A Bird Calendar for Northern India
ANIMALS OF NO IMPORTANCE
THE INDIAN CROW: HIS BOOK
BIRDS OF THE PLAINS
GLIMPSES OF INDIAN BIRDS
BIRDS OF THE INDIAN HILLS
IN COLLABORATION WITH FRANK FINN
THE MAKING OF SPECIES
A BIRD CALENDAR FOR NORTHERN INDIA
BY DOUGLAS DEWAR
CALCUTTA AND SIMLA: THACKER, SPINK & CO.
I am indebted to the editor of The Pioneer for permission torepublish the sketches that form this calendar, and to Mr. A. J.Currie for placing at my disposal his unpublished notes on thebirds of the Punjab.
Full descriptions of all the Indian birds of which the doingsare chronicled in this calendar are to be found in the fourvolumes of the Fauna of British India devoted to birds;popular descriptions of the majority are given in my IndianBirds.
| Up—let us to the fields away, |
And breathe the fresh and balmy air.
Take nine-and-twenty sunny, bracing English May days, steal fromMarch as many still, starry nights, to these add two rainymornings and evenings, and the product will resemble a typicalIndian January. This is the coolest month in the year, a monthwhen the climate is invigorating and the sunshine temperate. Buteven in January the sun's rays have sufficient power to causethe thermometer to register 70° in the shade at noon,save on an occasional cloudy day.
Sunset is marked by a sudden fall of temperature. The villagesmoke then hangs a few feet above the earth like a blue-greydiaphanous cloud.
The cold increases throughout the hours of darkness. In thePunjab hoar-frosts form daily; and in the milder UnitedProvinces the temperature often falls sufficiently to allow ofthe formation of thin sheets of ice. Towards dawn mists collectwhich are not dispersed until the sun has shone upon them forseveral hours. The vultures await the dissipation of thesevapours before they ascend to the upper air, there to soar onoutstretched wings and scan the earth for food.
On New Year's Day the wheat, the barley, the gram, and the otherSpring crops are well above the ground, and, ere January hasgiven place to February, the emerald shoots of the corn attain aheight of fully sixteen inches. On these the geese levy toll.
Light showers usually fall in January. These are very welcome tothe agriculturalist because they impart vigour to the youngcrops. In the seasons when the earth is not blessed with therefreshing winter rain men and oxen are kept busy irrigating thefields. The cutting and the pressing of the sugar-cane employthousands of husbandmen and their cattle. In almost everyvillage little sugar-cane presses are being worked by oxen fromsunrise to sunset. At night-time the country-side is illuminedby the flames of the megas burned bythe rustic sugar-boilers.
January is the month in which the avian population attains itsmaximum. Geese, ducks, teal, pelicans, cormorants, snake-birdsand ospreys abound in the rivers and jhils; the marshes andswamps are the resort of millions of snipe and other waders; thefields and groves swarm with flycatchers, chats, starlings,warblers, finches, birds of prey and the other migrants which inwinter visit the plains from the Himalayas and the countrybeyond.
The bracing climate of the Punjab attracts some cold-lovingspecies for which the milder United Provinces have no charms.Conspicuous among these are rooks, ravens and jackdaws. On theother hand, frosts drive away from the Land of the Five Riverscertain of the feathered folk which do not leave the UnitedProvinces or Bengal: to wit, the purple sunbird, the bee-eaterand, to a large extent, the king-crow.
The activity of the feathered folk is not at its height inJanuary. Birds are warm-blooded creatures and they love not thecold. Comparatively few of them are in song, and still fewernest, at this season.
Many of the calls of birds are purposeful, being used to expresspleasure or anger, or to apprise members of a flock of oneanother's presence. Others appear to serve no useful end. Theseare simply the outpourings of superfluous energy, theexpressions of the supreme happiness that perfect healthengenders. Since the vigour of birds is greatest at the nestingseason, it follows that that is the time when they are mostvociferous. Some birds sing only at the breeding season, whileothers emit their cries at all times. Hence the avian choir inIndia, as in all other countries, is composed of two sets ofvocalists—those who perform throughout the year, "the musiciansof all times and places," and those who join the chorus only fora few weeks or months. The calls of the former class go far tocreate for India its characteristic atmosphere. To enumerate allsuch bird calls would be wearisome. For the purposes of thiscalendar it is necessary to describe only the common dailycries—the sounds that at all times and all seasons form thebasis of the avian chorus.
From early dawn till nightfall the welkin rings with the harshcaw of the house-crow, the deeper note of the black crow orcorby, the tinkling music of the bulbuls, the cheery keky,keky, kek, kek ... chur, chur, kok, kok, kok ofthe myna, the monotonous cuckoo-coo-coo of the spotted dove(Turtur suratensis), the soft subdued cuk-cuk-coo-coo-coo ofthe little brown dove (T. cambayensis), the mechanicalku-ku—ku of the ring-dove (T. risorius), the loud penetratingshrieks of the green parrot, the trumpet-like calls of the sarascrane, the high-pitched did-he-do-it of the red-wattledlapwing, the wailing trill chee-hee-hee-hee hee—hee of thekite, the hard grating notes and the metallic coch-lee,coch-lee of the tree-pie; the sharp towee, towee, toweeof the tailor-bird, the soft melodious cheeping calls of theflocks of little white-eyes, the chit, chit, chitter ofthe sparrow, the screaming cries of the golden-backedwoodpecker, the screams and the trills of the white-breastedkingfisher, the curious harsh clamour of the cuckoo-shrike, and,last but by no means least, the sweet and cheerful whistlingrefrain of the fan-tail flycatcher, which at frequent intervalsemanates from a tree in the garden or the mango tope. Nor is thebird choir altogether hushed during the hours of darkness.Throughout the year, more especially on moonlit nights, theshrieking kucha, kwachee, kwachee, kwachee, kwachee ofthe little spotted owlet disturbs the silences of the moon. Fewnights pass on which the dusky horned owl fails to utter hisgrunting hoot, or the jungle owlet to emit his curious but notunpleasant turtuck, turtuck, turtuck, turtuck,turtuck, tukatu, chatuckatuckatuck.
