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ARNOLD. The Light of Asia.
In the eyes of the Englishman December in Northern India is a month of halcyon days, of days dedicated to sport under perfect climatic conditions, of bright sparkling days spent at the duck tank, at the snipe jhil, in the sal forest, or among the Siwaliks, days on which office files rest in peace, and the gun, the rifle and the rod are made to justify their existence. Most Indians, unfortunately, hold a different opinion of December. These love not the cool wind that sweeps across the plains. To them the rapid fall of temperature at sunset is apt to spell pneumonia.
The average villager is a hot-weather organism. He is content with thin cotton clothing which he wears year in year out, whether the mercury in the thermometer stand at 115° or 32°. However, many of the better-educated Indians have learned from Englishmen how to protect themselves against cold; we may therefore look forward to the time when even the poorest Indian will be able to enjoy the health-bringing, bracing climate of the present month.
By the 1st December the last of the spring crops has been sown, most of the cotton has been picked, and the husbandmen are busy cutting and pressing the sugar-cane and irrigating the poppy and the rabi cereals.
The crop-sown area is covered with a garment that, seen from a little distance, appears to be made of emerald velvet. Its greenness is intensified by contrast with the dried-up grass on the grazing lands. In many places the mustard crop has begun to flower; the bright yellow blooms serve to enliven the somewhat monotonous landscape. In the garden the chrysanthemums and the loquat trees are still in flower; the poinsettias put forth their showy scarlet bracts and the roses and violets begin to produce their fragrant flowers.
The bird choir is composed of comparatively few voices. Of the seasonal choristers the grey-headed flycatchers are most often heard. The fantail flycatchers occasionally sing their cheerful lay, but at this season they more often emit a plaintive call, as if they were complaining of the cold.
Some of the sunbirds are still in undress plumage; a few have not yet come into song, these give vent only to harsh scolding notes. From the thicket emanate sharp sounds—tick-tick, chee-chee, chuck-chuck, chiff-chaff; these are the calls of the various warblers that winter with us. Above the open grass-land the Indian skylarks are singing at Heaven's gate; these birds avoid towns and groves and gardens, in consequence their song is apt to be overlooked by human beings. Very occasionally the oriole utters a disconsolate-sounding tew; he is a truly tropical bird; it is only when the sun flames overhead out of a brazen sky that he emits his liquid notes. Here and there a hoopoe, more vigorous than his fellows, croons softly—uk, uk, uk. The coppersmith now and then gives forth his winter note—a subdued wow; this is heard chiefly at the sunset hour.
The green barbet calls spasmodically throughout December, but, as a rule, only in the afternoon. Towards the end of the month some of the nuthatches and the robins begin to tune up. On cloudy days the king-crows utter the soft calls that are usually associated with the rainy season.
December, like November, although climatically very pleasant, is a month in which the activities of the feathered folk are at a comparatively low ebb. The cold, however, sends to India thousands of immigrants. Most of these spend the whole winter in the plains of India. Of such are the redstart, the grey-headed flycatcher, the snipe and the majority of the game birds. Besides these regular migrants there are many species which spend a few days or weeks in the plains, leaving the Himalayas when the weather there becomes very inclement. Thus the ornithologist in the plains of Northern India lives in a state of expectancy from November to January. Every time he walks in the fields he hopes to see some uncommon winter visitor. It may be a small-billed mountain thrush, a blue rock-thrush, a wall-creeper, a black bulbul, a flycatcher-warbler, a green-backed tit, a verditer flycatcher, a black-throated or a grey-winged ouzel, a dark-grey bush-chat, a pine-bunting, a Himalayan whistling thrush, or even a white-capped redstart. Indeed, there is scarcely a species which inhabits the lower ranges of the Himalayas that may not be driven to the plains by a heavy fall of snow on the mountains. Naturally it is in the districts nearest the hills that most of these rare birds are seen—but there is no part of Northern India in which they may not occur.
The nesting activity of birds in Upper India attains its zenith in May, and then declines until it reaches its nadir in November. With December it begins again to increase.
Of those birds whose nests were described last month the white-backed vulture, Pallas's fishing-eagle, the tawny eagle, the sand-martin and the black-necked stork are likely to be found with eggs or young in the present month.
