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Alas! creative nature calls to light
Myriads of winged forms in sportive flight,
When gathered clouds with ceaseless fury pour
A constant deluge in the rushing shower.
Calcutta: A Poem.
In July India becomes a theatre in which Nature stages a mighty transformation scene. The prospect changes with kaleidoscopic rapidity. The green water-logged earth is for a time overhung by dull leaden clouds; this sombre picture melts away into one, even more dismal, in which the rain pours down in torrents, enveloping everything in mist and moisture. Suddenly the sun blazes forth with indescribable brilliance and shines through an atmosphere, clear as crystal, from which every particle of dust has been washed away. Fleecy clouds sail majestically across the vaulted firmament. Then follows a gorgeous sunset in which changing colours run riot through sky and clouds—pearly grey, jet black, dark dun, pale lavender, deep mauve, rich carmine, and brightest gold. These colours fade away into the darkness of the night; the stars then peep forth and twinkle brightly. At the approach of "rosy-fingered" dawn their lights go out, one by one. Then blue tints appear in the firmament which deepen into azure. The glory of the ultramarine sky does not remain long without alloy: clouds soon appear. So the scene ever changes, hour by hour and day by day. Had the human being who passes July in the plains but one window to the soul and that the eye, the month would be one of pure joy, a month spent in the contemplation of splendid dawns, brilliant days, the rich green mantle of the earth, the majesty of approaching thunderclouds, and superb sunsets. But, alas, July is not a month of unalloyed pleasure. The temperature is tolerably low while the rain is actually falling; but the moment this ceases the European is subjected to the acute physical discomforts engendered by the hot, steamy, oppressive atmosphere, the ferocity of the sun's rays, and the teasing of thousands of biting and buzzing insects which the monsoon calls into being. Termites, crickets, red-bugs, stink-bugs, horseflies, mosquitoes, beetles and diptera of all shapes and sizes arise in millions as if spontaneously generated. Many of these are creatures of the night. Although born in darkness all seem to strive after light. Myriads of them collect round every burning lamp in the open air, to the great annoyance of the human being who attempts to read out of doors after dark. The spotted owlets, the toads and the lizards, however, take a different view of the invasion and partake eagerly of the rich feast provided for them. Notwithstanding the existence of chiks, or gauze doors, the hexapods crowd into the lighted bungalow, where every illumination soon becomes the centre of a collection of the bodies of the insects that have been burned by the flame, or scorched by the lamp chimney. Well is it for the rest of creation that most of these insects are short-lived. The span of life of many is but a day: were it much longer human beings could hardly manage to exist during the rains. Equally unbearable would life be were all the species of monsoon insects to come into being simultaneously. Fortunately they appear in relays. Every day some new forms enter on the stage of life and several make their exit. The pageant of insect life, then, is an ever-changing one. To-day one species predominates, to-morrow another, and the day after a third. Unpleasant and irritating though these insect hosts be to human beings, some pleasure is to be derived from watching them. Especially is this the case when the termites or white-ants swarm. In the damp parts of Lower Bengal these creatures may emerge at any time of the year. In Calcutta they swarm either towards the close of the rainy season or in spring after an exceptionally heavy thunderstorm. In Madras they emerge from their hiding-places in October with the northeast monsoon. In the United Provinces the winged termites appear after the first fall of the monsoon rain in June or July as the case may be. These succulent creatures provide a feast for the birds which is only equalled by that furnished by a flight of locusts. In the case of the termites it is not only the birds that partake. The ever-vigilant crows are of course the first to notice a swarm of termites, and they lose no time in setting to work. The kites are not far behind them. These great birds sail on the outskirts of the flight, seizing individuals with their claws and transferring them to the beak while on the wing. A few king-crows and bee-eaters join them. On the ground below magpie-robins, babblers, toads, lizards, musk-rats and other terrestrial creatures make merry. If the swarm comes out at dusk, as often happens, bats and spotted owlets join those of the gourmands that are feasting while on the wing.
The earth is now green and sweet. The sugar-cane grows apace. The rice, the various millets and the other autumn crops are being sown. The cultivators take full advantage of every break in the rains to conduct agricultural operations.
As we have seen, the nocturnal chorus of the birds is now replaced by the croaking of frogs and the stridulation of crickets. In the day-time the birds still have plenty to say for themselves. The brain-fever birds scream as lustily as they did in May and June. The koel is, if possible, more vociferous than ever, especially at the beginning of the month. The Indian cuckoo does not call so frequently as formerly, but, by way of compensation, the pied crested cuckoo uplifts his voice at short intervals.
