BIRDS OF THE PLAINS
BRITISH BIRDS IN THE PLAINS OF INDIA
Most birds are cosmopolitans and belong to no nationality. Strictly speaking, there is only one British bird, only one bird found in the British Isles and nowhere else, and that is the red grouse (Tetrao scoticus).
For this reason some apology seems necessary for the heading of this article. "Birds common to the Plains of India and the British Isles " would doubtless be a more correct title. However, I write as an Englishman. When I meet in a foreign land a bird I knew in England I like to set that bird down as a fellow-countryman.
In India most of the familiar birds: the thrush, the blackbird, the robin redbreast, the wren, the chaffinch, and the blue tit are conspicuous by their absence; their places being taken by such strange forms as mynas, bulbuls, seven sisters, parakeets, etc. The Englishman is therefore prone to exaggerate the differences between the avifauna of his own country and that of India. The dissimilarity is indeed great, but not so great as is generally supposed.
A complete list of British birds comprises some four hundred species; of these nearly one-half occur in India. But a list of British species is apt to be a misleading document. You may keep a sharp look-out in England for a lifetime without ever setting eyes on many of the so-called British birds. Every feathered thing that has been blown by contrary winds, or whose dead body has been washed by the waves, on to the shores of Albion has been appropriated as a British species. This sounds very hospitable. Unfortunately the hospitality is of a dubious nature, seeing that every casual bird visitor promptly falls a victim to the gun of some self-styled naturalist. Having slaughtered his " feathered friend " the aforesaid naturalist proceeds to boast in the press of his exploit.
I do not deem it correct to speak of these occasional visitors as British birds. On the other hand, I think we may legitimately call the birds we see constantly in England, at certain or all seasons of the year, English birds. Of these many are also found in India. More of them occur in the Punjab than in any other part of the country because of our long cold weather, and because, as the crow flies, if not as the sahib travels, the Punjab is nearer England than is any other province.
The ubiquitous sparrow first demands our attention. This much-abused little bird is, thanks to his " push," quite as much at home in the " Gorgeous East" as he is in England. He is certainly not quite so abundant out here; the crows and spotted owlets take care of that. They are very fond of sparrow for breakfast. Nevertheless, Passer domesticus is quite plentiful enough and is ever ready to nest inside one's bungalow.
The Indian cock sparrow differs slightly in appearance from the English bird, having more white on the sides of his neck. This is not, as might be supposed, due to the fact that he is not coated with soot to such an extent as the cockney bird. Every widely distributed species, including man, has its local peculiarities, due to climatic influences, isolation, and other causes. If the isolation be maintained long enough the process of divergence continues until the various races differ from one another to such an extent as to be called species. Local races are incipient species, species in the making. The barn owl (Strix flammea) is another case in point. This is a familiar owl in England, and is common out here, but not nearly so abundant as the little spotted owlet that makes night hideous by its caterwaulings. The Indian barn owl, which, in default of barns, haunts mosques, temples, deserted buildings, and even secluded verandahs, differs from our English friend in having stronger claws and feet, and the breast spotted instead of plain white. These trivial differences are not usually considered sufficient to justify the division of the barn owl into two species.
Some of our English birds assume diminutive proportions in India, as, for example, the kingfisher and the raven. This may perhaps be attributed to the enervating Indian climate. The common kingfisher (Alcedo ispida) is exceedingly common in all parts of India except the Punjab. It does, indeed, occur in that province, but not abundantly. The commonest kingfisher in the Land of the Five Rivers is the much more splendid white-breasted species (Halcyon smyrnensis), which may be recognised by its beautiful blue wings with a white bar, and by its anything but melodious "rattling scream."
This winter the ravens are invading Lahore in very large numbers. It is impossible not to notice the great black creatures as they fly overhead in couples or in companies of six or eight, uttering solemn croaks.
But the Indian raven, large as it is, is a diminutive form ; its length is but twenty-four inches as compared with the twenty-eight of its English cousin. Moreover, there are slight anatomical differences between the two races; hence the Indian bird was at one time considered to be a separate species and was called Corvus lawrencii. There certainly does seem to be some justification for this procedure, since the Indian raven has not the solitary, shy, and retiring disposition of the bird at Home. It consorts with those feathered villains the Indian crows, and, like them, thieves from man and delights to tease and annoy birds bigger than itself by pulling their tail! But there exist ravens of all sizes intermediate between the large European form and the small Indian one, so that it is not possible to find a point at which a line may be drawn between them. For this reason the Indian raven is now held to be one and the same species as the English bird -: Corvus corax.
Two cousins of the raven, namely, the rook and the jackdaw, also occur in the Punjab. They both visit us in the cold weather and fraternise with the common crows. The rook may be readily distinguished from these by the bare whitish patch of skin in front of its face. Last year hundreds of rooks were to be seen in the fields between the big and the little Ravi. They are not so abundant this winter owing to the comparative mildness of the weather.
The jackdaw is very like Corvus splendens in appearance. It may, however, be easily distinguished by its white eye. There is at present a jackdaw in confinement in the Lahore " Zoo."
