BIRDS OF THE INDIAN HILLS
BY DOUGLAS DEWAR
A COMPANION VOLUME TO THE BIRD VOLUMES OF "THE FAUNA OF BRITISH INDIA"
LONDON: JOHN LANE, THE BODLEY HEAD NEW YORK: JOHN LANE COMPANY TORONTO: BELL & COCKBURN
All rights reserved
Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO. at the Ballantyne Press, Edinburgh
Considerable portions of this book have already appeared as articles in one or other of the following newspapers or periodicals: The Pioneer, Madras Mail, Englishman, Indian Field, Bird Notes. I am indebted to the editors of the above publications for permission to republish the portions of the book that have already appeared in print.
PART I BIRDS OF THE HIMALAYAS . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 THE HABITAT OF HIMALAYAN BIRDS . . . . . . 13 THE COMMON BIRDS OF THE WESTERN HIMALAYAS . 29 THE COMMON BIRDS OF THE EASTERN HIMALAYAS . 105 TITS AT WORK . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127 THE PEKIN-ROBIN . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133 BLACK BULBULS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138 A WARBLER OF DISTINCTION . . . . . . . . . 145 THE SPOTTED FORKTAIL . . . . . . . . . . . 151 THE NEST OF THE GREY-WINGED OUZEL . . . . . 158 THE BLACK-AND-YELLOW GROSBEAK . . . . . . . 164 THE GREAT HIMALAYAN BARBET . . . . . . . . 174
PART II THE COMMON BIRDS OF THE NILGIRIS . . . . . . . 181
PART III THE COMMON BIRDS OF THE PALNI HILLS . . . . . . 233
APPENDICES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 249 INDEX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 258
PART I Birds of the Himalayas
The avifauna of the Himalayas is a large one. It includes birds found throughout the range, birds confined to the eastern or western portions, birds resident all through the year, birds that are mere seasonal visitors, birds found only at high elevations, birds confined to the lower hills, birds abundant everywhere, birds nowhere common. Most ornithological books treat of all these sorts and conditions of birds impartially, with the result that the non-ornithological reader who dips into them finds himself completely out of his depth.
He who plunges into the essays that follow need have no fear of getting out of his depth. With the object of guarding against this catastrophe, I have described as few birds as possible. I have ignored all those that are not likely to be seen daily in summer in the Himalayas at elevations between 5000 and 7000 feet above the sea-level. Moreover, the birds of the Western have been separated from those of the Eastern Himalayas. The result is that he who peruses this book will be confronted with comparatively few birds, and should experience little difficulty in recognising them when he meets them in the flesh. I am fully alive to the fact that the method I have adopted has drawbacks. Some readers are likely to come across birds at the various hill stations which do not find place in this book. Such will doubtless charge me with sins of omission. I meet these charges in anticipation by adopting the defence of the Irishman, charged with the theft of a chicken, whose crime had been witnessed by several persons: "For every witness who saw me steal the chicken, I'll bring twenty who didn't see me steal it!"
The reader will come across twenty birds which the essays that follow will enable him to identify for every one he sees not described in them.
THE HABITAT OF HIMALAYAN BIRDS
Himalayan birds inhabit what is perhaps the most wonderful tract of country in the world. The Himalayas are not so much a chain of mountains as a mountainous country, some eighty miles broad and several hundred long—a country composed entirely of mountains and valleys with no large plains or broad plateaux.
There is a saying of an ancient Sanskrit poet which, being translated into English, runs: "In a hundred ages of the gods I could not tell you of the glories of Himachal." This every writer on things Himalayan contrives to drag into his composition. Some begin with the quotation, while others reserve it for the last, and make it do duty for the epigram which stylists assure us should terminate every essay.
Some there are who quote the Indian sage only to mock him. Such assert that the beauties of the Himalayas have been greatly exaggerated—that, as regards grandeur, their scenery compares unfavourably with that of the Andes, while their beauty is surpassed by that of the Alps. Not having seen the Andes, I am unable to criticise the assertion regarding the grandeur of the Himalayas, but I find it difficult to imagine anything finer than their scenery.
As regards beauty, the Himalayas at their best surpass the Alps, because they exhibit far more variety, and present everything on a grander scale.
The Himalayas are a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They have two faces—the fair and the plain. In May they are at their worst. Those of the hillsides which are not afforested are brown, arid, and desolate, and the valleys, in addition to being unpleasantly hot, are dry and dusty. The foliage of the trees lacks freshness, and everywhere there is a remarkable absence of water, save in the valleys through which the rivers flow. On the other hand, September is the month in which the Himalayas attain perfection or something approaching it. The eye is refreshed by the bright emerald garment which the hills have newly donned. The foliage is green and luxuriant. Waterfalls, cascades, mighty torrents and rivulets abound. Himachal has been converted into fairyland by the monsoon rains.
A remarkable feature of the Himalayas is the abruptness with which they rise from the plains in most places. In some parts there are low foothills; but speaking generally the mountains that rise from the plain attain a height of 4000 or 5000 feet.
It is difficult for any person who has not passed from the plains of India to the Himalayas to realise fully the vast difference between the two countries and the dramatic suddenness with which the change takes place.
The plains are as flat as the proverbial pancake—a dead monotony of cultivated alluvium, square mile upon square mile of wheat, rice, vetch, sugar-cane, and other crops, amidst which mango groves, bamboo clumps, palms, and hamlets are scattered promiscuously. In some places the hills rise sheer from this, in others they are separated from the alluvial plains by belts of country known as the Tarai and Bhabar. The Tarai is low-lying, marshy land covered with tall, feathery grass, beautifully monotonous. This is succeeded by a stretch of gently-rising ground, 10 or 20 miles in breadth, known as the Bhabar—a strip of forest composed mainly of tall evergreen sal trees (Shorea robusta). These trees grow so close together that the forest is difficult to penetrate, especially after the rains, when the undergrowth is dense and rank. Very beautiful is the Bhabar, and very stimulating to the imagination. One writer speaks of it as "a jungle rhapsody, an extravagant, impossible botanical tour de force, intensely modern in its Titanic, incoherent magnificence." It is the home of the elephant, the tiger, the panther, the wild boar, several species of deer, and of many strange and beautiful birds.
Whether from the flat plains or the gently-sloping Bhabar, the mountains rise with startling suddenness.
The flora and fauna of the Himalayas differ from those of the neighbouring plains as greatly as the trees and animals of England differ from those of Africa.
Of the common trees of the plains of India—the nim, mango, babul, tamarind, shesham, palm, and plantain—not one is to be found growing on the hills. The lower slopes are covered with sal trees like the Bhabar. These cease to grow at elevations of 3000 feet above the sea-level, and, higher up, every rise of 1000 feet means a considerable change in the flora. Above the sal belt come several species of tropical evergreen trees, among the stems and branches of which great creepers entangle themselves in fantastic figures. At elevations of 4000 feet the long-leaved pine (Pinus longifolia) appears. From 5000 to 10,000 feet, several species of evergreen oaks abound. Above 6000 feet are to be seen the rhododendron, the deodar and other hill cypresses, and the beautiful horse-chestnut. On the lower slopes the undergrowth is composed largely of begonias and berberry. Higher up maidenhair and other ferns abound, and the trunks of the oaks and rhododendrons are festooned with hanging moss.
Between elevations of 10,000 and 12,000 feet the silver fir is the commonest tree. Above 12,000 feet the firs become stunted and dwarfed, on account of the low temperatures that prevail, and juniper and birch are the characteristic trees.
There are spots in the Himalayas, at heights varying from 10,000 to 12,000 feet, where wild raspberries grow, and the yellow colt's-foot, the dandelion, the blue gentian, the Michaelmas daisy, the purple columbine, the centauria, the anemone, and the edelweiss occur in profusion. Orchids grow in large numbers in most parts of the Himalayas.
Every hillside is not covered with foliage. Many are rugged and bare. Some of these are too precipitous to sustain vegetation, others are masses of quartz and granite. On the hillsides most exposed to the wind, only grass and small shrubs are able to obtain a foothold.
"On the vast ridges of elevated mountain masses," writes Weber in The Forests of Upper India, "which constitute the Himalayas are found different regions of distinct character. The loftiest peaks of the snowy range abutting on the great plateaux of Central Asia and Tibet run like a great belt across the globe, falling towards the south-west to the plains of India. Between the summit and the plains, a distance of 60 to 70 miles, there are higher, middle, and lower ranges, so cut up by deep and winding valleys and river-courses, that no labyrinth could be found more confusing or difficult to unravel. There is nowhere any tableland, as at the Cape or in Colorado, with horizontal strata of rock cut down by water into valleys or canyons. The strata seem, on the contrary, to have been shoved up and crumpled in all directions by some powerful shrinkage of the earth's crust, due perhaps to cooling; and the result is such a jumble of contorted rock masses, that it looks as if some great castle had been blown up by dynamite and its walls hurled in all directions. The great central masses, however, consist generally of crystalline granite, gneiss, and quartz rock, protruding from the bowels of the earth and shoving up the stratified envelope of rocks nearly 6 miles above sea-level.... The higher you get up ... the rougher and more difficult becomes the climbing; the valleys are deeper and more cut into ravines, the rocks more fantastically and rudely torn asunder, and the very vitals of the earth exposed; while the heights above tower to the skies. The torrents rushing from under the glaciers which flow from the snow-clad summits roar and foam, eating their way ever into the misty gorges."
Those who have not visited the Himalayas may perhaps best obtain an idea of the nature of the country from a brief description of that traversed by a path leading from the plain to the snowy range. Let us take the path from Kathgodam, the terminus of the Rohilkhand and Kumaun railway, to the Pindari glacier.
