fly far out of the parents' territory in search of new place of inhabitation. We hope the brave bird will like its ancestral property named Padma and make Rajshahi its winter home.