December marks the beginning of the nesting season for three large owls—the brown fish-owl, the rock horned-owl and the dusky horned-owl. The brown fish-owl (Ketupa ceylonensis) is a bird almost as large as a kite. It has bright orange orbs and long, pointed aigrettes. Its legs are devoid of feathers. According to Blanford it has a dismal cry like haw, haw, haw, ho. "Eha" describes the call as a ghostly hoot—a hoo hoo hoo, far-reaching, but coming from nowhere in particular. These two descriptions do not seem to agree. There is nothing unusual in this.
The descriptions of the calls of the nocturnal birds of prey given by India ornithologists are notoriously unsatisfactory. This is perhaps not surprising when we consider the wealth of bird life in this country. It is no easy matter to ascertain the perpetrators of the various sounds of the night, and, when the naturalist has succeeded in fixing the author of any call, he finds himself confronted with the difficult task of describing the sound in question. Bearing in mind the way in which human interjections baffle the average writer, we cannot be surprised at the poor success that crowns the endeavours of the naturalist to syllabise bird notes.
As regards the call of the brown fish-owl the writer has been trying for the past three or four years to determine by observation which of the many nocturnal noises are to be ascribed to this species. With this object he kept one of these owls captive for several weeks; the bird steadfastly refused to utter a sound. One hoot would have purchased its liberty; but the bird would not pay the price: it sulked and hissed. The bird in question, although called a fish-owl, does not live chiefly on fish. Like others of its kind it feeds on birds, rats and mice. Hume found in the nest of this species two quails, a pigeon, a dove and a myna, each with the head, neck and breast eaten away, but with the wings, back, feet and tail remaining almost intact. "Eha" has seen the bird stoop on a hare. The individual kept by the writer throve on raw meat. This owl is probably called the fish-owl because it lives near rivers and tanks and invariably nests in the vicinity of water. The nest may be in a tree or on a ledge in a cliff. Sometimes the bird utilises the deserted cradle of a fishing-eagle or vulture. The structure which the bird itself builds is composed of sticks and feathers and, occasionally, a few dead leaves. Two white eggs are laid. The breeding season lasts from December to March.
The rock horned-owl (Bubo bengalensis) is of the same size as the fish-owl, and, like the latter, has aigrettes and orange-yellow orbs, but its legs are feathered to the toes. This owl feeds on snakes, rats, mice, birds, lizards, crabs, and even large insects. "A loud dissyllabic hoot" is perhaps as good a description of its call as can be given in words. This species breeds from December to April. March is the month in which the eggs are most likely to be found. The nesting site is usually a ledge on some cliff overhanging water. A hollow is scooped out in the ledge, and, on the bare earth, four white eggs are laid.
The dusky horned-owl (Bubo coromandus) may be distinguished from the rock-horned species by the paler, greyer plumage, and by the fact that its eyes are deep yellow, rather than orange. Its cry has been described as wo, wo, wo, wo-o-o. The writer would rather represent it as ur-r-r, ur-r-r, ur-r-r-r-r—a low grunting sound not unlike the call of the red turtle-dove. This owl is very partial to crows. Mr. Cripps once found fifteen heads of young crows in a nest belonging to one of these birds. December and January are the months in which to look for the nest, which is a platform of sticks placed in a fork of a large tree. Two eggs are laid.
The breeding season for Bonelli's eagle (Hieraetus fasciatus) begins in December. The eyrie of this fine bird is described in the calendar for January.
In the Punjab many ravens build their nests during the present month.
Throughout January, February and the early part of March ravens' nests containing eggs or young are likely to be seen.
Ordinarily the nesting season of the common kite (Milvus govinda) does not begin until February, but as the eggs of this bird have been taken as early as the 29th December, mention of it must be made in the calendar for the present month. A similar remark applies to the hoopoe (Upupa indica).
Doves nest in December, as they do in every other month.
Occasionally a colony of cliff-swallows (Hirundo flavicolla) takes time by the forelock and begins to build one of its honeycomb-like congeries of nests in December. This species was dealt with in the calendar for February.
Blue rock-pigeons mostly nest at the beginning of the hot weather. Hume, however, states that some of these birds breed as early as Christmas Day. Mr. P. G. S. O'Connor records the finding of a nest even earlier than that. The nest in question was in a weir of a canal. The weir was pierced by five round holes, each about nine inches in diameter. Through four of these the water was rushing, but the fifth was blocked by debris, and on this a pair of pigeons had placed their nest.