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And all the jungle laughed with nesting songs,
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°, 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°. 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° than 90° 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.