For the first two miles the journey is along the cart-road to Naini Tal, on the right bank of the Gola river.
At Ranibagh the pilgrim to the Pindari glacier leaves the cart-road and follows a bridle-path which, having crossed the Gola by a suspension bridge, mounts the steep hill on the left bank. Skirting this hill on its upward course, the road reaches the far side, which slopes down to the Barakheri stream. A fairly steep ascent of 5 miles through well-wooded country brings the traveller to Bhim Tal, a lake 4500 feet above the level of the sea. This lake, of which the area is about 150 acres, is one of the largest of a series of lakes formed by the flow of mountain streams into cup-like valleys. The path skirts the lake and then ascends the Gagar range, which attains a height of over 7000 feet. From the pass over this range a very fine view is obtainable. To the north the snowy range stretches, and between it and the pass lie 60 miles of mountain and valley. To the south are to be seen Bhim Tal, Sat Tal, and other lakes, nestling in the outer ranges, and, beyond the hills, the vast expanse of the plains.
The Gagar range is well wooded. The majority of the trees are rhododendrons: these, when they put forth their blossoms in spring, display a mass of crimson colouring. From the Gagar pass the road descends for some 3 miles through forest to the valley of the Ramganga. For about a mile the path follows the left bank of this small stream; it then crosses it by a suspension bridge, and forthwith begins to mount gradually the bare rocky Pathargarhi mountain. On the mountain side, a few hundred feet above the Ramganga, is a village of three score double-storeyed houses. These are very picturesque. Their white walls are set off by dark brown woodwork. But alas they are as whited sepulchres. It is only from a distance that they are picturesque. They are typical abodes of the hill folk.
From the Pathargarhi pass the path makes a steep descent down a well-wooded mountain-side to the Deodar stream. After crossing this by a stone bridge, the path continues its switch-back course upwards on a wooded hillside to the Laldana Binaik pass, whence it descends gradually for 6 miles, through first rhododendron then pine forest to the Sual river. This river is crossed by a suspension bridge. From the Sual the path makes an ascent of 3 miles on a rocky hillside to Almora, which is 36 miles from Kathgodam.
Almora used to be a Gurkha stronghold, and is now a charming little hill station situated some 5300 feet above the sea-level.
The town and the civil and military station are built on a saddle-backed ridge which is about 2 miles in length.
The Almora hill was almost completely denuded of trees by the Gurkhas, but the ridge has since become well wooded. Deodar, pine, tun, horse-chestnut, and alder trees are plentiful, and throughout the cantonment grows a spiraea hedge.
The avifauna of Almora is very interesting, consisting as it does of a strange mixture of hills and plains birds. Among the latter the most prominent are the grey-necked crow, the koel, the myna, the king-crow and the magpie-robin. In the spring paradise flycatchers are very abundant.
From Almora the road to the snowy range runs over an almost treeless rocky mountain called Kalimat, which rises to a height of 6500 feet. From Kalimat the road descends to Takula—16 miles from Almora. Then there is a further descent of 11 miles to Bageswar—a small town situated on the Sarju river. The inhabitants of Bageswar lead a sleepy existence for 360 days in the year, awakening for a short time in January, when a big fair is held, to which flock men of Dhanpur, Thibetans, Bhotias, Nepalese, Garwalis, and Kumaunis. These bring wool, borax, and skins, which they exchange for the produce of the plains.
From Bageswar the Pindari road is almost level for 22 miles, and runs alongside the Sarju. At first the valley is wide and well cultivated. Here and there are studded villages, of which the houses are roofed with thatching composed of pine needles.
At a place about 16 miles above Bageswar the valley of the Sarju suddenly contracts into a gorge with precipitous cliffs.
The scenery here is superb. The path passes through a shady glade in the midst of which rushes the roaring, foaming river. The trunks and larger branches of the trees are covered with ferns and hanging moss. The landscape might well be the original for a phase of a transformation scene at a pantomime. In the midst of this glade the stream is crossed by a wooden bridge.
At a spot 2 miles above this the path, leaving the Sarju, takes a sharp turn to the left, and begins a steep ascent of 5 miles up the Dhakuri mountain. The base of this hill is well wooded. Higher up the trees are less numerous. On the ridge the rhododendron and oak forest alternates with large patches of grassland, on which wild raspberries and brightly-coloured alpine flowers grow.
From the summit of the Dhakuri mountain a magnificent panorama delights the eye. To the north is a deep valley, above which the snow-clad mountains rise almost precipitously. Towering above the observer are the peaks of the highest mountains in British territory. The peaks and 14,000 feet of the slopes are covered with snow. Below the snow is a series of glaciers: these are succeeded by rocks, grass, and stunted vegetation until the tree-line is reached.
To the south lies the world displayed. Near at hand are 50 miles of rugged mountainous country, and beyond the apparently limitless plains. On a clear day it is said to be possible to distinguish the minarets of Delhi, 300 miles away. In the early morning, when the clouds still hover in the valleys, one seems to gaze upon a white billowy sea studded with rocky islets.
From the Dhakuri pass the path descends about 2000 feet, and then follows the valley of the Pindari river. The scenery here is magnificent. Unlike that of the Sarju, this valley is narrow. It is not much cultivated; amaranthus is almost the only crop grown. The villages are few and the huts which constitute them are rudely constructed. The cliffs are very high, and rise almost perpendicularly, like giant walls, so that the numerous feeders of the river take the form of cascades, in many of which the water falls without interruption for a distance of over 1000 feet.
The Kuphini river joins the Pindar 8 miles from its source. Beyond the junction the path to the glacier crosses to the left bank of the Pindar, and then the ascent becomes steep. During the ascent the character of the flora changes. Trees become fewer and flowers more numerous; yellow colt's-foot, dandelions, gentians, Michaelmas daisies, columbines, centaurias, anemones, and edelweiss grow in profusion. Choughs, monal pheasants, and snow-pigeons are the characteristic birds of this region.
Thus the birds of the Himalayas inhabit a country in every respect unlike the plains of India. They dwell in a different environment, are subjected to a different climate, and feed upon different food. It is therefore not surprising that the two avifaunas should exhibit great divergence. Nevertheless few people who have not actually been in both localities are able to realise the startlingly abrupt transformation of the bird-fauna seen by one who passes from the plains to the hills.
The 5-mile journey from Rajpur to Mussoorie transports the traveller from one bird-realm to another.
The caw of the house-crow is replaced by the deeper note of the corby. Instead of the crescendo shriek of the koel, the pleasing double note of the European cuckoo meets the ear. For the eternal coo-coo-coo-coo of the little brown dove, the melodious kokla-kokla of the hill green-pigeon is substituted. The harsh cries of the rose-ringed paroquets give place to the softer call of the slaty-headed species. The monotonous tonk-tonk-tonk of the coppersmith and the kutur-kutur-kutur of the green barbet are no more heard; in their stead the curious calls of the great Himalayan barbet resound among the hills. The dissonant voices of the seven sisters no longer issue from the thicket; their place is taken by the weird but less unpleasant calls of the Himalayan streaked laughing-thrushes. Even the sounds of the night are different. The chuckles and cackles of the spotted owlets no longer fill the welkin; the silence of the darkness is broken in the mountains by the low monotonous whistle of the pigmy-collared owlet.
The eye equally with the ear testifies to the traveller that when he has reached an altitude of 5000 feet he has entered another avian realm. The golden-backed woodpecker, the green bee-eater, the "blue jay" or roller, the paddy bird, the Indian and the magpie-robin, most familiar birds of the plains, are no longer seen. Their places are taken by the blue-magpies, the beautiful verditer flycatcher, the Himalayan and the black-headed jays, the black bulbul, and tits of several species.
All the birds, it is true, are not new. Some of our familiar friends of the plains are still with us. There are the kite, the scavenger vulture, the common myna, and a number of others, but these are the exceptions which prove the rule.
Scientific ornithologists recognise this great difference between the two faunas, and include the Himalayas in the Palaearctic region, while the plains form part of the Oriental region.
The chief things which affect the distribution of birds appear to be food-supply and temperature. Hence it is evident that in the Himalayas the avifauna along the snow-line differs greatly from that of the low, warm valleys. The range of temperature in all parts of the hills varies greatly with the season. At the ordinary hill stations the minimum temperature in the summer is sometimes as high as 70 degrees, while in the winter it may drop to 23 degrees F. Thus in midwinter many of the birds which normally live near the snow-line at 12,000 feet descend to 7000 or 6000 feet, and not a few hill birds leave the Himalayas for a time and tarry in the plains until the severity of the winter has passed away.
THE COMMON BIRDS OF THE WESTERN HIMALAYAS
THE CORVIDAE OR CROW FAMILY
This family, which is well represented in the Himalayas, includes the true crows, with their allies, the choughs, pies, jays, and tits.
The common Indian house-crow (Corvus splendens), with which every Anglo-Indian is only too familiar, loveth not great altitudes, hence does not occur in any of the higher hill stations. Almora is the one place in the hills where he appears to be common. There he displays all the shameless impudence of his brethren in the plains.
The common crow of the Himalayas is the large all-black species which is known as the Indian corby or jungle crow (C. macrorhynchus). Unlike its grey-necked cousin, this bird is not a public nuisance; nevertheless it occasionally renders itself objectionable by carrying off a chicken or a tame pigeon. In May or June it constructs, high up in a tree, a rough nest, which is usually well concealed by the thick foliage. The nest is a shallow cup or platform in the midst of which is a depression, lined with grass and hair. Horse-hair is used in preference to other kinds of hair; if this be not available crows will use human hair, or hair plucked from off the backs of cattle. Those who put out skins to dry are warned that nesting crows are apt to damage them seriously. Three or four eggs are laid. These are dull green, speckled with brown. Crows affect great secrecy regarding their nests. If a pair think that their nursery is being looked at by a human being, they show their displeasure by swearing as only crows can, and by tearing pieces of moss off the branch of some tree and dropping these on the offender's head!
