BY THE SAME AUTHOR ANIMALS OF NO IMPORTANCE THE INDIAN CROW: HIS BOOK BOMBAY DUCKS BIRDS OF THE PLAINS INDIAN BIRDS JUNGLE FOLK GLIMPSES OF INDIAN BIRDS BIRDS OF THE INDIAN HILLS
IN COLLABORATION WITH FRANK FINN THE MAKING OF SPECIES
A BIRD CALENDAR FOR NORTHERN INDIA
BY DOUGLAS DEWAR
LONDON: W. THACKER & CO., CREED LANE, E.C. CALCUTTA AND SIMLA: THACKER, SPINK & CO. 1916
WM. BRENDON AND SON, LTD., PRINTERS, PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND.
I am indebted to the editor of The Pioneer for permission to republish the sketches that form this calendar, and to Mr. A. J. Currie for placing at my disposal his unpublished notes on the birds of the Punjab.
Full descriptions of all the Indian birds of which the doings are chronicled in this calendar are to be found in the four volumes of the Fauna of British India devoted to birds; popular descriptions of the majority are given in my Indian Birds.
HARROW, January 1916.
CONTENTS PAGE JANUARY . . . . . . 1 FEBRUARY . . . . . 18 MARCH . . . . . . . 33 APRIL . . . . . . . 61 MAY . . . . . . . . 79 JUNE . . . . . . . 103 JULY . . . . . . . 116 AUGUST . . . . . . 136 SEPTEMBER . . . . . 152 OCTOBER . . . . . . 165 NOVEMBER . . . . . 178 DECEMBER . . . . . 189 GLOSSARY . . . . . 199 INDEX . . . . . . . 201
Up—let us to the fields away, And breathe the fresh and balmy air. MARY HOWITT.
Take nine-and-twenty sunny, bracing English May days, steal from March as many still, starry nights, to these add two rainy mornings and evenings, and the product will resemble a typical Indian January. This is the coolest month in the year, a month when the climate is invigorating and the sunshine temperate. But even in January the sun's rays have sufficient power to cause the thermometer to register 70 degrees in the shade at noon, save on an occasional cloudy day.
Sunset is marked by a sudden fall of temperature. The village smoke then hangs a few feet above the earth like a blue-grey diaphanous cloud.
The cold increases throughout the hours of darkness. In the Punjab hoar-frosts form daily; and in the milder United Provinces the temperature often falls sufficiently to allow of the formation of thin sheets of ice. Towards dawn mists collect which are not dispersed until the sun has shone upon them for several hours. The vultures await the dissipation of these vapours before they ascend to the upper air, there to soar on outstretched wings and scan the earth for food.
On New Year's Day the wheat, the barley, the gram, and the other Spring crops are well above the ground, and, ere January has given place to February, the emerald shoots of the corn attain a height of fully sixteen inches. On these the geese levy toll.
Light showers usually fall in January. These are very welcome to the agriculturalist because they impart vigour to the young crops. In the seasons when the earth is not blessed with the refreshing winter rain men and oxen are kept busy irrigating the fields. The cutting and the pressing of the sugar-cane employ thousands of husbandmen and their cattle. In almost every village little sugar-cane presses are being worked by oxen from sunrise to sunset. At night-time the country-side is illumined by the flames of the megas burned by the rustic sugar-boilers.
January is the month in which the avian population attains its maximum. Geese, ducks, teal, pelicans, cormorants, snake-birds and ospreys abound in the rivers and jhils; the marshes and swamps are the resort of millions of snipe and other waders; the fields and groves swarm with flycatchers, chats, starlings, warblers, finches, birds of prey and the other migrants which in winter visit the plains from the Himalayas and the country beyond.
The bracing climate of the Punjab attracts some cold-loving species for which the milder United Provinces have no charms. Conspicuous among these are rooks, ravens and jackdaws. On the other hand, frosts drive away from the Land of the Five Rivers certain of the feathered folk which do not leave the United Provinces or Bengal: to wit, the purple sunbird, the bee-eater and, to a large extent, the king-crow.
The activity of the feathered folk is not at its height in January. Birds are warm-blooded creatures and they love not the cold. Comparatively few of them are in song, and still fewer nest, at this season.
Song and sound are expressions of energy. Birds have more vitality, more life in them than has any other class of organism. They are, therefore, the most noisy of beings.
Many of the calls of birds are purposeful, being used to express pleasure or anger, or to apprise members of a flock of one another's presence. Others appear to serve no useful end. These are simply the outpourings of superfluous energy, the expressions of the supreme happiness that perfect health engenders. Since the vigour of birds is greatest at the nesting season, it follows that that is the time when they are most vociferous. Some birds sing only at the breeding season, while others emit their cries at all times. Hence the avian choir in India, as in all other countries, is composed of two sets of vocalists—those who perform throughout the year, "the musicians of all times and places," and those who join the chorus only for a few weeks or months. The calls of the former class go far to create for India its characteristic atmosphere. To enumerate all such bird calls would be wearisome. For the purposes of this calendar it is necessary to describe only the common daily cries—the sounds that at all times and all seasons form the basis of the avian chorus.
From early dawn till nightfall the welkin rings with the harsh caw of the house-crow, the deeper note of the black crow or corby, the tinkling music of the bulbuls, the cheery keky, keky, kek, kek ... chur, chur, kok, kok, kok of the myna, the monotonous cuckoo-coo-coo of the spotted dove (Turtur suratensis), the soft subdued cuk-cuk-coo-coo-coo of the little brown dove (T. cambayensis), the mechanical ku-ku—ku of the ring-dove (T. risorius), the loud penetrating shrieks of the green parrot, the trumpet-like calls of the saras crane, the high-pitched did-he-do-it of the red-wattled lapwing, the wailing trill chee-hee-hee-hee hee—hee of the kite, the hard grating notes and the metallic coch-lee, coch-lee of the tree-pie; the sharp towee, towee, towee of the tailor-bird, the soft melodious cheeping calls of the flocks of little white-eyes, the chit, chit, chitter of the sparrow, the screaming cries of the golden-backed woodpecker, the screams and the trills of the white-breasted kingfisher, the curious harsh clamour of the cuckoo-shrike, and, last but by no means least, the sweet and cheerful whistling refrain of the fan-tail flycatcher, which at frequent intervals emanates from a tree in the garden or the mango tope. Nor is the bird choir altogether hushed during the hours of darkness. Throughout the year, more especially on moonlit nights, the shrieking kucha, kwachee, kwachee, kwachee, kwachee of the little spotted owlet disturbs the silences of the moon. Few nights pass on which the dusky horned owl fails to utter his grunting hoot, or the jungle owlet to emit his curious but not unpleasant turtuck, turtuck, turtuck, turtuck, turtuck, tukatu, chatuckatuckatuck.
The above are the commonest of the bird calls heard throughout the year. They form the basis of the avian melody in India. This melody is reinforced from time to time by the songs of those birds that may be termed the seasonal choristers. It is the presence or absence of the voices of these latter which imparts distinctive features to the minstrelsy of every month of the year.
In January the sprightly little metallic purple sunbird pours forth, from almost every tree or bush, his powerful song, which, were it a little less sharp, might easily be mistaken for that of a canary.
From every mango tope emanates a loud "Think of me ... Never to be." This is the call of the grey-headed flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis), a bird that visits the plains of northern India every winter. In summer it retires to the Himalayas for nesting purposes. Still more melodious is the call of the wood-shrike, which is frequently heard at this season, and indeed during the greater part of the year.
Every now and again the green barbet emits his curious chuckling laugh, followed by a monotonous kutur, kutur, kuturuk. At rare intervals his cousin, the coppersmith, utters a soft wow and thereby reminds us that he is in the land of the living. These two species, more especially the latter, seem to dislike the cold weather. They revel in the heat; it is when the thermometer stands at something over 100 degrees in the shade that they feel like giants refreshed, and repeat their loud calls with wearying insistence throughout the hours of daylight.
The nuthatches begin to tune up in January. They sing with more cheer than harmony, their love-song being a sharp penetrating tee-tee-tee-tee-tee.
The hoopoe reminds us of his presence by an occasional soft uk-uk-uk. His breeding season, like that of the nuthatch, is about to begin.
The magpie-robin or dhayal, who for months past has uttered no sound, save a scolding note when occasion demanded, now begins to make melody. His January song, however, is harsh and crude, and not such as to lead one to expect the rich deep-toned music that will compel admiration in April, May and June.
Towards the end of the month the fluty call of the koel, another hot-weather chorister, may be heard in the eastern portions of northern India.
Most of the cock sunbirds cast off their workaday plumage and assumed their splendid metallic purple wedding garment in November and December, a few, however, do not attain their full glory until January. By the end of the month it is difficult to find a cock that is not bravely attired from head to tail in iridescent purple.