The above are the commonest of the bird calls heard throughoutthe year. They form the basis of the avian melody in India. Thismelody is reinforced from time to time by the songs of thosebirds that may be termed the seasonal choristers. It is thepresence or absence of the voices of these latter which impartsdistinctive features to the minstrelsy of every month of theyear.
In January the sprightly little metallic purple sunbird poursforth, from almost every tree or bush, his powerful song, which,were it a little less sharp, might easily be mistaken for thatof a canary.
From every mango tope emanates a loud "Think of me ... Never tobe." This is the call of the grey-headed flycatcher (Culicicapaceylonensis), a bird that visits the plains of northern Indiaevery winter. In summer it retires to the Himalayas for nestingpurposes. Still more melodious is the call of the wood-shrike,which is frequently heard at this season, and indeed during thegreater part of the year.
Every now and again the green barbet emits his curious chucklinglaugh, followed by a monotonous kutur, kutur, kuturuk. Atrare intervals his cousin, the coppersmith, utters a soft wowand thereby reminds us that he is in the land of the living.These two species, more especially the latter, seem to dislikethe cold weather. They revel in the heat; it is when thethermometer stands at something over 100° in the shadethat they feel like giants refreshed, and repeat their loudcalls with wearying insistence throughout the hours of daylight.
The nuthatches begin to tune up in January. They sing with morecheer than harmony, their love-song being a sharp penetratingtee-tee-tee-tee-tee.
The hoopoe reminds us of his presence by an occasional softuk-uk-uk. His breeding season, like that of the nuthatch, isabout to begin.
The magpie-robin or dhayal, who for months past has uttered nosound, save a scolding note when occasion demanded, now beginsto make melody. His January song, however, is harsh and crude,and not such as to lead one to expect the rich deep-toned musicthat will compel admiration in April, May and June.
Towards the end of the month the fluty call of the koel, anotherhot-weather chorister, may be heard in the eastern portions ofnorthern India.
Most of the cock sunbirds cast off their workaday plumage andassumed their splendid metallic purple wedding garment inNovember and December, a few, however, do not attain their fullglory until January. By the end of the month it is difficult tofind a cock that is not bravely attired from head to tail iniridescent purple.
Comparatively few birds build their nests in January. Needlessto state, doves' nests containing eggs may be found at thisseason as at all other seasons. It is no exaggeration to assertthat some pairs of doves rear up seven or eight broods in thecourse of the year. The consequence is that, notwithstanding thefact that the full clutch consists of but two eggs, doves sharewith crows, mynas, sparrows and green parrots the distinction ofbeing the most successful birds in India.
The nest of the dove is a subject over which most ornithologistshave waxed sarcastic. One writer compares the structure to abundle of spillikins. Another says, "Upset a box of matches in abush and you will have produced a very fair imitation of adove's nursery!" According to a third, the best way to make animitation dove's nest is to take four slender twigs, lay two ofthem on a branch and then place the remaining two crosswise ontop of the first pair. For all this, the dove's nest is awonderful structure; it is a lesson in how to make a little go along way. Doves seem to place their nurseries haphazard on thefirst branch or ledge they come across after the spirit hasmoved them to build. The nest appears to be built solely onconsiderations of hygiene. Ample light and air are a sine quanon; concealment appears to be a matter of no importance.
In India winter is the time of year at which the larger birds ofprey, both diurnal and nocturnal, rear up their broods.Throughout January the white-backed vultures are occupied inparental duties. The breeding season of these birds begins inOctober or November and ends in February or March. The nest,which is placed high up in a lofty tree, is a large platformcomposed of twigs which the birds themselves break off from thegrowing tree. Much amusement may be derived from watching thestruggles of a white-backed vulture when severing a toughbranch. Its wing-flapping and its tugging cause a greatcommotion in the tree. The boughs used by vultures for theirnests are mostly covered with green leaves. These last withersoon after the branch has been plucked, so that, after the firstfew days of its existence, the nest looks like a great ball ofdead leaves caught in a tree.
The nurseries of birds of prey can be described neither aspicturesque nor as triumphs of architecture, but they have thegreat merit of being easy to see. January is the month in whichto look for the eyries of Bonelli's eagles (Hieraetusfasciatus); not that the search is likely to be successful. Thehigh cliffs of the Jumna and the Chambal in the Etawah districtare the only places where the nests of this fine eagle have beenrecorded in the United Provinces. Mr. A. J. Currie has found thenest on two occasions in a mango tree in a tope at Lahore. Ineach case the eyrie was a flat platform of sticks about twicethe size of a kite's nest. The ground beneath the eyrie waslittered with fowls' feathers and pellets of skin, fur and bone.Most of these pellets contained squirrels' skulls; and Mr.Currie actually saw one of the parent birds fly to the nest witha squirrel in its talons.
Bonelli's eagle, when sailing through the air, may be recognisedby the long, hawk-like wings