The Adjutant Bird


THE adjutant bird (Leptoptilus dubius) is one of Nature's little jokes. It is a caricature of a bird, a mixture of gravity and clownishness. Everything about it is calculated to excite mirth -: its weird figure, its great beak, its long, thin legs, its conspicuous pouch, its bald head, and every attitude it strikes. The adjutant bird is a stork which has acquired the habits of the vulture. Forsaking to a large extent frogs and such-like delicacies, which constitute the normal diet of its kind, it lives chiefly upon offal. Now, most, if not all, birds which feed on carrion have the head and neck devoid of feathers. This arrangement, if not ornamental, is very useful. The bare head and neck are, as " Eha " remarks, " the sleeves tucked up for earnest work." The adjutant forms no exception to the rule, it wears the badge of its profession. But let me here give a full description of this truly comic bird. It stands five feet in its stockings. Its bill is over a foot in length and correspondingly massive. As we have seen, the whole head and neck are 'bare, except for a few feathers scattered over it like the hairs on an elephant's head. The bare skin is not lacking in colour. On the forehead it is blackish; it becomes saffron-yellow on the upper neck, while lower down it turns to brick-red. There is a ruff of white feathers round the base of the neck. This ruff, of course, appears entirely out of place and adds to the general grotesqueness of the bird. The back and wings are ashy black, becoming slaty grey at the breeding season. The lower parts are white.

As if the creature, thus arrayed, were not sufficiently comic, Nature has given it a great pouch which dangles from the neck. This is over a foot in length and hangs down like a bag when inflated. It is red in colour, spotted with black. Its situation naturally leads one to believe that it is connected with the gullet, that it is a receptacle into which the bird can hastily pass the garbage it swallows pending more complete disposal. But it is nothing of the sort. It does not communicate directly with the oesophagus. Knowing this, one is able to appreciate to the full the splendid mendacity of the writer to Chambers's Journal in 1861, who declares that he witnessed an adjutant swallow a crow which he watched " pass into the sienna-toned pouch of the gaunt avenger. He who writes saw it done."

Note the last sentence. The scribe was evidently of opinion that people would not believe him, so thought to clinch matters by bluffing! But, to do him justice, it is quite possible that he did see an adjutant swallow a crow, for other observers have witnessed this, but the remainder of the story rests upon the sandy foundation of the imagination. If the truth must be told, we do not know for certain what the use of this pouch is. Blyth suggested that it is analogous to the air cell attached to one lung only of the python or the boaconstrictor, and, as in that case, no doubt supplies oxygen to the lungs during protracted meals. The bird can thus " guzzle" to its heart's content without having to stop every now and then to take a "breather."

But we must return to the appearance of the bird, for the account of this is not yet complete, since no mention has been made of the eye. This is white and very small, and so gives the bird a wicked, knowing expression, like that of an elephant. Colonel Cunningham speaks of " the malignantly sneaking expression of the pallid eyes." This is perhaps a little severe on the adjutant, but it is, I fear, quite useless to deny the fact that he has " a canister look in his heye."

A mere description of the shape and colouring of the adjutant does not give any idea of his comicality. It is his acts rather than his appearance that make him so ludicrous. Except when floating high above the earth on his great pinions the bird always looks grotesque. To say that he, as he walks along, recalls a hunchbacked old man who is deliberately " clowning" is to give a hopelessly inadequate idea of the absurdity of his movements. Lockwood Kipling is nearer the mark when he says: " For grotesque devilry of dancing the Indian adjutant beats creation. Don Quixote or Malvolio were not half so solemn or mincing, and yet there is an abandonment and lightness of step, a wild lift in each solemn prance, which are almost demoniacal. If it were possible for the most angular, tall, and demure of elderly maiden ladies to take a great deal too much champagne and then to give a lesson in ballet dancing, with occasional pauses of acute sobriety, perhaps some faint idea might be conveyed of the peculiar quality of the adjutant's movements."

Sometimes the bird struts along solemnly with bent back and forwardly pointed bill, at others it will jump or skip along with outstretched wings and clap its beak. It cannot even stand still without striking ludicrous attitudes. Seen from behind, it looks like a little hunchbacked old man with very thin legs, dressed in a grey swallow-tail coat. Adjutants sometimes vary the monotony of existence by standing on one leg; occasionally they sit down, stretching their long legs out in front, and looking " as though they were kneeling wrong side foremost."

Colonel Cunningham gives a most entertaining account of the habits of these birds, many of which used, until quite recently, to be seen about Calcutta. My observations are chiefly confined to birds in captivity ; this perhaps accounts for the fact that they do not agree in all respects with those of the Colonel. According to him, adjutants "are singularly ill-tempered birds, constantly squabbling with one another, even in the absence of any cause of competition, such as favourite roosts or specially savoury stores of offal. Even whilst several of them are standing quietly about, sunning themselves and apparently buried in deep thought, a quarrel will suddenly arise for no apparent reason ; and then you may see two monstrous fowls begin to pace around, cautiously stalking one another, and watching for a favourable opportunity of striking and buffeting with beak and wings. The expression of slow malignity with which such duellists regard one another is gruesome, and the injuries resulting from the fray are often ghastly; blinded eyes and bloody cockscombs being matters of everyday occurrence."

Captive adjutants seem to be most placid birds. There are three of them in the " Zoo " at Lahore, kept in a large park-like enclosure, and I have never seen these fighting. They appear to be always, if not on the best of terms, at any rate, indifferent to one another. The three will stand for many minutes at a time in a row, motionless as statues. Sometimes a male and a female will huddle up to one another and remain thus, with their heads almost touching, looking like caricatures of Darby and Joan.

The table manners of adjutants, like those of most other carrion feeders, are not polite. I will therefore not attempt to describe them. In the good old days, feeding adjutants used to be a favourite pastime of Mr. Thomas Atkins at Calcutta. I regret to have to say that his motives were not always purely philanthropic. To connect two pieces of meat by a long string and then throw them among a crowd of adjutants savours of practical joking. One bird, of course, swallows one piece of meat, while a second adjutant secures the other morsel. All goes well until each of the birds tries to go its own way -: then a tug-of-war results, fraught with gastronomical disturbance to the combatants.

Adjutants are nowhere very abundant; they are nevertheless spread over the whole of Northern India, but do not appear to be found so far south as Madras. Another species, however -: the smaller adjutant (L. javanicus) -: has been observed on the Malabar coast.

Some natives make adjutant-catching their profession. The birds are captured on account of their down-like feathers, which are of considerable commercial value.

The catcher fits the skin of an adjutant over his head and shoulders, and in this attire creeps up to a company of the birds as they stand half-asleep, knee-deep in water. Great is the surprise of the unsuspecting birds when one of them is unceremoniously seized by the wolf in the adjutant's skin.

Birds Of The Plains
Dewar, Douglas. Birds of the Plains, 1909.
Title in Book: 
The Adjutant Bird
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Page No: 
Common name: 
Adjutant Bird

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