The whoot, whoot, whoot of the crow-pheasant booms from almost every thicket. The iora, the coppersmith, the barbet, the golden-backed woodpecker, and the white-breasted kingfisher continue to call merrily. The pied starlings are in full voice; their notes form a very pleasing addition to the avian chorus. Those magpie-robins that have not brought nesting operations to a close are singing vigorously. The king-crows are feeding their young ones in the greenwood tree, and crooning softly to them pitchu-wee. At the jhils the various waterfowl are nesting and each one proclaims the fact by its allotted call. Much strange music emanates from the well-filled tank; the indescribable cries of the purple coots, the curious "fixed bayonets" of the cotton teal and the weird cat-like mews of the jacanas form the dominant notes of the aquatic symphony.
In July the black-breasted or rain-quail (Coturnix coromandelica) is plentiful in India. Much remains to be discovered regarding the movements of this species. It appears to migrate to Bengal, the United Provinces, the Punjab and Sind shortly before the monsoon bursts, but it is said to arrive in Nepal as early as April. It would seem to winter in South India. It is a smaller bird than the ordinary grey quail and has no pale cross-bars on the primary wing feathers. The males of this species are held in high esteem by Indians as fighting birds. Large numbers of them are netted in the same way as the grey quail. Some captive birds are set down in a covered cage by a sugar-cane field in the evening. Their calls attract a number of wild birds, which settle down in the sugar-cane in order to spend the day there. At dawn a net is quietly stretched across one end of the field. A rope is then slowly dragged along over the growing crop in the direction of the net. This sends all the quail into the net.
Very fair sport may be obtained in July by shooting rain-quail that have been attracted by call birds.
July marks the end of one breeding season and the beginning of another. As regards the nesting season, birds fall into four classes. There is the very large class that nests in spring and summer. Next in importance is the not inconsiderable body that rears up its broods in the rains when the food supply is most abundant. Then comes the small company that builds nests in the pleasant winter time. Lastly there are the perennials—such birds as the sparrow and the dove, which nest at all seasons. In the present month the last of the summer nesting birds close operations for the year, and the monsoon birds begin to lay their eggs. July is therefore a favourable month for bird-nesting. Moreover, the sun is sometimes obscured by cloud and, under such conditions, a human being is able to remain out of doors throughout the day without suffering much physical discomfort.
With July ends the normal breeding season of the tree-pies, white-eyes, ioras; king-crows, bank-mynas, paradise flycatchers, brown rock-chats, Indian robins, dhayals, red-winged bush-larks, sunbirds, rollers, swifts, green pigeons, lapwings and butcher-birds.
The paradise flycatchers leave Northern India and migrate southwards a few weeks after the young birds have left the nest.
Numbers of bulbuls' nests are likely to be found in July, but the breeding time of these birds is rapidly drawing to its close. Sparrows and doves are of course engaged in parental duties; their eggs have been taken in every month of the year.
The nesting season is now at its height for the white-necked storks, the koels and their dupes—the house-crows, also for the various babblers and their deceivers—the brain-fever birds and the pied crested cuckoos. The tailor-birds, the ashy and the Indian wren-warblers, the brahminy mynas, the wire-tailed swallows, the amadavats, the sirkeer cuckoos, the pea-fowl, the water-hens, the common and the pied mynas, the cuckoo-shrikes and the orioles are all fully occupied with nursery duties. The earliest of the brain-fever birds to be hatched have left the nest. Like all its family the young hawk-cuckoo has a healthy appetite. In order to satisfy it the unfortunate foster-parents have to work like slaves, and often must they wonder why nature has given them so voracious a child. When it sees a babbler approaching with food, the cuckoo cries out and flaps its wings vigorously. Sometimes these completely envelop the parent bird while it is thrusting food into the yellow mouth of the cuckoo. The breast of the newly-fledged brain-fever bird is covered with dark brown drops, so that, when seen from below, it looks like a thrush with yellow legs. Its cries, however, are not at all thrushlike.
Many of the wire-tailed swallows, minivets and white-browed fantail flycatchers bring up a second brood during the rains. The loud cheerful call of the last is heard very frequently in July.
Numbers of young bee-eaters are to be seen hawking at insects; they are distinguishable from adults by the dullness of the plumage and the fact that the median tail feathers are not prolonged as bristles.