Comparatively few birds build their nests in January. Needless to state, doves' nests containing eggs may be found at this season as at all other seasons. It is no exaggeration to assert that some pairs of doves rear up seven or eight broods in the course of the year. The consequence is that, notwithstanding the fact that the full clutch consists of but two eggs, doves share with crows, mynas, sparrows and green parrots the distinction of being the most successful birds in India.
The nest of the dove is a subject over which most ornithologists have waxed sarcastic. One writer compares the structure to a bundle of spillikins. Another says, "Upset a box of matches in a bush and you will have produced a very fair imitation of a dove's nursery!" According to a third, the best way to make an imitation dove's nest is to take four slender twigs, lay two of them on a branch and then place the remaining two crosswise on top of the first pair. For all this, the dove's nest is a wonderful structure; it is a lesson in how to make a little go a long way. Doves seem to place their nurseries haphazard on the first branch or ledge they come across after the spirit has moved them to build. The nest appears to be built solely on considerations of hygiene. Ample light and air are a sine qua non; concealment appears to be a matter of no importance.
In India winter is the time of year at which the larger birds of prey, both diurnal and nocturnal, rear up their broods. Throughout January the white-backed vultures are occupied in parental duties. The breeding season of these birds begins in October or November and ends in February or March. The nest, which is placed high up in a lofty tree, is a large platform composed of twigs which the birds themselves break off from the growing tree. Much amusement may be derived from watching the struggles of a white-backed vulture when severing a tough branch. Its wing-flapping and its tugging cause a great commotion in the tree. The boughs used by vultures for their nests are mostly covered with green leaves. These last wither soon after the branch has been plucked, so that, after the first few days of its existence, the nest looks like a great ball of dead leaves caught in a tree.
The nurseries of birds of prey can be described neither as picturesque nor as triumphs of architecture, but they have the great merit of being easy to see. January is the month in which to look for the eyries of Bonelli's eagles (Hieraetus fasciatus); not that the search is likely to be successful. The high cliffs of the Jumna and the Chambal in the Etawah district are the only places where the nests of this fine eagle have been recorded in the United Provinces. Mr. A. J. Currie has found the nest on two occasions in a mango tree in a tope at Lahore. In each case the eyrie was a flat platform of sticks about twice the size of a kite's nest. The ground beneath the eyrie was littered with fowls' feathers and pellets of skin, fur and bone. Most of these pellets contained squirrels' skulls; and Mr. Currie actually saw one of the parent birds fly to the nest with a squirrel in its talons.
Bonelli's eagle, when sailing through the air, may be recognised by the long, hawk-like wings and tail, the pale body and dark brown wings. It soars in circles, beating its pinions only occasionally.
The majority of the tawny eagles (Aquila vindhiana) build their nests in December. By the middle of January many of the eggs have yielded nestlings which are covered with white down. In size and appearance the tawny eagle is not unlike a kite. The shape of the tail, however, enables the observer to distinguish between the two species at a glance. The tail of the kite is long and forked, while that of the eagle is short and rounded at the extremity. The Pallas's fishing-eagles (Haliaetus leucoryphus) are likewise busy feeding their young. These fine birds are readily identified by the broad white band in the tail. Their loud resonant but unmelodious calls make it possible to recognise them when they are too far off for the white tail band to be distinguished.
This species is called a fishing-eagle; but it does not indulge much in the piscatorial art. It prefers to obtain its food by robbing ospreys, kites, marsh-harriers and other birds weaker than itself. So bold is it that it frequently swoops down and carries off a dead or wounded duck shot by the sportsman. Another raptorial bird of which the nest is likely to be found in January is the Turumti or red-headed merlin (Aesalon chicquera). The nesting season of this ferocious pigmy extends from January to May, reaching its height during March in the United Provinces and during April in the Punjab.
As a general rule birds begin nesting operations in the Punjab from fifteen to thirty days later than in the United Provinces. Unless expressly stated the times mentioned in this calendar relate to the United Provinces. The nest of the red-headed merlin is a compact circular platform, about twelve inches in diameter, placed in a fork near the top of a tree.
The attention of the observer is often drawn to the nests of this species, as also to those of other small birds of prey and of the kite, by the squabbles that occur between them and the crows. Both species of crow seem to take great delight in teasing raptorial birds. Sometimes two or three of the corvi act as if they had formed a league for the prevention of nest-building on the part of white-eyed buzzards, kites, shikras and other of the lesser birds of prey. The modus operandi of the league is for two or more of its members to hie themselves to the tree in which the victim is building its nest, take up positions near that structure and begin to caw derisively. This invariably provokes the owners of the nest to attack the black villains, who do not resist, but take to their wings. The angry, swearing builders follow in hot pursuit for a short distance and then fly back to the nest. After a few minutes the crows return. Then the performance is repeated; and so on, almost ad infinitum. The result is that many pairs of birds of prey take three weeks or longer to construct a nest which they could have completed within a week had they been unmolested.
Most of the larger owls are now building nests or sitting on eggs; a few are seeking food for their offspring. As owls work on silent wing at night, they escape the attentions of the crows and the notice of the average human being. The nocturnal birds of prey of which nests are likely to be found in January are the brown fish-owl (Ketupa ceylonensis) and the rock and the dusky horned-owls (Bubo bengalensis and B. coromandus). The dusky horned-owl builds a stick nest in a tree, the rock horned-owl lays its eggs on the bare ground or on the ledge of a cliff, while the brown fish-owl makes a nest among the branches or in a hollow in the trunk of a tree or on the ledge of a cliff.
In the Punjab the ravens, which in many respects ape the manners of birds of prey, are now nesting. A raven's nest is a compact collection of twigs. It is usually placed in an isolated tree of no great size.
The Indian raven has not the austere habits of its English brother. It is fond of the society of its fellows. The range of this fine bird in the plains of India is confined to the North-West Frontier Province Sind, and the Punjab.
An occasional pair of kites may be seen at work nest-building during the present month.
Some of the sand-martins (Cotyle sinensis), likewise, are engaged in family duties. The river bank in which a colony of these birds is nesting is the scene of much animation. The bank is riddled with holes, each of which, being the entrance to a martin's nest, is visited a score of times an hour by the parent birds, bringing insects captured while flying over the water.
Some species of munia breed at this time of the year. The red munia, or amadavat, or lal (Estrelda amandava) is, next to the paroquet, the bird most commonly caged in India. This little exquisite is considerably smaller than a sparrow. Its bill is bright crimson, and there is some red or crimson in the plumage—more in the cock than in the hen, and most in both sexes at the breeding season. The remainder of the plumage is brown, but is everywhere heavily spotted with white. In a state of nature these birds affect long grass, for they feed largely, if not entirely, on grass seed. The cock has a sweet voice, which, although feeble, is sufficiently loud to be heard at some distance and is frequently uttered.
The nest of the amadavat is large for the size of the bird, being a loosely-woven cup, which is egg-shaped and has a hole at or near the narrow end. It is composed of fine grass stems and is often lined with soft material. It is usually placed in the middle of a bush, sometimes in a tussock of grass. From six to fourteen eggs are laid. These are white in colour. This species appears to breed twice in the year—from October to February and again from June to August.
The white-throated munia (Uroloncha malabarica) is a dull brown bird, with a white patch above the tail. Its throat is yellowish white. The old name for the bird—the plain brown munia—seems more appropriate than that with which the species has since been saddled by Blanford. The nest of this little bird is more loosely put together and more globular than that of the amadavat. It is usually placed low down in a thorny bush. The number of eggs laid varies from six to fifteen. These, like those of the red munia, are white. June seems to be the only month in the year in which the eggs of this species have not been found. In the United Provinces more nests containing eggs are discovered in January than in any other month.
Occasionally in January a pair of hoopoes (Upupa indica) steals a march on its brethren by selecting a nesting site and laying eggs. Hoopoes nest in holes in trees or buildings. The aperture to the nest cavity is invariably small. The hen hoopoe alone incubates, and as, when once she has begun to sit, she rarely, if ever, leaves the nest till the eggs are hatched, the cock has to bring food to her. But, to describe the nesting operations of the hoopoe in January is like talking of cricket in April. It is in February and March that the hoopoes nest in their millions, and call softly, from morn till eve, uk-uk-uk.
Of the other birds which nest later in the season mention must be made in the calendar for the present month of the Indian cliff-swallow (Hirundo fluvicola) and the blue rock-pigeon (Columba intermedia), because their nests are sometimes seen in January.
There's perfume upon every wind, Music in every tree, Dews for the moisture-loving flowers, Sweets for the sucking-bee. N. P. WILLIS.
Even as January in northern India may be compared to a month made up of English May days and March nights, so may the Indian February be likened to a halcyon month composed of sparkling, sun-steeped June days and cool starlit April nights.