Two species of chough, the red-billed (Graculus eremita), which is identical with the European form, and the yellow-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax alpinus), are found in the Himalayas; but he who would see them must either ascend nearly to the snow-line or remain on in the hills during the winter.
Blue-magpies are truly magnificent birds, being in appearance not unlike small pheasants. Two species grace the Himalayas: the red-billed (Urocissa occipitalis) and the yellow-billed blue-magpie (U. flavirostris). These are distinguishable one from the other mainly by the colour of the beak. A blue-magpie is a bird over 2 feet in length, of which the fine tail accounts for three-fourths. The head, neck, and breast are black, and the remainder of the plumage is a beautiful blue with handsome white markings. It is quite unnecessary to describe the blue-magpie in detail. It is impossible to mistake it. Even a blind man cannot fail to notice it because of its loud ringing call. East of Simla the red-billed species is by far the commoner, while to the west the yellow-billed form rules the roost. The vernacular names for the blue-magpie are Nilkhant at Mussoorie and Dig-dall at Simla.
The Himalayan tree-pie (Dendrocitta himalayensis), although a fine bird, looks mean in comparison with his blue cousins. This species is like a dull edition of the tree-pie of the plains. It is dressed like a quaker. It is easily recognised when on the wing. Its flight is very characteristic, consisting of a few rapid flaps of the pinions followed by a sail on outstretched wings. The median pair of tail feathers is much longer than the others, the pair next to the middle one is the second longest, and the outer one shortest of all. Thus the tail, when expanded during flight, has a curious appearance.
We now come to the jays. That brilliant study in light and dark blue, so common in the plains, which we call the blue-jay, does not occur in the Himalayas; nor is it a jay at all: its proper name is the Indian roller (Coracias indica). It is in no way connected with the jay tribe, being not even a passerine bird. We know this because of the arrangement of its deep plantar tendons, because its palate is desmognathous instead of aegithognathous, because—but I think I will not proceed further with these reasons; if I do, this article will resemble a letter written by the conscientious undergraduate who used to copy into each of his epistles to his mother, a page of A Complete Guide to the Town of Cambridge. The fond mother doubtless found her son's letters very instructive, but they were not exactly what she wanted. Let it suffice that the familiar bird with wings of two shades of blue is not a jay, nor even one of the Corviniae, but a blood relation of the kingfishers and bee-eaters.
Two true jays, however, are common in the Western Himalayas. These are known to science as the Himalayan jay (Garrulus bispecularis) and the black-throated jay (G. lanceolatus). The former is a fawn-coloured bird, with a black moustachial streak. As birds do not usually indulge in moustaches, this streak renders the bird an easy one to identify. The tail is black, and the wing has the characteristic blue band with narrow black cross-bars. This species goes about in large noisy flocks. Once at Naini Tal I came upon a flock which cannot have numbered fewer than forty individuals.
The handsome black-throated jay is a bird that must be familiar to every one who visits a Himalayan hill station with his eyes open. Nevertheless no one seems to have taken the trouble to write about it. Those who have compiled lists of birds usually dismiss it in their notes with such adjectives as "abundant," and "very common." It is remarkable that many popular writers should have discoursed upon the feathered folk of the plains, while few have devoted themselves to the interesting birds of the hills. There seem to be two reasons for this neglect of the latter. Firstly, it is only the favoured few to whom it is given to spend more than ten days at a time in the cool heights; most of us have to toil in the hot plains. Secondly, the thick foliage of the mountain-side makes bird-watching a somewhat difficult operation. The observer frequently catches sight of an interesting-looking bird, only to see it disappear among the foliage before he has had time even to identify it.
The black-throated jay is a handsome bird, more striking in appearance even than the jay of England (G. glandarius). Its crested head is black. Its back is a beautiful French grey, its wings are black and white with a bar of the peculiar shade of blue which is characteristic of the jay family and so rarely seen in nature or art. Across this blue bar run thin black transverse lines. The tail is of the same blue with similar black cross-bars, and each feather is tipped with white. The throat is black, with short white lines on it. The legs are pinkish slaty, and the bill is slate coloured in some individuals, and almost white in others. The size of this jay is the same as that of our familiar English one. Black-throated jays go about in flocks. This is a characteristic of a great many Himalayan birds. Probably the majority of the common birds of these mountains lead a sociable existence, like that of the "seven sisters" of the plains. A man may walk for half-an-hour through a Himalayan wood without seeing a bird or hearing any bird-sound save the distant scream of a kite or the raucous voice of the black crow; then suddenly he comes upon quite a congregation of birds, a flock of a hundred or more noisy laughing-thrushes, or numbers of cheeping white-eyes and tits, or it may be a flock of rowdy black bulbuls. All the birds of the wood seem to be collected in one place. This flocking of the birds in the hills must, I think, be accounted for by the fact that birds are by nature sociable creatures, and that food is particularly abundant. In a dense wood every tree offers either insect or vegetable food, so that a large number of birds can live in company without fear of starving each other out. In the plains food is less abundant, hence most birds that dwell there are able to gratify their fondness for each other's society only at roosting time; during the day they are obliged to separate, in order to find the wherewithal to feed upon.
Like all sociable birds, the black-throated jay is very noisy. Birds have a language of a kind, a language composed entirely of interjections, a language in which only the simplest emotions—fear, joy, hunger, and maternal care—can be expressed. Now, when a considerable flock of birds is wandering through a dense forest, it is obvious that the individuals which compose it would be very liable to lose touch with one another had they no means of informing one another of their whereabouts. The result is that such a means has been developed. Every bird, whose habit it is to go about in company, has the habit of continually uttering some kind of call or cry. It probably does this unconsciously, without being aware that it is making any sound.
In Madras a white-headed babbler nestling was once brought to me. I took charge of it and fed it, and noticed that when it was not asleep it kept up a continuous cheeping all day long, even when it was eating, although it had no companion. The habit of continually uttering its note was inherited. When the flock is stationary the note is a comparatively low one; but when an individual makes up its mind to fly any distance, say ten or a dozen yards, it gives vent to a louder call, so as to inform its companions that it is moving. This sound seems to induce others to follow its lead. This is especially noticeable in the case of the white-throated laughing-thrush. I have seen one of these birds fly to a branch in a tree, uttering its curious call, and then hop on to another branch in the same tree. Scarcely has it left the first branch when a second laughing-thrush flies to it; then a fourth, a fifth, and so on; so that the birds look as though they might be playing "Follow the man from Cook's." The black-throated jay is noisy even for a sociable bird. The sound which it seems to produce more often than any other is very like the harsh anger-cry of the common myna. Many Himalayan birds have rather discordant notes, and in this respect these mountains do not compare favourably with the Nilgiris, where the blithe notes of the bulbuls are very pleasing to the ear.
Jays are by nature bold birds. They are inclined to be timid in England, because they are so much persecuted by the game-keeper. In the Himalayas they are as bold as the crow. It is not uncommon to see two or three jays hopping about outside a kitchen picking up the scraps pitched out by the cook. Sometimes two jays make a dash at the same morsel. Then a tiff ensues, but it is mostly made up of menacing screeches. One bird bears away the coveted morsel, swearing lustily, and the unsuccessful claimant lets him go in peace. When a jay comes upon a morsel of food too large to be swallowed whole, it flies with it to a tree and holds it under one foot and tears it up with its beak. This is a characteristically corvine habit. The black-throated jay is an exceedingly restless bird; it is always on the move. Like its English cousin, it is not a bird of very powerful flight. As Gilbert White says: "Magpies and jays flutter with powerless wings, and make no despatch." In the Himalayas there is no necessity for it to make much despatch; it rarely has to cover any distance on the wing. When it does fly a dozen yards or so, its passage is marked by much noisy flapping of the pinions.
The nutcrackers can scarcely be numbered among the common birds, but are sometimes seen in our hill stations, and, such is the "cussedness" of birds that if I omit to notice the nutcrackers several are certain to show themselves to many of those who read these lines. A chocolate-brown bird, bigger than a crow, and spotted and barred with white all over, can be nothing other than one of the Himalayan nutcrackers. It may be the Himalayan species (Nucifraga hemispila), or the larger spotted nutcracker (N. multipunctata).
The members of the crow family which I have attempted to describe above are all large birds, birds bigger than a crow. It now behoves us to consider the smaller members of the corvine clan.
The tits form a sub-family of the crows. Now at first sight the crow and the tit seem to have but little in common. However, close inspection, whether by the anatomist or the naturalist, reveals the mark of the corvidae in the tits. First, there is the habit of holding food under the foot while it is being devoured. Then there is the aggressiveness of the tits. This is Lloyd-Georgian or even Winstonian in its magnitude. "Tits," writes Jerdon, "are excessively bold and even ferocious, the larger ones occasionally destroying young and sickly birds, both in a wild state and in confinement."
Many species of tit dwell in the Himalayas. To describe them all would bewilder the reader; I will, therefore, content myself with brief descriptions of four species, each of which is to be seen daily in every hill station of the Western Himalayas.
The green-backed tit (Parus monticola) is a glorified edition of our English great tit. It is a bird considerably smaller than a sparrow.
The cheeks are white, the rest of the head is black, as are the breast and a characteristic line running along the abdomen. The back is greenish yellow, the lower parts are deep yellow. The wings are black with two white bars, the tail is black tipped with white. This is one of the commonest birds in most hill stations.
Like the sparrow, it is ever ready to rear up its brood in a hole in the wall of a house. Any kind of a hole will do, provided the aperture is too small to admit of the entrance of birds larger than itself.