Very few crows emerge from the egg before the 1st of July, but, during the last week in June, numbers of baby koels are hatched out. The period of incubation for the koel's egg is shorter than that of the crow, hence at the outset the baby koel steals a march on his foster-brothers. Koel nestlings, when they first emerge from the egg, differ greatly in appearance from baby crows. The skin of the koel is black, that of crow is pink for the first two days of its existence, but it grows darker rapidly. The baby crow is the bigger bird and has a larger mouth with fleshy sides. The sides of the mouth of the young koel are not fleshy. The neck of the crow nestling is long and the head hangs down, whereas the koel's neck is short and the bird carries its head huddled in its shoulders. Crows nest high up in trees, these facts are therefore best observed by sending up an expert climber with a tin half-full of sawdust to which a long string is attached. The climber lets down the eggs or nestlings in the tin and the observer can examine them in comfort on terra firma. The parent crows do not appear to notice how unlike the young koels are to their own nestlings, for they feed them most assiduously and make a great uproar when the koels are taken from the nest. Baby crows are noisy creatures; koels are quiet and timid at first, but become noisier as they grow older.
The feathers of crow nestlings are black in each sex. Young koels fall into three classes: those of which the feathers are all black, those of which a few feathers have white or reddish tips, those which are speckled black and white all over because each feather has a white tip. The two former appear to be young cocks and the last to be hens. Baby koels, in addition to hatching out before their foster-brethren, develop more quickly, so that they leave the nest fully a week in advance of the young corvi. After vacating the nest they squat for some days on a branch close by; numbers of them are to be seen thus in suitable localities towards the end of July. At first the call of the koel is a squeak, but later it takes the form of a creditable, if ludicrous, attempt at a caw. The young cuckoo does not seem to be able to distinguish its foster-parents from other crows; it clamours for food whenever any crow comes near it.
Of the scenes characteristic of the rains in India none is more pleasing than that presented by a colony of nest-building bayas or weaver-birds (Ploceus baya). These birds build in company. Sometimes more than twenty of their wonderful retort-like nests are to be seen in one tree. This means that more than forty birds are at work, and, as each of these indulges in much cheerful twittering, the tree in question presents an animated scene. Both sexes take part in nest-construction.
Having selected the branch of a tree from which the nest will hang, the birds proceed to collect material. Each completed nest contains many yards of fibre not much thicker than stout thread. Such material is not found in quantity in nature. The bayas have, therefore, to manufacture it. This is easily done. The building weaver-bird betakes itself to a clump of elephant-grass, and, perching on one of the blades, makes a notch in another near the base. Then, grasping with its beak the edge of this blade above the notch, the baya flies away and thus strips off a narrow strand. Sometimes the strand adheres to the main part of the blade at the tip so firmly that the force of the flying baya is not sufficient to sever it. The bird then swings for a few seconds in mid-air, suspended by the strip of leaf. Not in the least daunted the baya makes a fresh effort and flies off, still gripping the strand firmly. At the third, if not at the second attempt, the thin strip is completely severed. Having secured its prize the weaver-bird proceeds to tear off one or two more strands and then flies with these in its bill to the nesting site, uttering cries of delight. The fibres obtained in this manner are bound round the branch from which the nest will hang. More strands are added to form a stalk; when this has attained a length of several inches it is gradually expanded in the form of an umbrella or bell. The next step is to weave a band of grass across the mouth of the bell. In this condition the nest is often left unfinished. Indians call such incomplete nests jhulas or swings; they assert that these are made in order that the cocks may sit in them and sing to their mates while these are incubating the eggs. It may be, as "Eha" suggests, that at this stage the birds are dissatisfied with the balance of the nest and for this reason leave it. If the nest, at this point of its construction, please the weaver-birds they proceed to finish it by closing up the bell at one side of the cross-band to form a receptacle for the eggs, and prolonging the other half of the bell into a long tunnel or neck. This neck forms the entrance to the nest; towards its extremity it becomes very flimsy so that it affords no foothold to an enemy. Nearly every baya's nest contains some lumps of clay attached to it. Jerdon was of opinion that the function of these is to balance the nest properly. Indians state that the bird sticks fireflies into the lumps of clay to light up the nest at night. This story has found its way into some ornithological text-books. There is no truth in it. The present writer is inclined to think that the object of these lumps of clay is to prevent the light loofah-like nest swinging too violently in a gale of wind.
Both sexes take part in nest-construction. After the formation of the cross-bar at the mouth of the bell one of the birds sits inside and the other outside, and they pass the strands to each other and thus the weaving proceeds rapidly. While working at the nest the bayas, more especially the cocks, are in a most excited state. They sing, scream, flap their wings and snap the bill. Sometimes one cock in his excitement attacks a neighbour by jumping on his back! This results in a fight in which the birds flutter in the air, pecking at one another. Often the combatants "close" for a few seconds, but neither bird seems to get hurt in these little contests.