February is the most pleasant month of the whole year in both the Punjab and the United Provinces; even November must yield the palm to it. The climate is perfect. The nights and early mornings are cool and invigorating; the remainder of each day is pleasantly warm; the sun's rays, although gaining strength day by day, do not become uncomfortably hot save in the extreme south of the United Provinces. The night mists, so characteristic of December and January, are almost unknown in February, and the light dews that form during the hours of darkness disappear shortly after sunrise.
The Indian countryside is now good to look upon; it possesses all the beauties of the landscape of July; save the sunsets. The soft emerald hue of the young wheat and barley is rendered more vivid by contrast with the deep rich green of the mango trees. Into the earth's verdant carpet is worked a gay pattern of white poppies, purple linseed blooms, blue and pink gram flowers, and yellow blossoms of mimosa, mustard and arhar. Towards the end of the month the silk-cotton trees (Bombax malabarica) begin to put forth their great red flowers, but not until March does each look like a great scarlet nosegay.
The patches of sugar-cane grow smaller day by day, and in nearly every village the little presses are at work from morn till eve.
From the guava groves issue the rattle of tin pots and the shouts of the boys told off to protect the ripening fruit from the attacks of crows, parrots and other feathered marauders. Nor do these sounds terminate at night-fall; indeed they become louder after dark, for it is then that the flying-foxes come forth and work sad havoc among fruit of all descriptions.
The fowls of the air are more vivacious than they were in January. The bulbuls tinkle more blithely, the purple sunbirds sing more lustily; the kutur, kutur, kuturuk of the green barbets is uttered more vociferously; the nuthatches now put their whole soul into their loud, sharp tee-tee-tee-tee, the hoopoes call uk-uk-uk more vigorously.
The coppersmiths (Xantholaema haematocephala) begin to hammer on their anvils—tonk-tonk-tonk-tonk, softly and spasmodically in the early days of the month, but with greater frequency and intensity as the days pass. The brain-fever bird (Hierococcyx varius) announces his arrival in the United Provinces by uttering an occasional "brain-fever." As the month draws to its close his utterances become more frequent. But his time is not yet. He merely gives us in February a foretaste of what is to come.
The tew of the black-headed oriole (Oriolus melanocephalus), which is the only note uttered by the bird in the colder months, is occasionally replaced in February by the summer call of the species—a liquid, musical peeho. In the latter half of the month the Indian robin (Thamnobia cambayensis) begins to find his voice. Although not the peer of his English cousin, he is no mean singer. At this time of year, however, his notes are harsh. He is merely "getting into form."
The feeble, but sweet, song of the crested lark or Chandul is one of the features of February. The Indian skylark likewise may now be heard singing at Heaven's gate in places where there are large tracts of uncultivated land. As in January so in February the joyous "Think of me ... Never to be" of the grey-headed flycatcher emanates from every tope.
By the middle of the month the pied wagtails and pied bush chats are in full song. Their melodies, though of small volume, are very sweet.
The large grey shrikes add the clamour of their courtship to the avian chorus.
Large numbers of doves, vultures, eagles, red-headed merlins, martins and munias—birds whose nests were described in January—are still busy feeding their young.
The majority of the brown fish-owls (Ketupa ceylonensis) and rock horned-owls (Bubo bengalensis) are sitting; a few of them are feeding young birds. The dusky horned-owls (B. coromandus) have either finished breeding or are tending nestlings. In addition to the nests of the above-mentioned owls those of the collared scops owl (Scops bakkamaena) and the mottled wood-owl (Syrnium ocellatum) are likely to be found at this season of the year. The scops is a small owl with aigrettes or "horns," the wood-owl is a large bird without aigrettes.
Both nest in holes in trees and lay white eggs after the manner of their kind. The scops owl breeds from January till April, while February and March are the months in which to look for the eggs of the wood-owl.
In the western districts of the United Provinces the Indian cliff-swallows (Hirundo fluvicola) are beginning to construct their curious nests. Here and there a pair of blue rock-pigeons (Colombia intermedia) is busy with eggs or young ones. In the Punjab the ravens are likewise employed.
The nesting season of the hoopoe has now fairly commenced. Courtship is the order of the day. The display of this beautiful species is not at all elaborate. The bird that "shows off" merely runs along the ground with corona fully expanded. Mating hoopoes, however, perform strange antics in the air; they twist and turn and double, just as a flycatcher does when chasing a fleet insect. Both the hoopoe and the roller are veritable aerial acrobats. By the end of the month all but a few of the hoopoes have begun to nest; most of them have eggs, while the early birds, described in January as stealing a march on their brethren, are feeding their offspring. The 6th February is the earliest date on which the writer has observed a hoopoe carrying food to the nest; that was at Ghazipur.
March and April are the months in which the majority of coppersmiths or crimson-breasted barbets rear up their families. Some, however, are already working at their nests. The eggs are hatched in a cavity in a tree—a cavity made by means of the bird's bill. Both sexes take part in nest construction. A neatly-cut circular hole, about the size of a rupee, on the lower surface or the side of a branch is assuredly the entrance to the nest of a coppersmith, a green barbet, or a woodpecker.
As the month draws to its close many a pair of nuthatches (Sitta castaneiventris) may be observed seeking for a hollow in which to nestle. The site selected is usually a small hole in the trunk of a mango tree that has weathered many monsoons. The birds reduce the orifice of the cavity to a very small size by plastering up the greater part of it with mud. Hence the nest of the nuthatch, unless discovered when in course of construction, is difficult to locate.
All the cock sunbirds (Arachnechthra asiatica) are now in the full glory of their nuptial plumage. Here and there an energetic little hen is busily constructing her wonderful pendent nest. Great is the variety of building material used by the sunbird. Fibres, slender roots, pliable stems, pieces of decayed wood, lichen, thorns and even paper, cotton and rags, are pressed into service. All are held together by cobweb, which is the favourite cement of bird masons. The general shape of the nest is that of a pear. Its contour is often irregular, because some of the materials hang loosely from the outer surface.
The nursery is attached by means of cobweb to the beam or branch from which it hangs. It is cosily lined with cotton or other soft material. The hen, who alone builds the nest and incubates the eggs, enters and leaves the chamber by a hole at one side. This is protected by a little penthouse. The door serves also as window. The hen rests her chin on the lower part of this while she is incubating her eggs, and thus is able, as she sits, to see what is going on in the great world without. She displays little fear of man and takes no pains to conceal her nest, which is often built in the verandah of an inhabited bungalow.
As the month nears its end the big black crows (Corvus macrorhynchus) begin to construct their nests. The site selected is usually a forked branch of a large tree. The nest is a clumsy platform of sticks with a slight depression, lined by human or horse hair or other soft material, for the reception of the eggs. Both sexes take part in incubation. From the time the first egg is laid until the young are big enough to leave the nest this is very rarely left unguarded. When one parent is away the other remains sitting on the eggs, or, after the young have hatched out, on the edge of the nest. Crows are confirmed egg-stealers and nestling-lifters, and, knowing the guile that is in their own hearts, keep a careful watch over their offspring.
The kites (Milvus govinda) are likewise busy at their nurseries. At this season of the year they are noisier than usual, which is saying a great deal. They not only utter unceasingly their shrill chee-hee-hee-hee, but engage in many a squabble with the crows.
The nest of the kite, like that of the corby, is an untidy mass of sticks and twigs placed conspicuously in a lofty tree. Dozens of these nests are to be seen in every Indian cantonment in February and March. Why the crows and the kites should prefer the trees in a cantonment to those in the town or surrounding country has yet to be discovered.
Mention has already been made of the fact that January is the month in which the majority of the tawny eagles nest; not a few, however, defer operations till February. Hume states that, of the 159 eggs of this species of which he has a record, 38 were taken in December, 83 in January and 28 in February.
The nesting season of the white-backed vulture is drawing to a close. On the other hand, that of the black or Pondicherry vulture (Otogyps calvus) is beginning. This species may be readily distinguished from the other vultures, by its large size, its white thighs and the red wattles that hang down from the sides of the head like drooping ears.
The nest of this bird is a massive platform of sticks, large enough to accommodate two or three men. Hume once demolished one of these vulturine nurseries and found that it weighed over eight maunds, that is to say about six hundredweight. This vulture usually builds its nest in a lofty pipal tree, but in localities devoid of tall trees the platform is placed on the top of a bush.
February marks the beginning of the nesting season of the handsome pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis). This is the familiar, black-and-white bird that fishes by hovering kestrel-like on rapidly-vibrating wings and then dropping from a height of some twenty feet into the water below; it is a bird greatly addicted to goldfish and makes sad havoc of these where they are exposed in ornamental ponds. The nest of the pied kingfisher is a circular tunnel or burrow, more than a yard in length, excavated in a river bank. The burrow, which is dug out by the bird, is about three inches in diameter and terminates in a larger chamber in which the eggs are laid.