The nesting operations of a pair of green-backed tits form the subject of a separate essay.
Another tit much in evidence is the yellow-cheeked tit, Machlolophus xanthogenys. I apologise for its scientific name. Take a green-backed tit, paint its cheeks bright yellow, and give it a black crest tipped with yellow, and you will have transformed him into a yellow-cheeked tit.
There remain to be described two pigmy tits. The first of these is that feathered exquisite, the red-headed tit (AEgithaliscus erythrocephalus). I will not again apologise for the name; it must suffice that the average ornithologist is never happy unless he be either saddling a small bird with a big name or altering the denomination of some unfortunate fowl. This fussy little mite is not so long as a man's thumb. It is crestless; the spot where the crest ought to be is chestnut red. The remainder of the upper plumage is bluish grey, while the lower plumage is the colour of rust. The black face is set off by a white eyebrow. Last, but not least, of our common tits is the crested black tit (Lophophanes melanopterus). The crested head and breast of this midget are black. The cheeks and nape are white, while the rest of the upper plumage is iron grey.
There is yet another tit of which mention must be made, because he is the common tit of Almora. The climate of Almora is so much milder than that of other hill stations that its birds are intermediate between those of the hills and the plains. The Indian grey tit (Parus atriceps) is a bird of wide distribution. It is the common tit of the Nilgiris, is found in many of the better-wooded parts of the plains, and ascends the Himalayas up to 6000 feet. It is a grey bird with the head, neck, breast, and abdominal line black. The cheeks are white. It is less gregarious than the other tits. Its notes are harsh and varied, being usually a ti-ti-chee or pretty-pretty.
I have not noticed this species at either Mussoorie or Naini Tal, but, as I have stated, it is common at Almora.
As has been mentioned above, tits usually go about in flocks. It is no uncommon thing for a flock to contain all of the four species of tit just described, a number of white-eyes, some nuthatches, warblers, tree-creepers, a woodpecker or two, and possibly some sibias and laughing-thrushes.
THE CRATEROPODIDAE OR BABBLER FAMILY
The Crateropodidae form a most heterogeneous collection of birds, including, as they do, such divers fowls as babblers, whistling-thrushes, bulbuls, and white-eyes. Whenever a systematist comes across an Asiatic bird of which he can make nothing, he classes it among the Crateropodidae. This is convenient for the systematist, but embarrassing for the naturalist.
The most characteristic members of the family are those ugly, untidy, noisy earth-coloured birds which occur everywhere in the plains, and always go about in little companies, whence their popular name "seven sisters."
To men of science these birds are known as babblers. Babblers proper are essentially birds of the plains. In the hills they are replaced by their cousins, the laughing-thrushes. Laughing-thrushes are merely glorified babblers. The Himalayan streaked laughing-thrush (Trochalopterum lineatum) is one of the commonest of the birds of our hill stations. It is a reddish brown fowl, about eight inches long. Each of its feathers has a black shaft; it is these dark shafts that give the bird its streaked appearance. Its chin, throat, and breast are chestnut-red, and on each cheek there is a patch of similar hue. The general appearance of the streaked laughing-thrush is that of one of the seven sisters who is wearing her best frock. Like their sisters of the plains, Himalayan streaked laughing-thrushes go about in small flocks and are exceedingly noisy. Sometimes a number of them assemble, apparently for the sole purpose of holding a speaking competition. They are never so happy as when thus engaged.
Streaked laughing-thrushes frequent gardens, and, as they are inordinately fond of hearing their own voices, it is certainly not their fault if they escape observation. By way of a nest they build a rough-and-ready cup-shaped structure in a low bush or on the ground; but, as Hume remarked, "the bird, as a rule, conceals the nest so well that, though a loose, and for the size of the architect, a large structure, it is difficult to find, even when one closely examines the bush in which it is."
Three other species of laughing-thrush must be numbered among common birds of the Himalayas, although they, like the heroine of A Bad Girl's Diary, are often heard and not seen. The white-throated laughing-thrush (Garrulax albigularis) is a handsome bird larger than a myna. Its general colour is rich olive brown. It has a black eyebrow and shows a fine expanse of white shirt front. It goes about in large flocks and continually utters a cry, loud and plaintive and not in the least like laughter.
The remaining laughing-thrushes are known as the rufous-chinned (Ianthocincla rufigularis) and the red-headed (Trochalopterum erythrocephalum). The former may be distinguished from the white-throated species by the fact that the lower part only of its throat is white, the chin being red. The red-headed laughing-thrush has no white at all in the under parts. The next member of the family of the Crateropodidae that demands our attention is the rusty-cheeked scimitar-babbler (Pomatorhinus erythrogenys).
Scimitar-babblers are so called because of the long, slender, compressed beak, which is curved downwards like that of a sunbird.
Several species of scimitar-babbler occur in the Himalayas. The above mentioned is the most abundant in the Western Himalayas. This species is known as the Banbakra at Mussoorie. Its bill is 1-1/2 inch long. The upper plumage is olive brown. The forehead, cheeks, sides of the neck, and thighs are chestnut-red, as is a patch under the tail. The chin and throat and the median portion of the breast and abdomen are white with faint grey stripes. Scimitar-babblers have habits similar to those of laughing-thrushes. They go about in pairs, seeking for insects among fallen leaves. The call is a loud whistle.
Very different in habits and appearance from any of the babblers mentioned above is the famous Himalayan whistling-thrush (Myiophoneous temmincki). To see this bird it is necessary to repair to some mountain stream. It is always in evidence in the neighbourhood of the dhobi's ghat at Naini Tal, and is particularly abundant on the banks of the Kosi river round about Khairna. At first sight the Himalayan whistling-thrush looks very like a cock blackbird. His yellow bill adds to the similitude. It is only when he is seen with the sun shining upon him that the cobalt blue patches in his plumage are noticed. His habit is to perch on the boulders which are washed by the foaming waters of a mountain torrent. On these he finds plenty of insects and snails, which constitute the chief items on his menu. He pursues the elusive insect in much the same way as a wagtail does, calling his wings to his assistance when chasing a particularly nimble creature. He has the habit of frequently expanding his tail. This species utters a loud and pleasant call, also a shrill cry like that of the spotted forktail. All torrent-haunting birds are in the habit of uttering such a note; indeed it is no easy task to distinguish between the alarm notes of the various species that frequent mountain streams.
Of very different habits is the black-headed sibia (Lioptila capistrata). This species is strictly arboreal. As mentioned previously, it is often found in company with flocks of tits and other gregarious birds. It feeds on insects, which it picks off the leaves of trees. Its usual call is a harsh twitter. It is a reddish brown bird, rather larger than a bulbul, with a black-crested head. There is a white bar on the wing.
The Indian white-eye (Zosterops palbebrosa) is not at all like any of the babblers hitherto described. In size, appearance, and habits, it approximates closely to the tits, with which it often consorts. Indeed, Jerdon calls the bird the white-eyed tit. It occurs in all well-wooded parts of the country, both in the plains and the hills. No bird is easier to identify. The upper parts are greenish yellow, and the lower bright yellow, while round the eye runs a broad conspicuous ring of white feathers, whence the popular names of the species, white-eye and spectacle-bird. Except at the breeding season, it goes about in flocks of considerable size. Each individual utters unceasingly a low, plaintive, sonorous, cheeping note. As was stated above, all arboreal gregarious birds have this habit. It is by means of this call note that they keep each other apprised of their whereabouts. But for such a signal it would scarcely be possible for the flock to hold together. At the breeding season the cock white-eye acquires an unusually sweet song. The nest is an exquisite little cup, which hangs, like a hammock, suspended from a slender forked branch. Two pretty pale blue eggs are laid.
A very diminutive member of the babbler clan is the fire-cap (Cephalopyrus flammiceps). The upper parts of its plumage are olive green; the lower portions are golden yellow. In the cock the chin is suffused with red. The cock wears a further ornament in the shape of a cap of flaming red, which renders his identification easy.
Until recently all ornithologists agreed that the curious starling-like bird known as the spotted-wing (Psaroglossa spiloptera) was a kind of aberrant starling, but systematists have lately relegated it to the Crateropodidae. At Mussoorie the natives call it the Puli. Its upper parts are dark grey spotted with black. The wings are glossy greenish black with white spots. The lower parts are reddish. A flock of half-a-dozen or more birds having a starling-like appearance, which twitter like stares and keep to the topmost branches of trees, may be set down safely as spotted-wings.
We now come to the last of the Crateropodidae—the bulbuls. These birds are so different from most of their brethren that they are held to constitute a sub-family. I presume that every reader is familiar with the common bulbul of the plains. To every one who is not, my advice is that he should go into the verandah in the spring and look among the leaves of the croton plants. The chances are in favour of this search leading to the discovery of a neat cup-shaped nest owned by a pair of handsome crested birds, which wear a bright crimson patch under the tail, and give forth at frequent intervals tinkling notes that are blithe and gay.
Both the species of bulbul common in the plains ascend the lower ranges of the Himalayas. These are the Bengal red-vented bulbul (Molpastes bengalensis) and the Bengal red-whiskered bulbul (Otocompsa emeria).
The addition of the adjective "Bengal" is important, for every province of India has its own special species of bulbul.
The Molpastes bulbul is a bird about half as big again as the sparrow, but with a longer tail. The black head is marked by a short crest. The cheeks are brown. There is a conspicuous crimson patch under the tail. The remainder of the plumage is brown, but each feather on the body is margined with creamy white, so that the bird is marked by a pattern that is, as "Eha" pointed out, not unlike the scales on a fish. Both ends of the tail feathers are creamy white.
