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A Bird Calendar for Northern India
Up—let us to the fields away,
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° 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° 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.