Another spotted black-and-white bird which now begins nesting operations is the yellow-fronted pied woodpecker (Liopicus mahrattensis)—a species only a little less common than the beautiful golden-backed woodpecker. Like all the Picidae this bird nests in the trunk or a branch of a tree. Selecting a part of a tree which is decayed—sometimes a portion of the bole quite close to the ground—the woodpecker hews out with its chisel-like beak a neat circular tunnel leading to the cavity in the decayed wood in which the eggs will be deposited. The tap, tap, tap of the bill as it cuts into the wood serves to guide the observer to the spot where the woodpecker, with legs apart and tail adpressed to the tree, is at work. In the same way a barbet's nest, while under construction, may be located with ease. A woodpecker when excavating its nest will often allow a human being to approach sufficiently dose to witness it throw over its shoulder the chips of wood it has cut away with its bill.
In the United Provinces many of the ashy-crowned finch-larks (Pyrrhulauda grisea) build their nests during February. In the Punjab they breed later; April and May being the months in which their eggs are most often found in that province. These curious squat-figured little birds are rendered easy of recognition by the unusual scheme of colouring displayed by the cock—his upper parts are earthy grey and his lower plumage is black.
The habit of the finch-lark is to soar to a little height and then drop to the ground, with wings closed, singing as it descends. It invariably affects open plains. There are very few tracts of treeless land in India which are not tenanted by finch-larks. The nest is a mere pad of grass and feathers placed on the ground in a tussock of grass, beside a clod of earth, or in a depression, such as a hoof-print. The most expeditious way of finding nests of these birds in places where they are abundant is to walk with a line of beaters over a tract of fallow land and mark carefully the spots from which the birds rise.
With February the nesting season of the barn-owls (Strix flammea) begins in the United Provinces, where their eggs have been taken as early as the 17th.
Towards the end of the month the white-browed fantail flycatchers (Rhipidura albifrontata) begin to nest. The loud and cheerful song of this little feathered exquisite is a tune of six or seven notes that ascend and descend the musical scale. It is one of the most familiar of the sounds that gladden the Indian countryside. The broad white eyebrow and the manner in which, with drooping wings and tail spread into a fan, this flycatcher waltzes and pirouettes among the branches of a tree render it unmistakable. The nest is a dainty little cup, covered with cobweb, attached to one of the lower boughs of a tree. So small is the nursery that sometimes the incubating bird looks as though it were sitting across a branch. This species appears to rear two broods every year. The first comes into existence in March or late February in the United Provinces and five or six weeks later in the Punjab; the second brood emerges during the monsoon.
The white-eyed buzzards—weakest of all the birds of prey—begin to pair towards the end of the month. At this season they frequently rise high above the earth and soar, emitting plaintive cries.
The handsome, but destructive, green parrots are now seeking, or making, cavities in trees or buildings in which to deposit their white eggs.
The breeding season for the alexandrine (Palaeornis eupatrius) and the rose-ringed paroquet (P. torquatus) begins at the end of January or early in February. March is the month in which most eggs are taken.
In April and May the bird-catchers go round and collect the nestlings in order to sell them at four annas apiece. Green parrots are the most popular cage birds in India. Destructive though they be and a scourge to the husbandman, one cannot but pity the luckless captives doomed to spend practically the whole of their existence in small iron cages, which, when exposed to the sun in the hot weather, as they often are, must be veritable infernos.
The courtship of a pair of green parrots is as amusing to watch as that of any 'Arry and 'Arriet. Not possessing hats the amorous birds are unable to exchange them, but otherwise their actions are quite coster-like. The female twists herself into all manner of ridiculous postures and utters low twittering notes. The cock sits at her side and admires. Every now and then he shows his appreciation of her antics by tickling her head with his beak or by joining his bill to hers.
Both the grey shrike and the wood-shrike begin nesting operations in February. As, however, most of their nests are likely to be found later in the year they are dealt with in the calendar for March.
And all the jungle laughed with nesting songs, And all the thickets rustled with small life Of lizard, bee, beetle, and creeping things Pleased at the spring time. In the mango sprays The sun-birds flashed; alone at his green forge Toiled the loud coppersmith;... ARNOLD, The Light of Asia.
In March the climate of the plains of the United Provinces varies from place to place. In the western sub-Himalayan tracts, as in the Punjab, the weather still leaves little to be desired. The sun indeed is powerful; towards the end of the month the maximum shade temperature exceeds 80 degrees, but the nights and early mornings are delightfully cool. In all the remaining parts of the United Provinces, except the extreme south, temperate weather prevails until nearly the end of the month. In the last days the noonday heat becomes so great that many persons close their bungalows for several hours daily to keep them cool, the outer temperature rising to ninety in the shade. At night, however, the temperature drops to 65 degrees. In the extreme south of the Province the hot weather sets in by the middle of March. The sky assumes a brazen aspect and, at midday, the country is swept by westerly winds which seem to come from a titanic blast furnace.
The spring crops grow more golden day by day. The mustard is the first to ripen. The earlier-sown fields are harvested in March in the eastern and southern parts of the country. The spring cereals are cut by hand sickles, the grain is then husked by the tramping of cattle, and, lastly, the chaff is separated from the grain on the threshing floor, the hot burning wind often acting as a natural winnowing fan.
The air is heavily scented with the inconspicuous inflorescences of the mangos (Mangifera indica). The pipals (Ficus religiosa) are shedding their leaves; the sheshams (Dalbergia sissoo) are assuming their emerald spring foliage.
The garden, the jungle and the forest are beautified by the gorgeous reds of the flowers of the silk-cotton tree (Bombax malabarica), the Indian coral tree (Erythrina indica) and the flame-of-the-forest (Butea frondosa). The sub-Himalayan forests become yellow-tinted owing to the fading of the leaves of the sal (Shorea robusta), many of which are shed in March. The sal, however, is never entirely leafless; the young foliage appears as the old drops off; while this change is taking place the minute pale yellow flowers open out.
The familiar yellow wasps, which have been hibernating during the cold weather, emerge from their hiding-places and begin to construct their umbrella-shaped nests or combs, which look as if they were made of rice-paper.
March is a month of great activity for the birds. Those that constituted the avian chorus of February continue to sing, and to their voices are now added those of many other minstrels. Chief of these is the pied singer of Ind—the magpie-robin or dhayal—whose song is as beautiful as that of the English robin at his best. From the housetops the brown rock-chat begins to pour forth his exceedingly sweet lay. The Indian robin is in full song. The little golden ioras, hidden away amid dense foliage, utter their many joyful sounds. The brain-fever bird grows more vociferous day by day. The crow-pheasants, which have been comparatively silent during the colder months of the year, now begin to utter their low sonorous whoot, whoot, whoot, which is heard chiefly at dawn.
Everywhere the birds are joyful and noisy; nowhere more so than at the silk-cotton and the coral trees. These, although botanically very different, display many features in common. They begin to lose their leaves soon after the monsoon is over, and are leafless by the end of the winter. In the early spring, while the tree is still devoid of foliage, huge scarlet, crimson or yellow flowers emerge from every branch. Each flower is plentifully supplied with honey; it is a flowing bowl of which all are invited to partake, and hundreds of thousands of birds accept the invitation with right good-will. The scene at each of these trees, when in full flower, baffles description.
Scores of birds forgather there—rosy starlings, mynas, babblers, bulbuls, king-crows, tree-pies, green parrots, sunbirds and crows. These all drink riotously and revel so loudly that the sound may be heard at a distance of half a mile or more. Even before the sun has risen and begun to dispel the pleasant coolness of the night the drinking begins. It continues throughout the hours of daylight. Towards midday, when the west wind blows very hot, it flags somewhat, but even when the temperature is nearer 100 degrees than 90 degrees some avian brawlers are present. As soon as the first touch of the afternoon coolness is felt the clamour acquires fresh vigour and does not cease until the sun has set in a dusty haze, and the spotted owlets have emerged and begun to cackle and call as is their wont.
These last are by no means the only birds that hold concert parties during the hours of darkness. In open country the jungle owlet and the dusky-horned owl call at intervals, and the Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) imitates the sound of a stone skimming over ice. In the forest tracts Franklin's and Horsfield's nightjars make the welkin ring. Scarce has the sun disappeared below the horizon when the former issues forth and utters its harsh tweet. Horsfield's nightjar emerges a few minutes later, and, for some hours after dusk and for several before dawn, it utters incessantly its loud monotonous chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck, which has been aptly compared to the sound made by striking a plank sharply with a hammer.
