‘The wagtail, with a wink, rose up in fright and disappeared’

Wagtails are unusual birds that constantly wag their tails for no apparent reason; at least for no reason. Its English name is “Wagtail” and its Latin name “Motacilla” means moving tail, apparently referring to its peculiar tail-wagging habit.

November 05, 2022 at 2:30 p.m

Last modified: November 05, 2022, 2:39 p.m

Tail hunting beetle. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

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Tail hunting beetle. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

At Banani, we were delighted to see two White Tails sprinting around a pond created by workmen working to build a high-speed road over the railway. It was a foggy October morning and the workers were too early to be seen with their winches. The birds ran wild and fed on the small insects offered in that pond-restaurant.

While we enjoyed watching these migratory Wagtails near our house, we doubted the wisdom of them feeding from that awful pond. The site was full of grease, oil and whatnot! Small chemical poisons ingested by insects could accumulate in the vital organs of those insect-eating birds and kill them.

We regretted it even more when we remembered that before the construction work started, there was a small hole covered with weeds between the highway and the railway. That hole was probably the winter home of the two Tails. They may have found that waterhole on their first migration to Bangladesh as teenagers; and has been visiting him ever since.

Perhaps out of sheer nostalgia, the Tails came to visit their old winter homes even after they had been broken into by men. And maybe during their sentimental trip there, the poor birds couldn’t resist the urge to snack on the roadside fast food. We hoped that the birds would take action and soon find a less polluted and less trampled place to settle.

Attention Whitetail. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

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Attention Whitetail.  Photo: Enam Ul Haque

Attention Whitetail. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

As the sun lifted the fog, we were happy to train our cameras on the bugs as they sunned, hunted, squealed and squished their tails. They completely ignored the stray dogs squabbling over scraps from a nearby dump. Two-Tails didn’t worry about the ravens trying to pinch the dogs’ kernels either.

We had a unique opportunity to photograph cheerful Wagtails together with angry stray dogs. But these intimate moments between the birds and the animals came to an abrupt end as soon as two wooden workers wearing hats came out of a distant hut. The two Wagtails quickly tensed up, yelled “tsee-tsee” and set off in a flurry.

We were sad but not surprised to see the Wagtails go. We know that wild birds do not react to human attacks with the calmness of other animals. Birds usually see us as cruel predators or creepy aliens; not as beings they can live together. People who want to watch, study or photograph birds should stay as far and discreet as possible.

White Tail calls. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

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White Tail calls.  Photo: Enam Ul Haque

White Tail calls. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

The great Victorian poet and novelist Thomas Hardy highlighted human alienation in his deceptively simple poem “Wagtail and Baby”. The poem narrates how the baby realizes alienation when he sees that the cheerful Tail, who is not afraid of the huge bulls outside, flies away in fear as soon as a person approaches. We present a part of that interesting poem:

Then a perfect gentleman approached;

Tail winking,

Horribly it rose and vanished;

The photos we took of two White Wagtails looked like old shots from the era of black and white photography. The tail feathers were all black and white and gray with no touch of color. They looked very elegant and charming at the same time; and confirmed the idea that the two most attractive “colors” in the world are black and white.

All Wagtails, however, are not black and white. There are 13 species of Wagtails in the world; and several of them produce beautiful yellow feathers during the breeding season. There are seven species of Wagtails in Bangladesh; and only one of them lives here year-round. Six other species, including the White Tail, live only in winter in Bangladesh.

Danger of feeling tail. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

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Danger of feeling tail.  Photo: Enam Ul Haque

Danger of feeling tail. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

In the summer, Whitetails fly north to breed in cooler climates. Many of them travel northeast to Kamchatka and even Alaska to breed. We don’t know if the Alaskan Wagtail has ever traveled as far south-west as Bangladesh! To find out, we need to go to Alaska and put some colorful flags on the legs of the Tailed Cubs.

Most of the White-tails that winter in Bangladesh do not go far above the Himalayan heights to breed. We once saw a Wagtail nesting in a crevice in the stone wall of Khumjung Monastery in Nepal. We were delighted to see the clever bird using the artificial structure as a nesting place. As it adapts to man-made objects, its chances of survival increase.

At Khumjung, we couldn’t help but wonder if the Wagtail was wagging its tail or sitting still, incubating its eggs in a nest! Wagtails are unusual birds that constantly wag their tails for no apparent reason; at least for no reason. Its English name ‘Wagtail’ and Latin name ‘Motacilla’, meaning moving tail, obviously refer to its peculiar tail-wagging habit.

The tail goes up in the air. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

The tail goes up in the air. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

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