The coot (Fulica atra) is another bird common at Home which is also abundant in India. He needs no description, being familiar -: too familiar -: to every sportsman in India. He is the " black duck " of Thomas Atkins that remains on the jhil after all the duck have disappeared. It is unnecessary to say that the bird is not a duck, but a water-hen that apes the manners of one. His black plumage, white face, and the difficulty he experiences in rising from the water prevent him being confounded with a duck.
Ornithological text-books tell us that the skylark (Alauda arvensis) visits India during the winter. This may be so, but I do not think I have ever seen one in the Punjab. I have seen thousands of the Indian skylark (Alauda gulgula) -: a very similar bird, which is said to soar and sing "just as the lark in England does."
As a rule it soars only at daybreak. There are in India so many birds of prey, ever on the look out for quarry, that our larks are not able to sing with impunity at heaven's gate. They usually put forth their vocal efforts from a less exalted platform.
" The eel's foe, the heron" (Ardea cinerea), need not detain us long, although he is a common bird in both England and India, for the Punjab is too dry to be a favourite resort of waders. There is, however, a heron in the "Zoo" at Lahore who lives happily enough among the ducks and storks in spite of the way in which the kites worry him when he is at supper.
The blue-rock pigeon (Columba livia) is another English bird found in the Punjab. This must not be confounded with its cousin (Columba intermedia) the very common Indian blue pigeon, of which so many have taken up their quarters in the Montgomery Hall. The European form is not nearly so abundant, and is distinguished by its paler colour and by the fact that its lower back is white instead of bluish grey.
The family of birds of prey affords us a large number of species common to England and India. Almost all the well-known English raptores are found in India -: the peregrine falcon, the marsh harrier, the hen harrier, the merlin, the kestrel, the sparrow-hawk, and the buzzard. All these are considerably more abundant in India than in the British Isles.
Thus far we have spoken chiefly of birds that are found in the plains of India all the year round. We have now to deal with migrants. As was to be expected, many of these are common to Hindustan and to England.
Surprising as it may seem, stationary birds are the exception rather than the rule. The majority of species, like viceroys and lieutenant-governors, divide their time more or less equally between two different places. It is by no means always easy to determine whether any particular species is a migrant one or not. The mere fact that specimens of it are seen in any given place at all seasons of the year is not sufficient to prove that it is non-migratory. For the birds of a species we saw six months ago are not necessarily the same ones that we have with us to-day. To take a concrete example, the crested lark (Galerita cristata) is found in Lahore all the year round, but is far more plentiful in summer than in winter, which is the only time when it is seen in England. The species is therefore a migratory one.
The general rule as regards migratory birds is that they breed in the north and then go south for a season to enjoy themselves. Great Britain is further north than India and has a much colder climate, hence we should expect birds to crowd to India for the pleasant cold weather and go to England for the genial summer. This does happen to a large extent. Yet there are surprisingly few birds which winter in India and summer in England. The only common ones that I can call to mind are the wagtails, the pipits, and the quail (Coturnix communis). There are two reasons for this. The first is that migration takes place in a more or less northerly and southerly direction, and the British Isles are not due north of India. The second reason is that England is a long way south of the Arctic Circle. Its winter is therefore not cold enough for the taste of many birds. Geese, ducks, and snipe are cold-loving creatures. Their idea of nice mild weather is the English winter ! In order to avoid anything in the shape of heat they migrate very far north in summer, and in winter, being driven southwards by the intense Arctic cold, spread themselves all over the temperate zone. Thus it comes to pass that the full and the jack snipe, the grey lag-goose, the mallard, the gadwall, the pintail and the shoveller ducks, the widgeon and the teal, are winter visitors both to India and the British Isles. But whereas snipe, geese, and most ducks leave India for the hot weather, many of them remain in Great Britain for the summer and nest there. It is probable that the birds which spend the winter in Great Britain go further north to breed, their place in the British Isles being taken by species thai have wintered in Africa. The north of Scotland, even, is too far south to serve as a breeding place for some species. The little jack snipe (Gallinago gallinula) is one of these; he never breeds in England, whereas the common or full snipe (Gallinago coelestis) does. Hence the former is set down as a migrant in England, while the latter is thought to be a permanent resident. In point of fact both are migrants, as we see in India, but while some full snipe find a Scotch summer cool enough for them to breed in, all jack snipe find it insufferably hot.
A curious fact regarding snipe in India is that these birds appear in the south earlier than they do in the north. I do not know the earliest date after the end of the hot weather on which a snipe has been shot in the Punjab, but believe it to be considerably later than the last week in August, at which time snipe are regularly shot in the Madras Presidency. This is not what we should have expected. It is but reasonable to suppose that the earliest birds to arrive in India would take up their winter quarters in the north, and that the later arrivals, finding all eligible residences in the north already occupied, would go farther afield. The only explanation of the phenomenon which occurs to me is that the most northerly birds are the first to feel the approaching Arctic winter and so are the first to migrate. These, when they arrive in India, find the northern portion of the peninsula too hot for them, so pass on southwards until they come to the places where the temperature is at that season lower.
This article has already reached an undue length, yet quite a number of birds, more or less common in England and in India, have not been mentioned. On this account I owe apologies to the cuckoo, the stint, the sandpiper, the redshank, the ringed and the Kentish plovers. But the names of these and of eight score others, are they not written in the appendix ?