Otocompsa is a far more showy bird. The crest is long and pointed and curves forward a little over the bill. There is the usual crimson patch under the tail and another on each cheek. The rest of the cheek is white, as is the lower plumage. A black necklace, interrupted in front, marks the junction of the throat and the breast. Neither of these bulbuls ascends the hills very high, but I have seen the former at the Brewery below Naini Tal.
The common bulbul of the Himalayas is the white-cheeked species (Molpastes leucogenys). This bird, which is very common at Almora, has the habits of its brethren in the plains. Its crest is pointed and its cheeks are white like those of an Otocompsa bulbul. But it has rather a weedy appearance and lacks the red feathers on the sides of the head. The patch of feathers under the tail is bright sulphur-yellow instead of crimson.
The only other species of bulbul commonly seen in the hills is a very different bird. It is known as the black bulbul (Hypsipetes psaroides).
The bulbuls that we have been considering are inoffensive little birds which lead quiet and respectable lives. Not so the black bulbuls. These are aggressive, disreputable-looking creatures which go about in disorderly, rowdy gangs.
The song of most bulbuls is a medley of pleasant tinkling notes; the cries of the black bulbuls are harsh and unlovely.
Black bulbuls look black only when seen from a distance. When closely inspected their plumage is seen to be dark grey. The bill and legs are red. The crest, I regret to say, usually looks the worse for wear. Black bulbuls seem never to descend to the ground. They keep almost exclusively to tops of lofty trees. They are very partial to the nectar enclosed within the calyces of rhododendron flowers. A party of half a dozen untidy black birds, with moderately long tails, which keep to the tops of trees and make much noise, may with certainty be set down as black bulbuls.
These curious birds form the subject of a separate essay.
THE SITTIDAE OR NUTHATCH FAMILY
The Sittidae are a well-defined family of little birds. When not occupied with domestic cares, they congregate in small flocks that run up and down the trunks and branches of trees in search of insects. The nuthatch most commonly seen in the hills is the white-tailed species (Sitta himalayensis). The general hue of this bird is slaty blue. The forehead and a broad line running down the sides of the head and neck are black. There is a good deal of white in the tail, which is short in this and in all species of nuthatch. The under-parts are of a chestnut hue. The Himalayan nuthatch is very partial to the red berries of Arisaema jacque-montii—a small plant of the family to which the arums and the "lords and ladies" belong. Half a dozen nuthatches attacking one of the red spikes of this plant present a pretty sight. The berries ripen in July and August, and at Naini Tal one rarely comes across a complete spike because the nuthatches pounce upon every berry the moment it is ripe.
THE DICRURIDAE OR DRONGO FAMILY
The famous black drongo or king-crow (Dicrurus ater) is the type of this well-marked family of passerine birds. The king-crow is about the size of a bulbul, but he has a tail 6 or 7 inches long, which is gracefully forked. His whole plumage is glossy jet black. He loves to sit on a telegraph wire or other exposed perch, and thence make sallies into the air after flying insects. He is one of the commonest birds in India. His cheery call—half-squeak, half-whistle—must be familiar to every Anglo-Indian. As to his character, I will repeat what I have said elsewhere: "The king-crow is the Black Prince of the bird world—the embodiment of pluck. The thing in feathers of which he is afraid has yet to be evolved. Like the mediaeval knight, he goes about seeking those on whom he can perform some small feat of arms. In certain parts of India he is known as the kotwal—the official who stands forth to the poor as the impersonation of the might and majesty of the British raj."
The king-crow is fairly abundant in the hills. On the lower ranges, and especially at Almora, it is nearly as common as in the plains. On the higher slopes, however, it is largely replaced by the ashy drongo (Dicrurus longicaudatus). At most hill stations both species occur. The note of the ashy drongo differs considerably from that of the king-crow: otherwise the habits of the two species are very similar. Take thirty-three per cent. off the pugnacity of the king-crow and you will arrive at a fair estimate of that of the ashy drongo. The latter looks like a king-crow with an unusually long tail, a king-crow of which the black plumage has worn grey like an old broadcloth coat.
The handsome Bhimraj or larger racket-tailed drongo (Dissemurus paradiseus), a glorified king-crow with a tail fully 20 inches in length, is a Himalayan bird, but he dwells far from the madding crowd, and is not likely to be seen at any hill station except as a captive.
THE CERTHIIDAE OR WREN FAMILY
The only member of this family common about our hill stations is the Himalayan tree-creeper (Certhia himalayana). This is a small brown bird, striped and barred with black, which spends the day creeping over the trunks of trees seeking its insect quarry. It is an unobtrusive creature, and, as its plumage assimilates very closely to the bark over which it crawls, it would escape observation more often than it does, but for its call, which is a shrill one.
THE SYLVIIDAE OR WARBLER FAMILY
The sylviidae comprise a large number of birds of small size and, with a few exceptions, of plain plumage. The result is that the great majority of them resemble one another so closely that it is as difficult to identify them when at large as it is to see through a brick wall. Small wonder, then, that field naturalists fight rather shy of this family. Of the 110 species of warbler which exist in India, I propose to deal with only one, and that favoured bird is Hodgson's grey-headed flycatcher-warbler (Cryptolopha xanthoschista). My reasons for raising this particular species from among the vulgar herd of warblers are two. The first is that it is the commonest bird in our hill stations. The second is that it is distinctively coloured, and in consequence easy to identify.
It is impossible for a human being to visit any hill station between Murree and Naini Tal in spring without remarking this warbler. I do not exaggerate when I say that its voice issues from every second tree.
This species may be said to be the warbler of the Western Himalayas, and, as such, it has been made the subject of a separate essay.
THE LANIIDAE OR SHRIKE FAMILY
The butcher-birds are the best-known members of this fraternity. Undoubtedly passerine in structure, shrikes are as indubitably raptores by nature. They are nothing less than pocket hawks.
Their habit is to sit on an exposed perch and pounce from thence on to some insect on the ground. The larger species attack small birds.
Four species of butcher-bird may perhaps be classed among the common birds of the Himalayas; but they are inhabitants of the lower ranges only. It is unusual to see a shrike at as high an elevation as 6000 feet. In consequence they are seldom observed at hill stations.
It is true that the grey-backed shrike does occur as high as 9000 feet, but this species, being confined mainly to the inner ranges, does not occur at most hill stations.
The bay-backed shrike (Lanius vittatus) is a bird rather smaller than a bulbul. Its head is grey except for a broad black band running through the eye. The wings and tail are black and white. The back is chestnut red and the rump white.
The rufous-backed shrike (L. erythronotus) is very like the last species, but it is a larger bird. It has no white in the wings and tail, and its rump is red instead of being white.
The grey-backed shrike (L. tephronotus) is very like the rufous-backed species, but may be distinguished by the fact that the grey of the head extends more than half-way down the back.
As its name indicates, the black-headed shrike (L. nigriceps) has the whole head black; but the cheeks, chin, and throat are white.
Butcher-birds are of striking rather than beautiful appearance. They have some very handsome relatives which are known as minivets. Every person must have seen a company of small birds with somewhat long tails, clothed in bright scarlet and black—birds which flit about among the trees like sparks driven before the wind. These are cock minivets. The hens, which are often found in company with them, are in their way equally beautiful and conspicuous, for they are bright yellow in those parts of the plumage where the cocks are scarlet. It is impossible to mistake a minivet, but it is quite another matter to say to which species any particular minivet belongs. The species commonly seen about our hill stations are Pericrocotus speciosus, the Indian scarlet minivet, and P. brevirostris, the short-billed minivet. The former is 9 inches long, while the latter is but 7-1/2. Again, the red of the former is scarlet and that of the latter crimson rather than scarlet. These distinctions are sufficiently apparent when two species are seen side by side, but are scarcely sufficient to enable the ordinary observer to determine the species of a flock seen flitting about amid the foliage. This, however, need not disturb us. Most people are quite satisfied to know that these exquisite little birds are all called minivets.
THE ORIOLIDAE OR ORIOLE FAMILY
The beautiful orioles are birds of the plains rather than of the hills. One species, however, the Indian Oriole (Oriolus kundoo) is a summer visitor to the Himalayas. The cock is a bright yellow bird with a pink bill. There is some black on his cheeks and wing feathers. The hen is less brilliantly coloured, the yellow of her plumage being dull and mixed with green. Orioles are a little larger than bulbuls. They rarely, if ever, descend to the ground. I do not remember having seen the birds at Murree, Mussoorie, or Naini Tal, but they are common at Almora in summer.
THE STURNIDAE OR STARLING FAMILY
The Himalayan starling (Sturnus humii) is so like his European brother in appearance that it is scarcely possible to distinguish between the two species unless they are seen side by side. Is it necessary to describe the starling? Does an Englishman exist who is not well acquainted with the vivacious bird which makes itself at home in his garden or on his housetop in England? We have all admired its dark plumage, which displays a green or bronze sheen in the sunlight, and which is so curiously spotted with buff.
The Himalayan species is, I think, common only in the more westerly parts of the hills.
The common myna (Acridotheres tristis) is nearly as abundant in the hills as it is in the plains. I should not have deemed it necessary to describe this bird, had not a lady asked me a few days ago whether a pair of mynas, which were fighting as only mynas can fight, were seven sisters.
The myna is a bird considerably smaller than a crow. His head, neck, and upper breast are black, while the rest of his plumage is quaker brown, save for a broad white wing-bar, very conspicuous during flight, and some white in the tail. The legs and bill look as though they had been dipped in the mustard pot, and there is a bare patch of mustard-coloured skin on either side of the head. This sprightly bird is sociably inclined. Grasshoppers form its favourite food. These it seeks on the grass, over which it struts with as much dignity as a stout raja. In the spring the mynas make free with our bungalows, seizing on any convenient holes or ledges as sites for their nests. The nest is a conglomeration of straw, rags, paper, and any rubbish that comes to beak. The eggs are a beautiful blue.
