Saturday, November 03, 2001

Extracts from Edward Hamilton Aitken's "The Common Birds of Bombay"

We have two kinds of Kites in Bombay the Common (Milvus govinda) and the Brahminy (Haliastur indus), so called because it seems to be a bird of higher caste. For the avoidance of family brawls nature seems to have assignedseparate portions to these two birds, giving the refuse of the land tothe one and the refuse of the water to the other. It is not that oneeats flesh and the other fish. Nothing that goes overboard from a shipcomes amiss to the Brahminy, and the Common Kite will snatch fish fromthe very basket on a woman's head. But the one likes to pick itsfood off the water and the other off the ground. So the one haunts theharbor, while the other tales charge of the bazaar.
For the Myna has a character. I once had a Myna and a canary in cages, which hung at my window. A ruffian crow came in one day and perched on the top of the canary's cage. Of course the silly bird fluttered allround the cage, dinging to the bars, and gave the crow the chance it wanted. It caught a leg in its powerful beak and tried to pull itthrough the bars. But the canary's body could not pass through, so the poor bird's leg was literally torn out by the roots, and it died in a few minutes. I suppose the crow swallowed the leg, and shortly afterwards it returned, thinking to have a leg of the Myna for its next course. I was in the room, but it did not see me; so, after glancing round the room with a proprietary air, it bounced on to the top of the Myna's cage. But the Myna, sitting on its perch, knew it was quite safe and felt no agitation; so it was free to take an interest in the crow, and its interest fixed instantly on an ugly black toe, which hung down through the bars over its head. It caught that toe in its sharp beak and made an example of it. I tell you, it was exhilarating to observe the suddenness with which that crow jumped to the conclusion that it had urgent business elsewhere. Here is the difference between a Myna and a canary. A canary cannot learn that it is safe inside a cage.

Lapwings : It belongs to the family which includes those long-shanked birds which bare their legs and walk about in shallow waters, or walk upon dry ground on stilts. They have no hind toe. (check). For those who never perch on tress or for that matter anywhere, of what use is a hind toe. They all lay their egg on the ground, and the young run as soon as they are hatched. The Red-wattled Lapwing also commonly found in our villages, has on its cheeks two bright red lappets, like the wattles of a cock. It is a greenish-brown bird with a good deal of black and white upon it. The head is black, with the throat, down to the upper part of the breast. Below this the under parts, with the lining of the wings, are pure white, as you see when it flies. Actually it needs no description and wants no introduction. It introduces itself to you: impresses itself on you; dins itself into you. And all the time it is reiterating, with piercing emphasis, that mysterious taunt, "Did you do it? Did you do it? Pity to do it." Suddenly its mate springs into visibility and joins it. That’s reason enough to suspect that somewhere on the ground, not far from your feet, there are four stone colored eggs, with black blotches on them, arranged in a cross with their points inwards. But it is no use looking for them. The Lapwing is such an accomplished liar that it will throw you off the scent one way or another. There is another kind of Lapwing, with yellow instead of red wattles on its cheeks. Otherwise it is very like the common one, but somewhat paler in color and with less black on it. There is a syllable less in its cry. It, however, likes a dry climate, and I have not often seen it on the coast.