March is the month in which the majority of the shrikes or butcher-birds go a-courting. There is no false modesty about butcher-birds. They are not ashamed to introduce their unmelodious calls into the avian chorus. But they are mild offenders in comparison with the king-crows (Dicrurus ater) and the rollers (Coracias indica).
The little black king-crows are at all seasons noisy and vivacious: from the end of February until the rains have set in they are positively uproarious. Two or three of them love to sit on a telegraph wire, or a bare branch of a tree, and hold a concert. The first performer draws itself up to its full height and then gives vent to harsh cries. Before it has had time to deliver itself of all it has to sing, an impatient neighbour joins in and tries to shout it down. The concert may last for half an hour or longer; the scene is shifted from time to time as the participants become too excited to sit still. The king-crows so engaged appear to be selecting their mates; nevertheless nest-construction does not begin before the end of April.
Some human beings may fail to notice the courtship of the king-crow, but none can be so deaf and blind as to miss the love-making of the gorgeous roller or blue jay. Has not everyone marvelled at the hoarse cries and rasping screams which emanate from these birds as they fling themselves into the air and ascend and descend as though they were being tossed about by unseen hands?
Their wonderful aerial performances go on continually in the hours of daylight throughout the months of March and April; at this season the birds, beautiful although they be, are a veritable nuisance, and most people gratefully welcome the comparative quiet that supervenes after the eggs have been laid. The madness of the March hare is mild compared with that of the March roller. It is difficult to realise that the harsh and angry-sounding cries of these birds denote, not rage, but joy.
The great exodus of the winter visitors from the plains of India begins in March. It continues until mid-May, by which time the last of the migratory birds will have reached its distant breeding ground.
This exodus is usually preceded by the gathering into flocks of the rose-coloured starlings and the corn-buntings. Large noisy congregations of these birds are a striking feature of February in Bombay, of March in the United Provinces, and of April in the Punjab.
Rose-coloured starlings spend most of their lives in the plains of India, going to Asia Minor for a few months each summer for nesting purposes. In the autumn they spread themselves over the greater part of Hindustan, most abundantly in the Deccan.
In the third or fourth week of February the rosy starlings of Bombay begin to form flocks. These make merry among the flowers of the coral tree, which appear first in South India, and last in the Punjab. The noisy flocks journey northwards in a leisurely manner, timing their arrival at each place simultaneously with the flowering of the coral trees. They feed on the nectar provided by these flowers and those of the silk-cotton tree. They also take toll of the ripening corn and of the mulberries which are now in season. Thus the rosy starlings reach Allahabad about the second week in March, and Lahore some fifteen days later.
The head, neck, breast, wings and tail of the rosy starling are glossy black, and the remainder of the plumage is pale salmon in the hen and the young cock, and faint rose-colour in the adult cock.
Rosy starlings feed chiefly in the morning and the late afternoon. During the hottest part of the day they perch in trees and hold a concert, if such a term may be applied to a torrent of sibilant twitter.
Buntings, like rosy starlings, are social birds, and are very destructive to grain crops.
As these last are harvested the feeding area of the buntings becomes restricted, so that eventually every patch of standing crop is alive with buntings. The spring cereals ripen in the south earlier than in northern India, so that the cheerful buntings are able to perform their migratory journey by easy stages and find abundant food all along the route.
There are two species of corn-bunting—the red-headed (Emberiza luteola) and the black-headed (E. melanocephala). In both the lower plumage is bright yellow.
Among the earliest of the birds to forsake the plains of Hindustan are the grey-lag goose and the pintail duck. These leave Bengal in February, but tarry longer in the cooler parts of the country. Of the other migratory species many individuals depart in March, but the greater number remain on into April, when they are caught up in the great migratory wave that surges over the country. The destination of the majority of these migrants is Tibet or Siberia, but a few are satisfied with the cool slopes of the Himalayas as a summer resort in which to busy themselves with the sweet cares of nesting. Examples of these more local migrants are the grey-headed and the verditer flycatchers, the Indian bush-chat and, to some extent, the paradise flycatcher and the Indian oriole. The case of the oriole is interesting. All the Indian orioles (Oriolus kundoo) disappear from the Punjab and the United Provinces in winter. In the former province no other oriole replaces O. kundoo, but in the United Provinces the black-headed oriole (O. melanocephalus) comes to take the place of the other from October to March. When this last returns to the United Provinces in March the greater number of melanocephalus individuals go east, a few only remaining in the sub-Himalayan tracts of the province.
The Indian oriole is not the only species which finds the climate of the United Provinces too severe for it in winter; the koel and the paradise flycatcher likewise desert us in the coldest months. From the less temperate Punjab several species migrate in October which manage to maintain themselves in the United Provinces throughout the year: these are the purple sunbird, the little green and the blue-tailed bee-eaters, and the yellow-throated sparrow. The return of these and the other migrant species to the Punjab in March is as marked a phenomenon as is the arrival of the swallow and the cuckoo in England in spring.
The behaviour of the king-crows shows the marked effect a comparatively small difference of temperature may exert on the habits of some birds. In the United Provinces the king-crows appear to be as numerous in winter as in summer: in the Punjab they are very plentiful in summer, but rare in the cold weather; while not a single king-crow winters in the N.-W. Frontier Province.
Of the birds of which the nests were described in January and February the Pallas's fishing eagles have sent their nestlings into the world to fend for themselves.
In the case of the following birds the breeding season is fast drawing to its close:—the dusky horned-owl, the white-backed vulture, Bonelli's eagle, the tawny eagle, the brown fish-owl, the rock horned-owl, the raven, the amadavat and the white-throated munia.
The nesting season is at its height for all the other birds of which the nests have been described, namely, most species of dove, the jungle crow, the red-headed merlin, the purple sunbird, the nuthatch, the fantail flycatcher, the finch-lark, the pied woodpecker, the coppersmith, the alexandrine and the rose-ringed paroquet, the white-eyed buzzard, the collared scops and the mottled wood-owl, the kite, the black vulture and the pied kingfisher.
The sand-martins breed from October to May, consequently their nests, containing eggs or young, are frequently taken in March. Mention was made in January and February of the Indian cliff-swallow (Hirundo fluvicola). This species is not found in the eastern districts of the United Provinces, but it is the common swallow of the western districts. The head is dull chestnut. The back and shoulders are glistening steel-blue. The remainder of the upper plumage is brown. The lower parts are white with brown streaks, which are most apparent on the throat and upper breast. These swallows normally nest at two seasons of the year—from February till April and in July or August.
They breed in colonies. The mud nests are spherical or oval with an entrance tube from two to six inches long. The nests are invariably attached to a cliff or building, and, although isolated ones are built sometimes, they usually occur in clusters, as many as two hundred have been counted in one cluster. In such a case a section cut parallel to the surface to which the nests are attached looks like that of a huge honeycomb composed of cells four inches in diameter—cells of a kind that one could expect to be built by bees that had partaken of Mr. H. G. Wells' "food of the gods."
The beautiful white-breasted kingfisher, (Halcyon smyrnensis) is now busy at its nest.
This species spends most of its life in shady gardens; it feeds on insects in preference to fish. It does not invariably select a river bank in which to nest, it is quite content with a sand quarry, a bank, or the shaft of a kachcha well. The nest consists of a passage, some two feet in length and three inches in diameter, leading to a larger chamber in which from four to seven eggs are laid.
A pair of white-breasted kingfishers at work during the early stages of nest construction affords an interesting spectacle. Not being able to obtain a foothold on the almost perpendicular surface of the bank, the birds literally charge this in turn with fixed beak. By a succession of such attacks at one spot a hole of an appreciable size is soon formed in the soft sand. Then the birds are able to obtain a foothold and to excavate with the bill, while clinging to the edge of the hole. Every now and then they indulge in a short respite from their labours. While thus resting one of the pair will sometimes spread its wings for an instant and display the white patch; then it will close them and make a neat bow, as if to say "Is not that nice?" Its companion may remain motionless and unresponsive, or may return the compliment.
In the first days of March the bulbuls begin to breed. In 1912 the writer saw a pair of bulbuls (Otocompsa emeria) building a nest on the 3rd March. By the 10th the structure was complete and held the full clutch of three eggs. On that date a second nest was found containing three eggs.
In 1913 the writer first saw a bulbul's nest on the 5th March. This belonged to Molpastes bengalensis and contained two eggs. On the following day the full clutch of three was in the nest.
The nesting season for these birds terminates in the rains.
The common bulbuls of the plains belong to two genera—Molpastes and Otocompsa. The former is split up into a number of local species which display only small differences in appearance and interbreed freely at the places where they meet. They are known as the Madras, the Bengal, the Punjab, etc., red-vented bulbul. They are somewhat larger than sparrows. The head, which bears a short crest, and the face are black; the rest of the body, except a patch of bright red under the tail, is brown, each feather having a pale margin.