The only other myna commonly seen in Himalayan hill stations is the jungle myna (AEthiopsar fuscus). This is so like the species just described, that nine out of ten people fail to differentiate between the two birds. Close inspection shows that this species has a little tuft of feathers on the forehead, which the common myna lacks. On the other hand, the yellow patch of skin round the eyes is wanting in the jungle myna.
THE MUSCICAPIDAE OR FLYCATCHER FAMILY
The family of the flycatchers is well represented in the hills, for its members love trees. The great majority of them seem never to descend to the ground at all. Flycatchers are birds that feed exclusively on insects, which they catch on the wing. Their habit is to make from some perch little sallies into the air after their quarry. But, we must bear in mind that a bird that behaves thus is not necessarily a flycatcher. Other birds, as, for example, king-crows and bee-eaters, have discovered how excellent a way this is of securing a good supply of food. The beautiful verditer flycatcher (Stoparola melanops) must be familiar to everyone who has visited the Himalayas. The plumage of this flycatcher is pale blue—blue of that peculiar shade known as verditer blue. There is a little black on the head. The plumage of the hen is distinctly duller than that of the cock. This species loves to sit on a telegraph wire or at the very summit of a tree and pour forth its song, which consists of a pleasant, if somewhat harsh, trill or warble of a dozen or more notes. The next flycatcher that demands notice is the white-browed blue flycatcher (Cyornis superciliaris). In this species the hen differs considerably from the cock in appearance. The upper plumage of the latter is a dull blue, set off by a white eyebrow. The lower plumage is white save for a blue collaret, which is interrupted in the middle. The upper plumage of the hen is olive brown, washed with blue in parts. Beneath she is pale buff. This species, like the last, nests in a hole.
There are yet four other species of flycatcher which, although less frequently seen than the two just mentioned, deserve place among the common birds of the Himalayas. Two of these are homely-looking little creatures, while two are as striking as it is possible for a fowl of the air to be, and this is saying a great deal.
The brown flycatcher (Alseonax latirostris) is a bird that may pass for a small sparrow if not carefully looked at. Of course its habits are very different to those of the sparrow; moreover, it has a narrow ring of white feathers round the eye. The grey-headed flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) is a species of which the sexes are alike. The head, neck, and breast are grey; the wings and tail are brown; the back is dull yellow, and the lower plumage bright yellow. Notwithstanding all this yellow, the bird is not conspicuous except during flight, because the wings when closed cover up nearly all the yellow. This bird frequents all the hill streams. At Naini Tal any person may be tolerably certain of coming across it by going down the Khairna road to the place where that road meets the stream. The nest of this species is a beautiful pocket of moss attached to some moss-covered rock or tree.
The rufous-bellied niltava (Niltava sundara) or fairy blue-chat, as Jerdon calls it, is the kind of bird one would expect to find in fairyland. The front and sides of the head, and the chin and throat of the cock are deep velvety black. His crown, nape, and lower back, and a spot on cheeks and wings, are glistening blue. He also sports some light blue in his tail. His lower plumage is chestnut red. The upper plumage of the hen is olive brown save for a brilliant blue patch on either side of the head. Her tail is chestnut red. This beautiful species is about the size of a sparrow.
Even more splendid is the paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi). The hen, and the cock, when he is quite young, look rather like specimens of the bulbul family, being rich chestnut-hued birds with the head and crest metallic bluish black. The hen is content with a gown of this style throughout her life. Not so the cock. No sooner does he reach the years of discretion than he assumes a magnificent caudal appendage. His two middle tail feathers suddenly begin to grow, and go on growing till they become three or four times as long as he is, and so flutter behind him in the wind like streamers when he flies. Nor does he rest content with this finery. When he is about three years old he doffs his chestnut plumage, and in its place dons a snowy white one. He is then a truly magnificent object. The first time one catches sight of this white bird with his satin streamers floating behind him, one wonders whether he is but an object seen in a dream.
This flycatcher is a regular visitor in summer to Almora, where it nests. Six thousand feet appear to be about the limit of its ascent, and in consequence this beautiful creature is not common at any of the higher hill stations. I have seen it at the brewery below Naini Tal, but not at Naini Tal itself.
THE TURDIDAE OR THRUSH FAMILY
This large family is well represented in the hills, and embraces a number of beautiful and interesting birds.
The dark grey bush-chat (Oreicola ferrea) is as common in the hills as is the robin in the plains. It is about the size of a robin. The upper plumage of the cock is grey in winter and black in summer. This change in colour is the result of wear and tear suffered by the feathers. Each bird is given by nature a new suit of clothes every autumn, and in most cases the bird, like a Government chaprassi, has to make it last a whole year. Both eat, drink, sleep, and do everything in their coats. There is, however, this difference between the bird and the chaprassi: the plumage of the former always looks clean and smart, while the garment of the chaprassi is usually neither the one nor the other. The coat of the dark grey bush-chat is made up of black feathers edged with grey. As the margins of the feathers alone show, the bird looks grey so long as the grey margins exist, and when these wear away it appears black. The cock has a conspicuous white eyebrow, and displays some white in his wings and tail. He is quite a dandy. The hen is a reddish brown bird with a pale grey eyebrow. This species likes to pretend it is a flycatcher. The flycatchers proper do not object in the least; in this country of multitudinous insects there are more than enough for every kind of bird.
Brief mention must be made here of the Indian bush-chat (Pratincola maura), because this chat is common at Almora, and breeds there. I have not seen it at other hill stations. It does not appear to ascend the Himalayas higher than 5500 feet. In the cock the upper parts are black (brown in winter) with a large white patch on each side of the neck. The breast is orange-red. The lower parts are ruddy brown. The hen is a plain reddish brown bird.
We now come to what is, in my opinion, one of the most striking birds in the Himalayas. I refer to the bird known to men of science as Henicurus maculatus, or the western spotted forktail. Those Europeans who are not men of science call it the hill-wagtail on account of its habits, or the dhobi bird because of its unaccountable predilection for the spot where the grunting, perspiring washerman pursues his destructive calling. The head and neck of this showy bird are jet black save for a conspicuous white patch running from the centre of the crown to the base of the bill, which gives the bird a curious appearance. The shoulders are decorated by a cape or tippet of black, copiously spotted with white. The wings are black and white. The tail feathers are black, but each has a broad white band at the tip, and, as the two median feathers are the shortest, and each succeeding pair longer, the tail has, when closed, the appearance of being composed of alternate broad black and narrow white V-shaped bars. The lower back and rump are white, but these are scarcely visible except during flight or when the bird is preening its feathers. The legs are pinkish white. This forktail is a trifle larger than a wagtail, and its tail is over 6 inches in length. It is never found away from streams.
I will not dilate further upon the habits of this bird because a separate essay is devoted to it.
Two other water-birds must now be mentioned. These love not the dhobi, and dwell by preference far from the madding crowd. They are very common in the interior of the hills, and everyone who has travelled in the inner ranges must be familiar with them, even if he do not know what to call them. The white-capped redstart (Chimarrhornis leucocephalus) is a bird that compels attention. His black plumage looks as though it were made of rich velvet. On his head he wears a cap as white as snow. His tail, rump, and abdomen are bright chestnut red, so that, as he leaps into the air after the circling gnat, he looks almost as if he were on fire.
The third common bird of Himalayan streams is the plumbeous redstart or water-robin (Rhyacornis fuliginosus). This species is very robin-like in appearance. The body is dusky indigo blue; the tail and abdomen are ferruginous. The habits of this and the bird just described are similar. Both species love to disport themselves on rocks and boulders lapped by the gentle-flowing stream in the valley, or lashed by the torrent on the hillside. Like all redstarts, these constantly flirt the tail.
The grey-winged ouzel (Merula boulboul) is perhaps the finest songster in the Himalayas. Throughout the early summer the cock makes the wooded hillsides ring with his blackbird-like melody. The grey-winged ouzel is a near relative of the English blackbird. Take a cock blackbird and paint his wings dark grey, and cover his bill with red colouring matter, and you will have to all appearances a grey-winged ouzel. In order to effect the transformation of the brown female, it is only necessary to redden her bill.
The nesting operations of this species are described in the essay near the end of Part I.
Two other species allied to the grey-winged ouzel demand our attention. The first is the blue-headed rock-thrush (Petrophila cinclorhyncha). This is not like any bird found in England. The head, chin, and throat of the cock are cobalt blue; there is also a patch of this colour on his wing; the sides of the head and neck are black, as are the back and wing feathers. The rump and lower parts are chestnut. The hen, as is the case with many of her sex, is an inconspicuous olive-brown bird. This species spends most of its time on the ground, and frequents, as its name implies, open rocky ground.
The last of the Turdidae which has to be considered is the small-billed mountain-thrush (Oreocincla dauma). This bird is as like the thrush of our English gardens as one pea is like another. Unfortunately it does not visit gardens in this country, and is not a very common bird.
THE FRINGILLIDAE OR FINCH FAMILY
The vulgar sparrow and the immaculate canary are members of this large and flourishing family of birds. The distinguishing feature of the finches is a massive beak, admirably adapted to the husking of the grain on which the members of the family feed largely. In some species, as for example the grosbeaks, the bill is immensely thick. Only one species of grosbeak appears to be common in the Himalayas. This is Pycnorhamphus icteroides, the black-and-yellow grosbeak. The colouring of the cock is so like that of the black-headed oriole that it is doubtless frequently mistaken for the latter.
This bird forms the subject of a separate essay, where it is fully described.