Stone curlew- Eurasian thick knee – It receives its name from the bulge at the knee in contrast to its reed thin legs. These ground nesting birds are masters of camouflage. Their nest consists of little more than a collection of pebbles and twigs put together in a mess. The bird makes up for this inadequacy by laying eggs that superbly gel with the surroundings. The patterns on the eggs break the contours and they become impossible to locate. This prevents them from being gobbled up by other creatures looking for a tasty meal. Moreover the female detests attracting attention. She will sit still like a statute while hatching. When she can no longer resist moving away she reduces attracting attention to herself and the nest by interspersing her movements with brief periods of immobility. The chicks when they hatch are equally difficult to locate. They merge in the mess of pebbles, sand and dry grass. To add to this they are very obedient kids. On an alarm call by the mother they will freeze and merge with the background without moving an inch, and remain so till the mom gives an “all clear” signal.
Vulture : The Long-billed Vulture breeds always on high cliffs," while its Bengal brother is content to build its nest on any tree big enough to bear the weight of such a ponderous. I have seen a single mango tree groaning under several nests. Each nest contains one egg, generally (if clean), but sometimes blotched with brown. The breeding season extends over the greater part of the year and eggs may be found from October to March at least. Most young birds are hungry and clamorous, crying give, give, from dawn till dusk. But the young vulture learns patience early. Its mother leaves it before sunrise and it sits hour after hour, motionless and noiseless, waiting for her return. It may be noon before it detects her, a mere speck in the sky, but growing bigger every moment as she slopes down towards the nest. At last, with heavy flapping, she lets herself down, and great is the cackling, for though she carries nothing in her beak, the youngster knows that she is loaded. What follows is not polite. In plain language she disgorges great lumps of meat and thrusts them into its mouth.
A vulture cannot feed her young any other way than this, for the carcass on which she dined may be ten miles away. And indeed a vulture never carries food, or anything else, except a stick for its nest, and that too in its beak. Vultures do not have strong talons for killing prey because they are scavengers that do not hunt down live prey. All other birds of prey carry with their feet, but this is impossible to the vulture because it is incapable of swooping and cannot even rise off the ground without taking a run. Once fairly in the air, no bird surpasses the majesty of its flight.
Vultures are extremely good at detecting a dead creature. Before the life has left the old body some distant “pater-roller” has seen it, and, with rigid wings slightly curved, is sloping down at a rate, which wipes out five miles in a few seconds. A second sees the first and, interpreting its action follows with all speed. A third pursues the second, and so on till, out of a sky in which you could not have described two birds half an hour ago, thirty or forty dark forms are converging on one spot . When they get right over it, they descend in decreasing spirals and settle at various distances and wait for the end like American reporters. When the end comes, if you are squeamish or fastidious, go away. All that will corrupt, everything in short but the bones, is to be removed from that carcass within twenty-four hours, and the vultures have taken the contract to do it. Such work cannot be made artistic and the vulture is not aesthetic. That baldhead and bare neck are not ornamental, but they mean business; they are the sleeves tucked up for earnest work. It allows them to thrust their heads deeper into a dead carcass without getting their feathers dirty. The gourmands jostle and bump into each other. And chase each other round the board with long, ungainly hops and open wings. One has no sooner thrust its head well into the carcass than another leaps upon its back with loud laughter. Two get hold of opposite ends of a long strip of offal and dance before each other with wings outstretched. And the cackling and grunting and roaring that go on all the while may be heard for half a mile. When darkness overtakes the revelers some of them have so shamefully over-eaten themselves that they cannot rise from the ground and are forced to spend the night where they are.
Woodpecker: The golden backed woodpecker industriously hammering into the bark. Peeling and chipping away at the loose bits. What is it up to? The Woodpecker's trade is a curious one. While other birds are hunting for all sorts of insects that fly in the air, or crawl on the ground, or hide among the leaves of trees, it lays siege to those which fancy they have defied their enemies by burrowing into the solid trunk. Like many of the insect eating birds, the wood pecker has a long sticky tongue. As it drills in the bark it thrusts its tongue in the holes, openings and cracks to pick/suck up juicy grubs, worms, and insects that live underneath the protective covering of the bark.
It does not perch along the branches of a tree, like the other birds, but runs up the trunk and boughs like a squirrel, clinging with its strong claws and propping itself up with its short, stiff tail. Its head, set crosswise on the thin, supple neck looks like the hammer of a gun, and it stops at intervals to hammer fiercely at the trunk of the tree. Its blows are delivered with extraordinary rapidity and energy; indeed, all its actions are impulsive and hasty. Its beak is a regular chisel, square at the point, with an edge kept always sharp, on what grind-stone, we don’t know. Its tongue, which can be thrust out for a distance of three or four inches, is armed at the point with strong and sharp hooks, and is sticky so that it forms at once a very searching and a fast holding instrument. Specialized functions and structures that allow a woodpecker to live off insects burrowed in trees include a strong beak, highly developed neck and tongue muscles, stiff feathers sized for stability, sturdy leg bones and skull, a curving spine, and a reversed toe.
Hoopoe: Its beak is more than two inches in length and very slender, and the Hoopoe probes the dry land and draws out "ant-lions" and other subterranean grubs. The legs of the Hoopoe are very short indeed, so that it is obliged to carry its body very level in order to keep its tail off the ground. This, together with its erect neck and prim gait, gives it the appearance of being a very precise sort of person, which no doubt it is. It is always exquisitely dressed, in a suit of reddish fawn with the skirts, of some black material, with broad white bars, which flash out with beautiful effect when it starts to fly. On its crown it wears a crest, which is usually, folded down and projects behind, giving its head and neck the appearance of a toy pickaxe; but at times, when it is startled, and always in the act of alighting, the feathers start up into a lovely corona of cinnamon red bordered with black.

Cattle egret: It lives principally on insects and follows cattle diligently when they are grazing, for the sake of the grasshoppers stirred by their feet, and also for the chance of usefulness in relieving the poor beasts of various small tormentors. The cattle appreciate the kindness and repay it by giving the birds the freedom of their backs. Sometimes yon will see a meek buffalo chewing the cud, while a Cattle Egret stands on its head and performs surgical operations on its ears. The name of this species in Jerdon is Buphus coromandus. During the monsoon its whole neck is clothed with plumes of a rich orange-buff color, and you may easily distinguish it. In the cold season it is all white, but even then you may always recognize it, if you get near enough, by its yellow bill. The bill of the Little Egret is black. It nests in company with Pond Herons and other Egrets, laying paler eggs. The common native name for all these birds is Bugla, but the Cattle Egret is sometimes distinguished as Gai-bugla



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