Every bird-lover should make a point of watching a company of weaver-birds while these are constructing their nests. The tree or trees in which they build can easily be located by sending a servant in July to search for them. The favourite sites for nests in the United Provinces seem to be babul trees that grow near borrow pits alongside the railroad.
In the rainy season two other birds weave nests, which are nearly as elegant as those woven by the baya. These birds, however, do not nest in company. They usually build inside bushes, or in long grass.
For this reason they do not lend themselves to observation while at work so readily as bayas do. The birds in question are the Indian and the ashy wren-warbler.
The former species brings up two broods in the year. One, as has been mentioned, in March and the other in the "rains."
The nest of the Indian wren-warbler (Prinia inornata) is, except for its shape and its smaller size, very like that of a weaver-bird. It is an elongated purse or pocket, closely and compactly woven with fine strips of grass from 1/40 to 1/20 inch in breadth. The nest is entered by a hole near the top. Both birds work at the nest, clinging first to the neighbouring stems of grass or twigs, and later to the nest itself when this has attained sufficient dimensions to afford them foothold. They push the ends of the grass in and out just as weaver-birds do. Like the baya, the Indian wren-warbler does not line its nest. The eggs are pale greenish-blue, richly marked by various shades of deep chocolate and reddish-brown. As Hume remarks: "nothing can exceed the beauty or variety of markings, which are a combination of bold blotches, clouds and spots, with delicate, intricately woven lines, recalling somewhat ... those of our early favourite—the yellow-hammer."
The ashy wren-warbler (Prinia socialis) builds two distinct kinds of nest. One is just like that of the tailor-bird, being formed by sewing or cobbling together two, three, four or five leaves, and lining the cup thus formed with down, wool, cotton or other soft material. The second kind of nest is a woven one. This is a hollow ball with a hole in the side. The weaving is not so neat as that of the baya and the Indian wren-warbler. Moreover, several kinds of material are usually worked into the nest, which is invariably lined.
The building of two totally different types of nest is an interesting phenomenon, and seems to indicate that under the name Prinia socialis are classed two different species, which anatomically are so like one another that systematists are unable to separate them. Both kinds of nests are found in the same locality and at the same time of the year. Against the theory that there are two species of ashy wren-warbler is the fact that there is no difference in appearance between the eggs found in the two kinds of nest. All eggs are brick-red or mahogany colour, without any spots or markings.
Many of the Indian cliff-swallows, of which the nests are described in the calendar for March, bring up a second brood in the "rains."
Needless to state that in the monsoon the tank and the jhil are the happy hunting grounds of the ornithologist.
In July and August not less than thirty species of waterfowl nidificate. Floating nests are constructed by sarus cranes, purple coots and the jacanas. The various species of egrets breed in colonies in trees in some village not far from a tank; in company with them spoonbills, cormorants, snake-birds, night-herons and other birds often nest. The white-breasted waterhen constructs its nursery in a thicket at the margin of some village pond. The resident ducks are also busy with their nests. These are in branches of trees, in holes in trees or old buildings, or on the ground.
When describing the nesting operations of waterfowl in Northern India it is difficult to apportion these between July and August, for the eggs of almost all such species are as likely to be found in the one month as in the other. A few individuals begin to lay in June, the majority commence in July, but a great many defer operations until August. There is scarcely an aquatic species of which it can be said: "It never lays before August." Nor are there many of which it can be asserted: "Their eggs are never found after July."
Individuals differ in their habit. A retarded monsoon means that the water-birds begin to nest later than usual. The first fall of the monsoon rain seems to be the signal for the commencement of nesting operations, but by no means every pair of birds obeys the signal immediately.
The nearest approach to a generalisation which it is possible to make is that the egrets and paddy-birds are usually the first of the monsoon breeders to begin nest-building, while the spot-billed duck, the whistling teal and the bronze-winged jacana are the last. In other words, the eggs of the former are most likely to be found in July and those of the latter in August.
As the calendar for this month has already attained considerable dimensions, a description of the nests of all these water-birds is given in the August calendar. It is, however, necessary to state that the eggs of the following birds are likely to be found in July: purple coot, common coot, bronze-winged and pheasant-tailed jacana, black ibis, white-necked stork, cormorant, snake-bird, cotton teal, comb duck, spot-billed duck, spoonbill, and the various herons and egrets.