In Otocompsa the crest is long and rises to a sharp point which curves forward a little over the beak. The breast is white, set off by a black gorget. There is the usual red patch under the tail and a patch of the same hue on each side of the face, whence the English name for the bird—the red-whiskered bulbul.
Molpastes and Otocompsa have similar habits. They are feckless little birds that build cup-shaped nests in all manner of queer and exposed situations. Those that live near the habitations of Europeans nestle in low bushes in the garden, or in pot plants in the verandah. Small crotons are often selected, preferably those that do not bear a score of leaves. The sitting bulbul does not appear to mind the daily shower-bath it receives when the mali waters the plant. Sometimes as many as three or four pairs of bulbuls attempt to rear up families in one verandah. The word "attempt" is used advisedly, because, owing to the exposed situations in which nests are built, large numbers of eggs and young bulbuls are destroyed by boys, cats, snakes and other predaceous creatures. The average bulbul loses six broods for every one it succeeds in rearing. The eggs are pink with reddish markings.
March is the month in which to look for the nest of the Indian wren-warbler (Prinia inornata). Inornata is a very appropriate specific name for this tiny earth-brown bird, which is devoid of all kind of ornamentation. Its voice is as homely as its appearance—a harsh but plaintive twee, twee, twee. It weaves a nest which looks like a ragged loofah with a hole in the side. The nest is usually placed low down in a bush or in long grass. Sometimes it is attached to two or more stalks of corn. In such cases the corn is often cut before the young birds have had time to leave the nest, and then the brood perishes. This species brings up a second family in the rainy season.
The barn-owls (Strix flammea) are now breeding. They lay their eggs in cavities in trees, buildings or walls. In northern India the nesting season lasts from February to June. Eggs are most likely to be found in the United Provinces during the present month.
The various species of babblers or seven sisters begin to nest in March. Unlike bulbuls these birds are careful to conceal the nest. This is a slenderly-built, somewhat untidy cup, placed in a bush or tree. The eggs are a beautiful rich blue, without any markings.
The hawk-cuckoo, or brain-fever bird (Hierococcyx varius), to which allusion has already been made, deposits its eggs in the nests of various species of babblers. The eggs of this cuckoo are blue, but are distinguishable from those of the babbler by their larger size. It may be noted, in passing, that this cuckoo does not extend far into the Punjab.
As stated above, most of the shrikes go a-courting in March. Nest-building follows hard on courtship. In this month and in April most of the shrikes lay their eggs, but nests containing eggs or young are to be seen in May, June, July and August. Shrikes are birds of prey in miniature. Although not much larger than sparrows they are as fierce as falcons.
Their habit is to seize the quarry on the ground, after having pounced upon it from a bush or tree. Grasshoppers constitute their usual food, but they are not afraid to tackle mice or small birds.
The largest shrike is the grey species (Lanius lahtora). This is clothed mainly in grey; however, it has a broad black band running through the eye—the escutcheon of the butcher-bird clan. It begins nesting before the other species, and its eggs are often taken in February.
The other common species are the bay-backed (L. vittatus) and the rufous-backed shrike (L. erythronotus). These are smaller birds and have the back red. The former is distinguishable from the latter by having in the wings and tail much white, which is very conspicuous during flight.
The nest of each species is a massive cup, composed of twigs, thorns, grasses, feathers, and, usually, some pieces of rag; these last often hang down in a most untidy manner. The nest is, as a rule, placed in a babool or other thorny tree, close up against the trunk.
Three allies of the shrikes are likewise busy with their nests at this season. These are the wood-shrike, the minivet and the cuckoo-shrike. The wood-shrike (Tephrodornis pondicerianus) is an ashy-brown bird of the size of a sparrow with a broad white eyebrow. It frequently emits a characteristic soft, melancholy, whistling note, which Eha describes as "Be thee cheery." How impracticable are all efforts to "chain by syllables airy sounds"! The cup-like nest of this species is always carefully concealed in a tree.
Minivets are aerial exquisites. In descriptions of them superlative follows upon superlative. The cocks of most species are arrayed in scarlet and black; the hens are not a whit less brilliantly attired in yellow and sable. One species lives entirely in the plains, others visit them in the cold weather; the majority are permanent residents of the hills. The solitary denizen of the plains—the little minivet (Pericrocotus peregrinus)—is the least resplendent of them all. Its prevailing hue is slaty grey, but the cock has a red breast and some red on the back. The nest is a cup so small as either to be invisible from below or to present the appearance of a knot or thickening in the branch on which it is placed. Sometimes two broods are reared in the course of the year—one in March, April or May and the other during the rainy season.
The cuckoo-shrike (Grauculus macii) is not nearly related to the cuckoo, nor has it the parasitic habits of the latter. Its grey plumage is barred like that of the common cuckoo, hence the adjective. The cuckoo-shrike is nearly as big as a dove. It utters constantly a curious harsh call. It keeps much to the higher branches of trees in which it conceals, with great care, its saucer-like nest.
As we have seen, some coppersmiths and pied woodpeckers began nesting operations in February, but the great majority do not lay eggs until March.
The green barbet (Thereoceryx zeylonicus) and the golden-backed woodpecker (Brachypternus aurantius) are now busy excavating their nests, which are so similar to those of their respective cousins—the coppersmith and the pied woodpecker—as to require no description. It is not necessary to state that the harsh laugh, followed by the kutur, kutur, kuturuk, of the green barbet and the eternal tonk, tonk, tonk of the coppersmith are now more vehement than ever, and will continue with unabated vigour until the rains have fairly set in.
By the end of the month many of the noisy rollers have found holes in decayed trees in which the hens can lay their eggs. The vociferous nightjars likewise have laid upon the bare ground their salmon-pink eggs with strawberry-coloured markings.
The noisy spotted owlets (Athene brama) and the rose-ringed paroquets (Palaeornis torquatus) are already the happy possessors of clutches of white eggs hidden away in cavities of decayed trees or buildings.
The swifts (Cypselus indicus) also are busy with their nests. These are saucer-shaped structures, composed of feathers, straw and other materials made to adhere together, and to the beam or stone to which the nest is attached, by the glutinous saliva of the swifts. Deserted buildings, outhouses and verandahs of bungalows are the usual nesting sites of these birds. At this season swifts are very noisy. Throughout the day and at frequent intervals during the night they emit loud shivering screams. At sunset they hold high carnival, playing, at breakneck speed and to the accompaniment of much screaming, a game of "follow the man from Cook's."
The swifts are not the only birds engaged in rearing up young in our verandahs. Sparrows and doves are so employed, as are the wire-tailed swallows (Hirundo smithii). These last are steel-blue birds with red heads and white under plumage. They derive the name "wire-tailed" from the fact that the thin shafts of the outer pair of tail feathers are prolonged five inches beyond the others and look like wires. Wire-tailed swallows occasionally build in verandahs, but they prefer to attach their saucer-shaped mud nests to the arches of bridges and culverts.
With a nest in such a situation the parent birds are not obliged to go far for the mud with which the nest is made, or for the insects, caught over the surface of water, on which the offspring are fed.
The nesting season of wire-tailed swallows is a long one. According to Hume these beautiful birds breed chiefly in February and March and again in July, August and September. However, he states that he has seen eggs as early as January and as late as November. In the Himalayas he has obtained the eggs in April, May and June.
The present writer's experience does not agree with that of Hume. In Lahore, Saharanpur and Pilibhit, May and June are the months in which most nests of this species are likely to be seen. The writer has found nests with eggs or young on the following dates in the above-mentioned places: May 13th, 15th, 16th, 17th; June 6th and 28th.
The nest of June 28th was attached to a rafter of the front verandah of a bungalow at Lahore. The owner of the house stated that the swallows in question had already reared one brood that year, and that the birds in question had nested in his verandah for some years. There is no doubt that some wire-tailed swallows bring up two broods. Such would seem to breed, as Hume says, in February and March and again in July and August. But, as many nests containing eggs are found in May, some individuals appear to have one brood only, which hatches out in May or June.
Those useful but ugly fowls, the white scavenger vultures (Neophron ginginianus), depart from the ways of their brethren in that they nidificate in March and April instead of in January and February. The nest is an evil-smelling pile of sticks, rags and rubbish. It is placed on some building or in a tree.
The handsome brahminy kites (Haliastur indicus), attired in chestnut and white, are now busily occupied, either in seeking for sites or in actually building their nests, which resemble those of the common kite.
In the open plains the pipits (Anthus rufulus) and the crested larks (Galerita cristata) are keeping the nesting finch-larks company.
All three species build the same kind of nest—a cup of grass or fibres (often a deep cup in the case of the crested lark) placed on the ground in a hole or a depression, or protected by a tussock of grass or a small bush.
