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It is the very carnival of nature,
The loveliest season that the year can show!
* * * * *
The gently sighing breezes, as they blow,
Have more than vernal softness. . . .
The climate of Northern India is one of extremes. Six months ago European residents were seeking in vain suitable epithets of disapprobation to apply to the weather; to-day they are trying to discover appropriate words to describe the charm of November. It is indeed strange that no poet has yet sung the praises of the perfect climate of the present month.
The cold weather of Northern India is not like any of the English seasons. Expressed in terms of the British climate it is a dry summer, warmest at the beginning and the end, in which the birds have forgotten to nest.
The delights of the Indian winter are enhanced for the Englishman by the knowledge that, while he lives beneath a cloudless sky and enjoys genial sunshine, his fellow-men in England dwell under leaden clouds and endure days of fog, and mist, and rain, and sleet, and snow. In England the fields are bare and the trees devoid of leaves; in India the countryside wears a summer aspect.
The sowings of the spring cereals are complete by the fifteenth of November; those of the tobacco, poppy and potato continue throughout the month. By the beginning of December most of the fields are covered by an emerald carpet.
The picking of the cotton begins in the latter part of October, with the result that November is a month of hard toil for the ponies that have to carry the heavy loads of cotton from the fields into the larger towns. By the middle of the month all the san has been cut and the water-nuts have been gathered in. Then the pressing of the sugar-cane begins in earnest. The little presses that for eight months have been idle are once again brought into use, and, from mid-November until the end of January, the patient village oxen work them, tramping in circles almost without interruption throughout the short hours of daylight.
The custard-apples are ripening; the cork trees are white with pendent jasmine-like flowers, and the loquat trees—the happy hunting ground of flocks of blithe little white-eyes—put forth their inconspicuous but strongly scented blossoms. Gay chrysanthemums are the most conspicuous feature of the garden. The shesham and the silk-cotton trees are fast losing their leaves, but all the other trees are covered with foliage.
The birds revel, like man, in the perfect conditions afforded by the Indian winter; indeed, the fowls of the air are affected by climate to a greater extent than man is.
Those that winter in England suffer considerable hardship and privation, while those that spend the cold weather in India enjoy life to the uttermost.
Consider the birds, how they fare on a winter's day in England when there is a foot of snow lying on the ground and the keen east wind whistles through the branches of the trees. In the lee of brick walls, hayricks and thick hedges groups of disconsolate birds stand, seeking some shelter from the piercing wind. The hawthorn berries have all been eaten. Insect food there is none; it is only in the summer time that the comfortable hum of insects is heard in England. Thus the ordinary food supply of the fowls of the air is greatly restricted, and scores of field-fares and other birds die of starvation. The snow-covered lawn in front of every house, of which the inmates are in the habit of feeding the birds, is the resort of many feathered things. Along with the robins and sparrows—habitual recipients of the alms of man—are blackbirds, thrushes, tits, starlings, chaffinches, rooks, jackdaws and others, which in fair weather avoid, or scorn to notice, man. These have become tamed by the cold, and, they stand on the snow, cold, forlorn and half-starved—a miserable company of supplicants for food. Throughout the short cold winter days scarcely a bird note is heard; the fowls of the air are in no mood for song.
Contrast the behaviour of the birds on a winter's day in India. In every garden scores of them lead a joyful existence. Little flocks of minivets display their painted wings as they flit hither and thither, hunting insects on the leaves of trees. Amid the foliage warblers, wood-shrikes, bulbuls, tree-pies, orioles and white-eyes busily seek for food. Pied and golden-backed woodpeckers, companies of nuthatches, and, here and there, a wryneck move about on the trunks and branches, looking into every cranny for insects. King-crows, bee-eaters, fantail and grey-headed flycatchers seek their quarry on the wing, making frequent sallies into the open from their leafy bowers. Butcher-birds, rollers and white-breasted kingfishers secure their victims on the ground, dropping on to them silently from their watchtowers. Magpie-robins, Indian robins, redstarts and tailor-birds likewise capture their prey on the ground, but, instead of waiting patiently for it to come to them, they hop about fussily in quest of it. Bright sunbirds flit from bloom to bloom, now hovering in the air on rapidly-vibrating wings, now dipping their slender curved bills into the calyces.
On the lawn wagtails run nimbly in search of tiny insects, hoopoes probe the earth for grubs, mynas strut about, in company with king-crows and starlings, seeking for grasshoppers.
Overhead, swifts and swallows dash joyously to and fro, feasting on the minute flying things that are found in the air even on the coolest days. Above them, kites wheel and utter plaintive cries. Higher still, vultures soar in grim silence. Flocks of emerald paroquets fly past—as swift as arrows shot from bows—seeking grain or fruit.
In the shady parts of the garden crow-pheasants look for snakes and other crawling things, seven sisters rummage among the fallen leaves for insects, and rose-finches pick from off the ground the tiny seeds on which they feed.
