Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
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.