On the churs and sand islets in the large Indian rivers the terns are busy with their eggs, which are deposited on the bare sand. They breed in colonies. On the same islet are to be seen the eggs of the Indian river tern, the black-bellied tern, the swallow-plover, the spur-winged plover and the Indian skimmer.
The eggs of all the above species are of similar appearance, the ground colour being greenish, or buff, or the hue of stone or cream, with reddish or brownish blotches. Three is the full complement of eggs. The bare white glittering sands on which these eggs are deposited are often at noon so hot as to be painful to touch; accordingly during the daytime there is no need for the birds to sit on the eggs in order to keep them warm. Indeed, it has always been a mystery to the writer why terns' eggs laid in March in northern India do not get cooked. Mr. A. J. Currie recently came across some eggs of the black-bellied tern that had had water sprinkled over them. He is of opinion that the incubating birds treat the eggs thus in order to prevent their getting sun-baked. This theory should be borne in mind by those who visit sandbanks in March. Whether it be true or not, there is certainly no need for the adult birds to keep the eggs warm in the daytime, and they spend much of their time in wheeling gracefully overhead or in sleeping on the sand. By nightfall all the eggs are covered by parent birds, which are said to sit so closely that it is possible to catch them by means of a butterfly net. The terns, although they do not sit much on their eggs during the day, ever keep a close watch on them, so that, when a human being lands on a nest-laden sandbank, the parent birds fly round his head, uttering loud screams.
The swallow-plovers go farther. They become so excited that they flutter about on the sand, with dragging wings and limping legs, as if badly wounded. Sometimes they perform somersaults in their intense excitement. The nearer the intruder approaches their eggs the more vigorous do their antics become.
Every lover of the winged folk should make a point of visiting, late in March or early in April, an islet on which these birds nest. He will find much to interest him there. In April many of the young birds will be hatched out. A baby tern is an amusing object. It is covered with soft sand-coloured down. When a human being approaches it crouches on the sand, half burying its head in its shoulders, and remains thus perfectly motionless. If picked up it usually remains limply in the hand, so that, but for its warmth, it might be deemed lifeless. After it has been set down again on the sand, it will remain motionless until the intruder's back is turned, when it will run to the water as fast as its little legs can carry it. It swims as easily as a duck. Needless to state, the parent birds make a great noise while their young are being handled.
Birds decline to be fettered by the calendar. Many of the species which do not ordinarily nest until April or May occasionally begin operations in March, hence nests of the following species, which are dealt with next month, may occur in the present one:—the tree-pie, tailor-bird, common myna, bank-myna, brown rock-chat, brown-backed robin, pied wagtail, red-winged bush-lark, shikra, red-wattled lapwing, yellow-throated sparrow, bee-eater, blue rock-pigeon, green pigeon and grey partridge.
March the 15th marks the beginning of the close season for game birds in all the reserved forests of Northern India. This is none too soon, as some individuals begin breeding at the end of the month.
The breeze moves slow with thick perfume From every mango grove; From coral tree to parrot bloom The black bees questing rove, The koil wakes the early dawn. WATERFIELD, Indian Ballads.
The fifteenth of April marks the beginning of the "official" hot weather in the United Provinces; but the elements decline to conform to the rules of man. In the eastern and southern districts hot-weather conditions are established long before mid-April, while in the sub-Himalayan belt the temperature remains sufficiently low throughout the month to permit human beings to derive some physical enjoyment from existence. In that favoured tract the nights are usually clear and cool, so that it is very pleasant to sleep outside beneath the starry canopy of the heavens.
It requires an optimist to say good things of April days, even in the sub-Himalayan tract. Fierce scorching west winds sweep over the earth, covering everything with dust. Sometimes the flying sand is so thick as to obscure the landscape, and often, after the wind has dropped, the particles remain suspended for days as a dust haze. The dust is a scourge. It is all-pervading. It enters eyes, ears, nose and mouth. To escape it is impossible. Closed doors and windows fail to keep it from entering the bungalow. The only creatures which appear to be indifferent to it are the fowls of the air. As to the heat, the non-migratory species positively revel in it. The crows and a few other birds certainly do gasp and pant when the sun is at its height, but even they, save for a short siesta at midday, are as active in April and May as schoolboys set free from a class-room. April is the month in which the spring crops are harvested. As soon as the Holi festival is over the cultivators issue forth in thousands, armed with sickles, and begin to reap. They are almost as active as the birds, but their activity is forced and not spontaneous; like most Anglo-Indian officials they literally earn their bread by the sweat of the brow. Thanks to their unceasing labours the countryside becomes transformed during the month; that which was a sea of smiling golden-brown wheat and barley becomes a waste of short stubble.
Nature gives some compensation for the heat and the dust in the shape of mulberries, loquats, lichis and cool luscious papitas and melons which ripen in March or April. The mango blossom becomes transfigured into fruit, which, by the end of the month, is as large as an egg, and will be ready for gathering in the latter half of May.
Many trees are in flower. The coral, the silk-cotton and the dhak are resplendent with red foliage. The jhaman, the siris and the mohwa are likewise in bloom and, ere the close of the month, the amaltas or Indian laburnum will put forth its bright yellow flowers in great profusion. Throughout April the air is heavy with the scent of blossoms. The shesham, the sal, the pipal and the nim are vivid with fresh foliage. But notwithstanding all this galaxy of colour, notwithstanding the brightness of the sun and the blueness of the sky, the countryside lacks the sweetness that Englishmen associate with springtime, because the majority of the trees, being evergreen, do not renew their clothing completely at this season, and the foliage is everywhere more or less obscured by the all-pervading dust.
The great avian emigration, which began in March, now reaches its height. During the warm April nights millions of birds leave the plains of India. The few geese remaining at the close of March, depart in the first days of April.
The brahminy ducks, which during the winter months were scattered in twos and threes over the lakes and rivers of Northern India, collect into flocks that migrate, one by one, to cooler climes, so that, by the end of the first week in May, the a-onk of these birds is no longer heard. The mallard, gadwall, widgeon, pintail, the various species of pochard and the common teal are rapidly disappearing. With April duck-shooting ends. Of the migratory species only a few shovellers and garganey teal tarry till May.
The snipe and the quail are likewise flighting towards their breeding grounds. Thus on the 1st of May the avian population of India is less by many millions than it was at the beginning of April. But the birds that remain behind more than compensate us, by their great activity, for the loss of those that have departed. There is more to interest the ornithologist in April than there was in January.
The bird chorus is now at its best. The magpie-robin is in full song. At earliest dawn he takes up a position on the topmost bough of a tree and pours forth his melody in a continuous stream. His varied notes are bright and joyous. Its voice is of wide compass and very powerful; were it a little softer in tone it would rival that of the nightingale. The magpie-robin is comparatively silent at noonday, but from sunset until dusk he sings continuously.
Throughout April the little cock sunbirds deliver themselves of their vigorous canary-like song. The bulbuls tinkle as blithely as ever. Ioras, pied wagtails, pied chats, and wood-shrikes continue to contribute their not unworthy items to the minstrelsy of the Indian countryside. The robins, having by now found their true notes, are singing sweetly and softly. The white-eyes are no longer content to utter their usual cheeping call, the cocks give vent to an exquisite warble and thereby proclaim the advent of the nesting season. The towee, towee, towee, of the tailor-bird, more penetrating than melodious, grows daily more vigorous, reminding us that we may now hopefully search for his nest. Among the less pleasing sounds that fill the welkin are the tonk, tonk, tonk of the coppersmith, the kutur, kutur, kuturuk of the green barbet, and the calls of the various cuckoos that summer in the plains of Northern India. The calls of these cuckoos, although frequently heard in April, are uttered more continuously in May, accordingly they are described in the calendar for that month.
The owls, of course, lift up their voices, particularly on moonlight nights. The nightjars are as vociferous as they were in March; their breeding season is now at its height.
In the hills the woods resound with the cheerful double note of the European cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). This bird is occasionally heard in the plains of the Punjab in April, and again from July to September, when it no longer calls in the Himalayas. This fact, coupled with the records of the presence of the European cuckoo in Central India in June and July, lends support to the theory that the birds which enliven the Himalayas in spring go south in July and winter in the Central Provinces. Cuckoos, at seasons when they are silent, are apt to be overlooked, or mistaken for shikras.
Ornithologists stationed in Central India will render a service to science if they keep a sharp look-out for European cuckoos and record the results of their observations. In this way alone can the above theory be proved or disproved.
By the middle of the month most of the rollers have settled down to domestic duties, and in consequence are less noisy than they were when courting. Their irritating grating cries are now largely replaced by harsh tshocks of delight, each tshock being accompanied by a decisive movement of the tail. The cause of these interjections expressing delight is a clutch of white eggs or a brood of young birds, hidden in a hole in a tree or a building.
