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The breeze moves slow with thick perfume
From every mango grove;
The black bees questing rove,
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 2½ inches in diameter and ¾ 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.
Many of the grey partridges (Francolinus pondicerianus) are now nesting. This species is somewhat erratic in respect of its breeding season. Eggs have been taken in February, March, April, May, June, September, October, and November. The April eggs, however, outnumber those of all the other months put together. The nest is a shallow depression in the ground, lined with grass, usually under a bush. From six to nine cream-coloured eggs are laid.
Another bird which is now incubating eggs on the ground is the did-he-do-it or red-wattled lapwing (Sarcogrammus indicus). The curious call, from which this plover derives its popular name, is familiar to every resident in India. This species nests between March and August. The 122 eggs in the possession of Hume were taken, 12 in March, 46 in April, 24 in May, 26 in June, 4 in July, and 8 in August. Generally in a slight depression on the ground, occasionally on the ballast of a rail-road, four pegtop-shaped eggs are laid; these are, invariably, placed in the form of a cross, so that they touch each other at their thin ends. They are coloured like those of the common plover. The yellow-wattled lapwing (Sarciophorus malabaricus), which resembles its cousin in manners and appearance, nests in April, May and June.
The nesting season of the various species of sand-grouse that breed in India is now beginning. These birds, like lapwings, lay their eggs on the ground.
In April one may come across an occasional nest of the pied starling, the king-crow, the paradise flycatcher, the grey hornbill, and the oriole, but these are exceptions. The birds in question do not as a rule begin to nest until May, and their doings accordingly are chronicled in the calendar for that month.