The Himalayan greenfinch (Hypacanthis spinoides) is an unobtrusive little bird that loves to sit at the summit of a tree and utter a forlorn peee fifty times a minute. It is a dull green bird with some yellow on the head, neck, and back; the abdomen is of a brighter hue of yellow.
The house-sparrow, like the house-crow, is a bird of the plains rather than of the hills. The common sparrow of the Himalayas is the handsome cinnamon tree-sparrow (Passer cinamomeus). The cock is easily recognised by his bright cinnamon-coloured head and shoulders. Imagine a house-sparrow shorn of sixty per cent. of his impudence, and you will have arrived at a fair estimate of the character of the tree-sparrow.
The only other members of the Finch family that concern us are the buntings. A bunting is a rather superior kind of sparrow—a Lord Curzon among sparrows—a sparrow with a refined beak. The familiar English yellowhammer is a bunting. Two buntings are common in the Western Himalayas. The first of these, the eastern meadow-bunting (Emberiza stracheyi), looks like a large, well-groomed sparrow. A broad slate-coloured band runs from the base of the beak over the top of the head to the nape of the neck. In addition to this, there are on each side of the head blackish bars, like those on the head of the quail. By these signs the bird may be recognised. The other species is the white-capped bunting (Emberiza stewarti). This is a chestnut-coloured bird with a pale grey cap. Buntings associate in small flocks and affect open rather than well-wooded country. They are not very interesting birds.
THE HIRUNDINIDAE OR SWALLOW FAMILY
A small bird that spends hours together on the wing, dashing through the air at great speed, frequently changing its course, now flying high, now just skimming the ground, must be either a swallow or a swift. Many people are totally at a loss to distinguish between a swallow and a swift. The two birds differ anatomically. A swift is not a passerine bird. It cannot perch. When it wants to take a rest it has to repair to its nest. Swallows, on the other hand, are fond of settling on telegraph wires. It is quite easy to distinguish between the birds when they are on the wing. A flying swift may be compared to an anchor with enormous flukes (the wings), or to an arrow (the body) attached to a bow (the wings). As the swift dashes through the air at a speed of fully 100 miles an hour, it never closes its wings to the sides of its body; it merely whips the air rapidly with the tips of them. On the other hand, the swallow, when it flies, closes its wings to its body at every stroke. Notwithstanding its greater effort, it does not move nearly so rapidly as the swift. The swifts will be considered in their proper place. Three species of swallow are likely to be seen in the Himalayas. A small ashy brown swallow with a short tail is the crag-martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris).
The common swallow of England (Hirundo rustica) occurs in large numbers at all hill stations in the Himalayas. This bird should require no description. Its glossy purple-blue plumage, the patches of chestnut red on the forehead and throat, and the elegantly-forked tail must be familiar to every Englishman. As in England, this bird constructs under the eaves of roofs its nest of mud lined with feathers.
Not unlike the common swallow, but readily distinguishable from it in that the lower back is chestnut red, is Hirundo nepalensis—Hodgson's striated swallow, or the red-rumped swallow, as Jerdon well called it. This bird also breeds under eaves. Numbers of red-rumped swallows are to be seen daily seeking their insect quarry over the lake at Naini Tal.
THE MOTACILLIDAE OR WAGTAIL FAMILY
The great majority of the wagtails are merely winter visitors to India. Thus they are likely to be seen in the hills only when resting from their travels. That is to say, in April and May, when homeward bound, or in September and October, when they move southwards. A few wagtails, however, tarry in the hills till quite late in the season. The wagtail most likely to be seen is the grey wagtail (Motacilla melanope). This species, notwithstanding its name, has bright yellow lower plumage. It nests in Kashmir.
Allied to the wagtails are the pipits. These display the elegant form of the wagtail and the sober colouring of the lark.
They affect open country and feed on the ground. The upland pipit (Oreocorys sylvanus) is the common species of the Himalayas. It constructs a nest of grass on the ground, into which the common cuckoo, of which more anon, frequently drops an egg.
THE NECTARINIDAE OR SUNBIRD FAMILY
The sunbirds are feathered exquisites. They take in the Old World the place in the New World occupied by the humming-birds. Sunbirds, however, are superior to humming-birds in that they possess the gift of song. They are not particularly abundant in the Himalayas, and, as they do not seem to occur west of Garhwal, I am perhaps not justified in giving them a place in this essay.
I do so because one species is fairly common round about Naini Tal. I have seen this bird—the Himalayan yellow-backed sunbird (AEthopyga scheriae)—flitting about, sucking honey from the flowers in the verandah of the hotel at the brewery below Naini Tal.
The head and neck of the cock are glistening green. The back, shoulders, chin, throat, breast, and sides of the head are crimson.
The lower parts are greenish yellow. The two median tail feathers are longer than the others. The bill is long and curved. The hen is a comparatively dull greenish-brown bird.
THE DICAEIDAE OR FLOWER-PECKER FAMILY
The fire-breasted flower-pecker (Dicaeum ignipectus) is perhaps the smallest bird in India. Its total length does not exceed 3 inches. The upper parts are greenish black and the lower parts buff. The cock has a large patch of crimson on his breast, with a black patch lower down. As this species frequents lofty trees, it is usually seen from below, and the crimson breast renders the cock unmistakeable.
THE PICIDAE OR WOODPECKER FAMILY
Woodpeckers abound in the well-wooded Himalayas.
The woodpecker most commonly seen in the western hill stations is the brown-fronted pied species (Dendrocopus auriceps). This is a black bird, spotted and barred with white: some might call it a white bird, heavily spotted and barred with black. The forehead is amber brown. That is the distinguishing feature of this species. The cock has a red-and-gold crest, which the hen lacks. Both sexes rejoice in a crimson patch under the tail—a feature common to all species of pied woodpecker. Dendrocopus auriceps nests earlier in the year than do most hill-birds, so that by the time the majority of the European visitors arrive in the hills, the young woodpeckers have left their nest, which is a hole excavated by the parents in a tree, a rhododendron by preference.
Two other species of pied woodpecker are common in the hills—the rufous-bellied (Hypopicus hypererythrus) and the Western Himalayan species (Dendrocopus himalayensis). The former is particularly abundant at Murree. These two species are distinguished from the brown-fronted pied woodpecker by having no brown on the forehead. The rufous abdomen serves to differentiate the rufous-bellied from the Western Himalayan species. The above woodpeckers are not much larger than mynas.
There remains yet another common species—the West Himalayan scaly-bellied green woodpecker (Gecinus squamatus). The English name of this bird is very cumbrous. There is no help for this. Numerous adjectives and adjectival adjuncts are necessary to each species to distinguish it from each of the host of other woodpeckers. This particular species is larger than a crow and is recognisable by its green colour. It might be possible to condense an accurate description of the plumage of this bird into half a column of print. I will, however, refrain. There is a limit to the patience of even the Anglo-Indian.
THE CAPITONIDAE OR BARBET FAMILY
The only member of this family common in the Himalayas is that fine bird known as the great Himalayan barbet (Megalaema marshallorum). As this forms the subject of a separate essay, detailed description is unnecessary in the present one. It will suffice that the bird is over a foot in length and has a large yellow beak. Its prevailing hue is grass green. It has a bright red patch under the tail. It goes about in small flocks and constantly utters a loud plaintive dissyllabic note.
THE ALCEDINIDAE OR KINGFISHER FAMILY
The Himalayan pied kingfisher (Ceryle lugubris) is a bird as large as a crow. Its plumage is speckled black and white, like that of a Hamburg fowl. It feeds entirely on fish, and frequents the larger hill streams. Its habit is to squat on a branch, or if the day be cloudy, on a boulder in mid-stream, whence it dives into the water after its quarry. Sometimes, kestrel-like, it hovers in the air on rapidly-vibrating pinions until it espies a fish in the water below, when it closes its wings and drops with a splash in the water, to emerge with a silvery object in its bill.
THE UPUPIDAE OR HOOPOE FAMILY
The unique hoopoe (Upupa epops) next demands our attention. This is a bird about the size of a myna. The wings and tail are boldly marked with alternate bands of black and white. The remainder of the plumage is of a fawn colour. The bill is long and slender, like that of a snipe, but slightly curved. The crest is the feature that distinguishes the hoopoe from all other birds. This opens and closes like a lady's fan. Normally it remains closed, but when the bird is startled, and at the moment when the hoopoe alights on the ground, the crest opens to form a magnificent corona. Hoopoes seek their food on grass-covered land, digging insects out of the earth with their long, pick-like bills. They are very partial to a dust-bath. During the breeding season—that is to say, in April and May in the Himalayas—hoopoes continually utter in low tones uk-uk-uk. The call is not unlike that of the coppersmith, but less metallic and much more subdued. The flight of the hoopoe is undulating or jerky, like that of a butterfly. Young hoopoes are reared up in a hole in a building, or in a bank. The nest is incredibly malodoriferous.
THE CYPSELIDAE OR SWIFT FAMILY
The flight and general appearance of the swifts have already been described. The common Indian swift (Cypselus affinis) is perhaps the bird most frequently seen in the Himalayas. A small dark sooty brown bird with a broad white bar across the back, a living monoplane that dashes through the air at the rate of 100 miles an hour, continually giving vent to what Jerdon has so well described as a "shivering scream," can be none other than this species. It nests under the eaves of houses or in verandahs. Hundreds of these swifts nest in the Landour bazar, and there is scarcely a dak bungalow or a deserted building in the whole of Kumaun which does not afford nesting sites for at least a dozen pairs of swifts. About sunset these birds indulge in riotous exercise, dashing with loud screams in and out among the pillars that support the roof of the verandah in which their nests are placed. The nest is composed of mud and feathers and straw. The saliva of the swift is sticky and makes excellent cement.