April is a month in which the pulse of bird life beats very vigorously in India. He who, braving the heat, watches closely the doings of the feathered folk will be rewarded by the discovery of at least thirty different kinds of nests. Hence, it is evident that the calendar for this month, unless it is to attain very large dimensions, must be a mere catalogue of nesting species. The compiler of the calendar has to face an embarrass de richesses.
Of the common species that build in March and the previous months the following are likely to be found with eggs or young—the jungle crows, sunbirds, doves, pied and golden-backed woodpeckers, coppersmiths, hoopoes, common and brahminy kites, bulbuls, shrikes, little minivets, fantail flycatchers, wire-tailed swallows, paroquets, spotted owlets, swifts, scavenger vultures, red-headed merlins, skylarks, crested larks, pipits, babblers, sand-martins, cliff-swallows, nuthatches, white-eyed buzzards, kites, black vultures, pied and white-breasted kingfishers, finch-larks, Indian wren-warblers, wood-shrikes, cuckoo-shrikes, green barbets, tawny eagles, and the terns and the other birds that nest on islets in rivers. Here and there may be seen a white-backed vulture's nest containing a young bird nearly ready to fly.
Towards the middle of the month the long-tailed tree-pies (Dendrocitta rufa), which are nothing else than coloured crows, begin nest-building. They are to be numbered among the commonest birds in India, nevertheless their large open nests are rarely seen. The explanation of this phenomenon appears to be the fact that the nest is well concealed high up in a tree. Moreover, the pie, possessing a powerful beak which commands respect, is not obliged constantly to defend its home after the manner of small or excitable birds, and thus attract attention to it.
Fortunately for the tree-pie the kites and crows do not worry it. The shikra (Astur badius) and the white-eyed buzzard (Butastur teesa), which are now engaged in nest-building, are not so fortunate. The crows regard them as fair game, hence their nest-building season is a time of sturm und drang. They, in common with all diurnal birds of prey, build untidy nests in trees—mere conglomerations of sticks, devoid of any kind of architectural merit. The blue rock-pigeons (Columba intermedia) are busily prospecting for nesting sites. In some parts of India, especially in the Muttra and Fatehgarh districts, these birds nest chiefly in holes in wells. More often than not a stone thrown into a well in such a locality causes at least one pigeon to fly out of the well. In other places in India these birds build by preference on a ledge or a cornice inside some large building. They often breed in colonies. At Dig in Rajputana, where they are sacred in the eyes of Hindus, thousands of them nest in the fort, and, as Hume remarks, a gun fired in the moat towards evening raises a dense cloud of pigeons, "obscuring utterly the waning day and deafening one with the mighty rushing sound of countless strong and rapidly-plied pinions." According to Hume the breeding season for these birds in Upper India lasts from Christmas to May day. The experience of the writer is that April, May and June are the months in which to look for their nests. However, in justice to Hume, it must be said that recently Mr. A. J. Currie found a nest, containing eggs, in February.
In April the green pigeons pair and build slender cradles, high up in mango trees, in which two white eggs are laid.
The songster of the house-top—the brown rock-chat (Cercomela fusca)—makes sweet music throughout the month for the benefit of his spouse, who is incubating four pretty pale-blue eggs in a nest built on a ledge in an outhouse or on the sill of a clerestory window. This bird, which is thought by some to be a near relative of the sparrow of the Scriptures, is clothed in plain brown and seems to suffer from St. Vitus' dance in the tail. Doubtless it is often mistaken for a hen robin. For this mistake there is no excuse, because the rock-chat lacks the brick-red patch under the tail.
April is the month in which to look for two exquisite little nests—those of the white-eye (Zosterops palpebrosa) and the iora (Aegithina tiphia). White-eyes are minute greenish-yellow birds with a conspicuous ring of white feathers round the eye. They go about in flocks. Each individual utters unceasingly a plaintive cheeping note by means of which it keeps its fellows apprised of its whereabouts. At the breeding season, that is to say in April and May, the cock sings an exceedingly sweet, but very soft, lay of six or seven notes. The nest is a cup, about 2-1/2 inches in diameter and 3/4 of an inch in depth. It is usually suspended, like a hammock, from the fork of a branch; sometimes it is attached to the end of a single bough; it then looks like a ladle, the bough being the handle. It is composed of cobweb, roots, hair and other soft materials. Three or four tiny pale-blue eggs are laid.
The iora is a feathered exquisite, about the size of a tomtit. The cock is arrayed in green, black and gold; his mate is gowned in green and yellow.
The iora has a great variety of calls, of these a soft and rather plaintive long-drawn-out whistle is uttered most frequently in April and May.
In shape and size the nest resembles an after-dinner coffee cup. It is beautifully woven, and, like those of the white-eye and fantail flycatcher, covered with cobweb; this gives it a very neat appearance. In it are laid two or three eggs of salmon hue with reddish-brown and purple-grey blotches.
Throughout April the sprightly tailor-birds are busy with their nests. The tailor-bird (Orthotomus sutorius) is a wren with a long tail. In the breeding season the two median caudal feathers of the cock project as bristles beyond the others. The nest is a wonderful structure. Having selected a suitable place, which may be a bush in a garden or a pot plant in a verandah, the hen tailor-bird proceeds to make, with her sharp bill, a series of punctures along the margins of one or more leaves. The punctured edges are then drawn together, by means of strands of cobweb, to form a purse or pocket. When this has been done the frail bands of cobweb, which hold the edges of the leaves in situ, are strengthened by threads of cotton. Lastly, the purse is cosily lined with silk-cotton down or other soft material. Into the cradle, thus formed, three or four white eggs, speckled with red, find their way.
In April cavities in trees and buildings suitable for nesting purposes are at a premium owing to the requirements of magpie-robins, brahminy mynas, common mynas, yellow-throated sparrows and rollers. Not uncommonly three or four pairs of birds nest in one weather-beaten old tree.
Bank-mynas, white-breasted kingfishers, bee-eaters and a few belated sand-martins are nesting in sandbanks in cavities which they themselves have excavated. The nests of the kingfisher and the sand-martin have already been described, that of the bank-myna belongs to May rather than to April.
Bee-eaters working at the nest present a pleasing spectacle. The sexes excavate turn about. The site chosen may be a bunker on the golf links, the butts on the rifle range, a low mud boundary between two fields, or any kind of bank. The sharp claws of the bee-eaters enable the birds to obtain a foothold on an almost vertical surface; this foothold is strengthened by the tail which, being stiff, acts as a third leg. In a surprisingly short time a cavity large enough to conceal the bird completely is formed. The bee-eater utilises the bill as pickaxe and the feet as ejectors. The little clouds of sand that issue at short intervals from each cavity afford evidence of the efficacy of these implements and the industry of those that use them.
Two of the most charming birds in India are now occupied with family cares. These are both black-and-white birds—the magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) and the pied wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis). The former has already been noticed as the best songster in the plains of India. The pattern of its plumage resembles that of the common magpie; this explains its English name. The hen is grey where the cock is black, otherwise there is no external difference between the sexes. For some weeks the cock has been singing lustily, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. In April he begins his courtship. His display is a simple affair—mere tail-play; the tail is expanded into a fan, so as to show the white outer feathers, then it is either raised and lowered alternately, or merely held depressed. Normally the tail is carried almost vertically. The nest is invariably placed in a cavity of a tree or a building.
The pied wagtail always nests near water. If not on the ground, the nursery rests on some structure built by man.
A visit to a bridge of boats in April is sure to reveal a nest of this charming bird. Hume records a case of a pair of pied wagtails nesting in a ferry-boat. This, it is true, was seldom used, but did occasionally cross the Jumna. On such occasions the hen would continue to sit, while the cock stood on the gunwale, pouring forth his sweet song, and made, from time to time, little sallies over the water after a flying gnat. Mr. A. J. Currie found at Lahore a nest of these wagtails in a ferry-boat in daily use; so that the birds must have selected the site and built the nest while the boat was passing to and fro across the river!
Yet another black-and-white bird nests in April. This is the pied bush-chat (Pratincola caprata). The cock is black all over, save for a white patch on the rump and a bar of white in the wing. He delights to sit on a telegraph wire or a stem of elephant grass and there make cheerful melody. The hen is a dull reddish-grey bird. The nest is usually placed in a hole in the ground or a bank or a wall, sometimes it is wedged into a tussock of grass.
Allied to the magpie-robin and the pied bush-chat is the familiar Indian robin (Thamnobia cambayensis), which, like its relatives, is now engaged in nesting operations. This species constructs its cup-shaped nest in all manner of strange places. Spaces in stacks of bricks, holes in the ground or in buildings, and window-sills are held in high esteem as nesting sites. The eggs are not easy to describe because they display great variation. The commonest type has a pale green shell, speckled with reddish-brown spots, which are most densely distributed at the thick end of the egg.