When I was growing up in Sylhet, the pigeons known as Jalali Kobutor – believed to have descended from a pair brought by the great holy man Hazrat Shahjalal – were a common sight. The town's buildings were mostly A-frame bungalows which had nooks and crannies for pigeons to nest. These birds are regarded as sacred due to their association with the saint and never hunted or eaten. Sylhet thus has a thriving population of these birds, also known as Columbia Livia or rock pigeon. Today the best place to see Jalali Kobutors in Sylhet is the Dargah of Hazrat Shahjalal.
Rock pigeons represent one of seventeen related species found in Bangladesh. Pigeons and doves belong to the family of birds called Columbidae, which has three hundred bird species of varying colours, shapes and sizes spread over the world. The largest is the crowned pigeon of New Guinea which weighs up to three kilograms; the smallest is the New World ground-dove sized like a sparrow. However, some attributes are common to the entire family. They have stout bodies and short bills and legs. We have all seen their small heads bob to and fro when they walk. They fly swiftly, flapping their wings fast and loud. Pigeons and doves are vegetarian, living on seeds, grains, fruits and other plant parts.
In general, the terms “pigeon” and “dove” are interchangeable, but the latter is often applied to smaller species. In Bangladesh the most common dove is the spotted dove or Tila Ghughu which can be seen puttering around in fields looking for grain. The unmistakable kruukroo-kroo-koo song of the spotted dove is a sweet sound of the Bengali countryside.
Perhaps my favourite species of the family is the beautiful Horial, or yellow-footed green pigeon. For several years I had only heard of them from others – their colourful appearance, their beautiful flight, their flocks - but could find only one or two hidden in tall branches. Recently however luck favoured me as I found several flocks of Horials in Purbachol. Moreover, the birder Quazi Ahmed Hussain alerted me that another bird, the red collared dove, often lurks in these flocks and sure enough I found one. Another related species I saw near Dhaka – in Keraniganj - was the eurasian collared dove.
But I had to go to our forests to find some other pigeons. For example, I have seen pompadour green pigeons and emerald doves, two of our most beautiful pigeons, in the forests of Sylhet. Alas, I failed to get a decent photograph of either. On the way to Sundarban last February, after a long stretch on the Shela river devoid of any birds, I saw two birds flying fast and straight across the river. Luckily for me they landed on a tree where I could photograph them. They turned out to be oriental turtle doves.
The other pigeon/dove species seen in Bangladesh include the laughing dove, pale-capped pigeon, pin-tailed green pigeon, orange-breasted green pigeon, thick-billed green pigeon and the wedge-tailed green pigeon. Some of these are rare and can be seen after much effort and patience.
Because of their friendly disposition, sweet songs, and intelligence, the Columbidae bird family has had long associations with humans. Pigeons were often used as messengers during war. Doves are a symbol of peace in many cultures. And afficionados in Bangladesh - including many from old Dhaka – are passionate about pigeon racing.