The other swift commonly seen in the Himalayas is the Alpine swift (Cypselus melba). This is distinguishable from the Indian species by its white abdomen and dark rump. It is perhaps the swiftest flier among birds. Like the species already described, it utters a shrill cry when on the wing.
THE CUCULIDAE OR CUCKOO FAMILY
It is not possible for anyone of sound hearing to be an hour in a hill station in the early summer without being aware of the presence of cuckoos. The Himalayas literally teem with them. From March to June, or even July, the cheerful double note of the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) emanates from every second tree. This species, as all the world knows, looks like a hawk and flies like a hawk.
According to some naturalists, the cuckoo profits by its similarity to a bird of prey. The little birds which it imposes upon are supposed to fly away in terror when they see it, thus allowing it to work unmolested its wicked will in their nests. My experience is that little birds have a habit of attacking birds of prey that venture near their nest. The presence of eggs or young ones makes the most timid creatures as bold as the proverbial lion. I therefore do not believe that these cuckoos which resemble birds of prey derive any benefit therefrom.
The hen European cuckoo differs very slightly from the cock. In some species, as, for example, the famous "brain-fever bird" (Hierococcyx varius), there is no external difference between the sexes, while in others, such as the Indian koel (Eudynamis honorata), and the violet cuckoo (Chrysococcyx xanthorhynchus), the sexes are very dissimilar. I commend these facts to the notice of those who profess to explain sexual dimorphism (the different appearance of the sexes) by means of natural or sexual selection. The comfortable theory that the hens are less showily coloured than the cocks, because they stand in greater need of protective colouring while sitting on the nest, cannot be applied to the parasitic cuckoos, for these build no nests, neither do they incubate their eggs.
In the Himalayas the common cuckoo victimises chiefly pipits, larks, and chats, but its eggs have been found in the nests of many other birds, including the magpie-robin, white-cheeked bulbul, spotted forktail, rufous-backed shrike, and the jungle babbler.
The eggs of Cuculus canorus display considerable variation in colour. Those who are interested in the subject are referred to Mr. Stuart Baker's papers on the Oology of the Indian Cuckoos in Volume XVII of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society.
It often happens that the eggs laid by the cuckoo are not unlike those of the birds in the nests of which they are deposited. Hence, some naturalists assert that the cuckoo, having laid an egg, flies about with it in her bill until she comes upon a clutch which matches her egg. Perhaps the best reply to this theory is that such refinement on the part of the cuckoo is wholly unnecessary. Most birds, when seized by the mania of incubation, will sit upon anything which even remotely resembles an egg.
Mr. Stuart Baker writes that he has not found that there is any proof of the cuckoo trying to match its eggs with those of the intended foster-mother, or that it selects a foster-mother whose eggs shall match its own. He adds that not one of his correspondents has advanced this suggestion, and states that he has little doubt that convenience of site and propinquity to the cuckoo about to lay its eggs are the main requisitions.
Almost indistinguishable from the common cuckoo in appearance is the Himalayan cuckoo (Cuculus saturatus). The call of this bird, which continues later in the year than that of the common cuckoo, is not unlike the whoot-whoot-whoot of the crow-pheasant or coucal. Perhaps it is even more like the uk-uk-uk of the hoopoe repeated very loudly. It may be syllabised as cuck-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Not very much is known about the habits of this species. It is believed to victimise chiefly willow-warblers.
The Indian cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus) resembles in appearance the two species already described. Blanford speaks of its call as a fine melodious whistle. I would not describe the note as a whistle. To me it sounds like wherefore, wherefore, impressively and sonorously intoned. The vernacular names Boukotako and Kyphulpakka are onomatopoetic, as is Broken Pekoe Bird, by which name the species is known to many Europeans.
Last, but not least of the common Himalayan cuckoos, are the famous brain-fever birds, whose crescendo brain-fever, BRAIN-FEVER, BRAIN-FEVER, which is shrieked at all hours of the day and the night, has called forth untold volumes of awful profanity from jaded Europeans living in the plains, and has earned the highest encomiums of Indians.
There are two species of brain-fever bird that disport themselves in the Himalayas. These are known respectively as the large and the common hawk-cuckoo (Hierococcyx sparverioides and H. varius). I do not profess to distinguish with certainty between the notes of these two birds, but am under the impression that the larger form is the one that makes itself heard at Naini Tal and Mussoorie.
The Indian koel (Eudynamis honorata) is not to be numbered among the common birds of the Himalayas. Its noisy call kuil, kuil, kuil, which may be expressed by the words you're-ill, you're-ill, who-are-you? who-are-you? is heard throughout the sub-Himalayan regions in the early summer, and I have heard it as high up as Rajpur below Mussoorie, but have not noticed the bird at any of the hill stations except Almora. As has already been stated, the avifauna of Almora, a little station in the inner hills nearly forty miles from the plains, is a very curious one. I have not only heard the koel calling there, but have seen a young koel being fed by crows. Now, at Almora alone of the hill stations does Corvus splendens, the Indian house-crow, occur, and this is the usual victim of the koel. I would therefore attribute the presence of the koel at Almora and its absence from other hill stations to the fact that at Almora alone the koel's dupe occurs.
THE PSITTACIDAE OR PARROT FAMILY
The parrots are not strongly represented in the Himalayas. Only one species is commonly seen at the various hill stations. This is the slaty-headed paroquet (Palaeornis schisticeps). In appearance it closely resembles the common green parrot of the plains (P. torquatus), differing chiefly in having the head slate coloured instead of green. The cock, moreover, has a red patch on the shoulder. The habits of the slaty-headed paroquet are those of the common green parrot: its cries, however, are less harsh, and it is less aggressively bold. The pretty little western blossom-headed paroquet (P. cyanocephalus) ascends the hills to a height of some 5000 feet. It is recognisable by the fact that the head of the cock is red, tinged with blue like the bloom on a plum.
THE STRIGIDAE OR OWL FAMILY
We now come to those much-abused birds—the owls. The Himalayas, in common with most other parts of the world, are well stocked with these pirates of the night. The vast majority of owls, being strictly nocturnal, escape observation. Usually the presence of any species of owl in a locality is made known only by its voice. I may here remark that diurnal birds know as little about nocturnal birds as the man in the street does, hence the savage manner in which they mob any luckless owl that happens to be abroad in the daytime. Birds are intensely conservative; they resent strongly what they regard as an addition to the local avifauna. This assertion may be proved by setting free a cockatoo in the plains of India. Before the bird has been at large for ten minutes it will be surrounded by a mob of reviling crows.
The collared pigmy owlet (Glaucidium brodiei) is perhaps the commonest owl in the Himalayas: at any rate, it is the species that makes itself heard most often. Those who sit out of doors after dinner cannot fail to have remarked a soft low whistle heard at regular intervals of about thirty seconds. That is the call of the pigmy collared owlet. The owlet itself is a tiny creature, about the size of a sparrow. Like several other little owls, it sometimes shows itself during the daytime. Once at Mussoorie I noticed a pigmy collared owlet sitting as bold as brass on a conspicuous branch about midday and making grimaces at me. The other species likely to be heard at hill stations are the brown wood-owl (Syrnium indrani), the call of which has been syllabised to-whoo, and the little spotted Himalayan scops owl (Scops spilocephalus), of which the note is double whistle who-who.
THE VULTURIDAE OR VULTURE FAMILY
From the owls to the diurnal birds of prey it is but a short step. Next to the warblers, the raptores are the most difficult birds to distinguish one from the other. Nearly all of them are creatures of mottled-brown plumage, and, as the plumage changes with the period of life, it is impossible to differentiate them by descriptions of their colouring.
The vultures are perhaps the ugliest of all birds. Most of them have the head devoid of feathers, and they are thus enabled to bury this member in their loathsome food without soiling their feathers. In the air, owing to the magnificent ease with which they fly, they are splendid objects. Their habit is to rise high above the earth and hang motionless in the atmosphere on outstretched wings, or sail in circles without any perceptible motion of the pinions. Vultures are not the only raptorial birds that do this. Kites are almost equally skilled. But kites are distinguished by having a fairly long tail, that of vultures being short and wedge shaped. The sides of the wings of the vultures are straight, and the wings stand out at right angles to the body. In all species, except the scavenger vulture, the tips of the wings are turned up as the birds float or sail in the air, and the ends of the wings are much cut up, looking like fingers.
Perhaps the commonest vulture of the Himalayas is that very familiar fowl—the small white scavenger vulture (Neophron ginginianus), often called Pharaoh's chicken and other opprobrious names that I will not mention. This bird eats everything that is filthy and unclean. The natural consequence is that it looks untidy and disreputable. It is, without exception, the ugliest bird in the world. It is about the size of a kite. The plumage is a dirty white, except the edges of the wing feathers, which are shabby black. The naked face is of a pale mustard colour, as are the bill and legs. The feathers on the back of the head project like the back hairs of an untidy schoolboy. Its walk is an ungainly waddle. Nevertheless—so great is the magic of wings—this bird, as it soars high above the earth, looks a noble fowl; it then appears to be snow-white with black margins to the wings.
Another vulture frequently met with is the Indian white-backed vulture (Pseudogyps bengalensis). The plumage of this species is a very dark grey, almost black. The naked head is rather lighter than the rest of the body. The lower back is white: this makes the bird easy to identify when it is perched. It has some white in the wings, and this, during flight, is visible as a very broad band that runs from the body nearly to the tip of the wing. Thus the wing from below appears to be white with broad black edges. During flight this species may be distinguished from the last by the fingered tips of its wings, by both edges of the wing being black and the body being dark instead of white.
The third common vulture is the Himalayan griffon (Gyps himalayensis). This is distinguishable from the two species already described by having no white in the wings.