The fields and open plains swarm with larks, pipits, finch-larks, lapwings, plovers, quail, buntings, mynas, crows, harriers, buzzards, kestrels, and a score of other birds.
But it is at the jhils that bird life seems most abundant. On some tanks as many as sixty different kinds of winged things may be counted. There are the birds that swim in the deep water—the ducks, teal, dabchicks, cormorants and snake-birds; the birds that run about on the floating leaves of water-lilies and other aquatic plants—the jacanas, water-pheasants and wagtails; the birds that wade in the shallow water and feed on frogs or creatures that lurk hidden in the mud—the herons, paddy-birds, storks, cranes, pelicans, whimbrels, curlews, ibises and spoonbills; the birds that live among sedges and reeds—the snipe, reed-warblers, purple coots and water-rails. Then there are the birds that fly overhead—the great kite-like ospreys that frequently check their flight to drop into the water with a big splash, in order to secure a fish; the kingfishers that dive so neatly as barely to disturb the smooth surface of the lake when they enter and leave it; the graceful terns that pick their food off the face of the jhil; the swifts and swallows that feed on the insects which always hover over still water.
Go where we will, be it to the sun-steeped garden, the shady mango grove, the dusty road, the grassy plain, the fallow field, or among the growing crops, there do we find bird life in abundance and food in plenty to support it.
This is not the breeding season, therefore the bird choir is not at its best, nevertheless the feathered folk everywhere proclaim the pleasure of existence by making a joyful noise. From the crowded jhil emanate the sweet twittering of the wagtails, the clanging call of the geese, the sibilant note of the whistling teal, the curious a-onk of the brahminy ducks, the mewing of the jacanas and the quacking of many kinds of ducks. Everywhere in the fields and the groves are heard the cawing of the crows, the wailing of the kites, the cooing of the doves, the twittering of the sparrows, the crooning of the white-eyes, the fluting of the wood-shrikes, the tinkling of the bulbuls, the chattering of the mynas, the screaming of the green parrots, the golden-backed woodpeckers and the white-breasted kingfishers, the mingled harmony and discord of the tree-pies, the sharp monosyllabic notes of the various warblers, the melody of the sunbirds and the flycatchers. The green barbets also call spasmodically throughout the month, chiefly in the early morning and the late afternoon, but the only note uttered by the coppersmith is a soft wow. The hoopoe emits occasionally a spasmodic uk-uk-uk.
The migrating birds continue to pour into India during the earlier part of November. The geese are the last to arrive, they begin to come before the close of October, and, from the second week of November onwards, V-shaped flocks of these fine birds may be seen or heard overhead at any hour of the day or night.
The nesting activities of the fowls of the air are at their lowest ebb in November. Some thirty species are known to rear up young in the present month as opposed to five hundred in May. In the United Provinces the only nest which the ornithologist can be sure of finding is that of the white-backed vulture.
Some of the amadavats are still nesting. Most of the eggs laid by these birds in the rains yielded young ones in September, but it often happens that the brood does not emerge from the eggs until the end of October, with the result that in the earlier part of the present month parties of baby amadavats are to be seen enjoying the first days of their aerial existence. A few black-necked storks do not lay until November; thus there is always the chance of coming upon an incubating stork in the present month. Here and there a grey partridge's nest containing eggs may be found. As has been said, the nesting season of this species is not well-defined.
The quaint little thick-billed mites known as white-throated munias (Munia malabarica) are also very irregular as to their nesting habits. Their eggs have been taken in every month of the year except June.
In some places Indian sand-martins are busy at their nests, but the breeding season of the majority of these birds does not begin until January.
Pallas's fishing-eagle is another species of which the eggs are likely to be found in the present month. If a pair of these birds have a nest they betray the fact to the world by the unmusical clamour they make from sunrise to sunset.
The nesting season of the tawny eagle or wokab (Aquila vindhiana) begins in November. The nest is a typical raptorial one, being a large platform of sticks. It may attain a length of three feet and it is usually as broad as it is long; it is about six inches in depth. It is generally lined with leaves, sometimes with straw or grass and a few feathers. It is placed at the summit of a tree. Two eggs are usually laid. These are dirty white, more or less speckled with brown. The young ones are at first covered with white down; in this respect they resemble baby birds of prey of other species. The man who attempts to take the eggs or young of this eagle must be prepared to ward off the attack of the female, who, as is usual among birds of prey, is larger, bolder and more powerful than the male. At Lahore the writer saw a tawny eagle stoop at a man who had climbed a tree and secured the eagle's eggs. She seized his turban and flew off with it, having inflicted a scratch on his head. For the recovery of his turban the egg-lifter had to thank a pair of kites that attacked the eagle and caused her to drop that article while defending herself from their onslaught.