THE NUTMEG BIRD
THE nutmeg bird or spotted munia (Uroloncha punctulata) is second only to the amadavat as an aviary favourite. The two species are almost invariably caged together This is, perhaps, the reason why I was once gravely assured by a lady that the spotted munia is the hen and the amadavat the cock of one and the same species ! Needless to say, the birds, although relatives, belong to different genera. The stouter bill of the spotted munia proclaims this. In colour the beak is bluish black or dark slate colour, and contrasts strongly with the chocolate-brown of the head, neck, back, wings, and tail. The breast is white with a number of black rings, which give it the appearance of a nutmeg-grater, hence the popular name of the bird. Fanciers go one better and call it the spice bird. If in years to come the former name be forgotten, etymologists will put their wise heads together and puzzle and wrangle over the derivation of the name " spice bird "!
The habits of the spotted munia are those of the amadavat. Like the latter, it seems to thrive in cap¬tivity ; it also loves warmth, and likes to go to roost with a warm companion on each side of it. Red and spotted munias live together very amicably in a cage; but as the latter, owing to their less showy plumage, are usually in a minority, they have to be content with outside positions at roosting-time. Sometimes my munias take it into their tiny heads to sleep on a perch which runs across a corner of the cage, and is barely long enough to accommodate them all. There are several other finer and longer perches, but, for some reason or other, they seem to prefer this one. Possibly its breadth is better adapted to the grip of their feet than that of any of the others. I may here say, in parenthesis, for the benefit of those who keep cage birds, that every cage should contain several perches of varying diameter, so as to permit the inmates of the cage the luxury of a change of grip.
Well, when a dozen birds persist in roosting on a perch intended only to seat ten, at least one of them is unable to find room on the perch, and is obliged either to sleep on the backs of some of his companions or make-believe that he is roosting on the perch. This latter feat is accomplished by the bird clutching hold of the two wires between which the perch passes and maintaining himself at an angle of 45° with the vertical. In this attitude a bird will sometimes sleep! Of course, its body is in part resting on that of its neighbour, but, allowing for this, a more uncomfortable position is in¬conceivable to a human being. The spotted munia, however, seems to find it tolerably comfortable.
Birds sleep standing, often on one leg. Did this require any appreciable muscular effort on the part of the bird there could be no rest in such an attitude, and the bird would fall off its perch as soon as it went to sleep. As a matter of fact, the muscles and tendons of a bird's hind-limb are so arranged that, to use the words of Mr. F. W. Headley, "when the leg bends at the ankle, there is a pull upon the tendons, the muscles are stretched, the toes are bent and grasp the perch on which the bird sits. Thus he is maintained by his own weight, which bends the leg and so causes the toes to grip." Thanks to this feature of their anatomy, passerine birds are able to sleep on branches of trees out of reach of prowling beasts of prey.
The great force with which a bird grasps its perch is worthy of note. As every hawker is aware, a falcon, when carried on the wrist, grips the leather gauntlet so tightly as to almost stop the circulation of the blood in the hand of the carrier. A fox cannot open its mouth when once its snout is in the iron grip of an eagle. Examples of the power of the grip of the foot of a passerine bird will occur to every one who has had much to do with our feathered friends. Crows habitually roost in the topmost branches of trees, which must be very violently shaken in a gale of wind ; yet the birds never seem to lose their hold.
I have said that the habits of the spotted munia are those of the amadavat; what was said of the latter applies to the former, with one exception. The spotted munia is no songster. Those who keep the bird must have seen him go through all the motions of singing, with a considerable display of energy, but scarcely a sound seems to issue. You may perhaps hear the feeblest noise, like that made by a wheezy and decrepit mosquito. When you see the bird's mandibles moving nineteen to the dozen with scarcely a sound issuing, you are inclined to think that he is either play¬ing dumb crambo or that he has taken leave of his senses. Nothing of the kind. The bird is singing his top notes, which are doubtless greatly appreciated by his mate. Sound is, as we all know in this scientific age, vibration appreciable to the ear. Air is the usual vibrat¬ing medium. Only certain vibrations are perceptible to the human auditory organ. Those having a recur¬rence of below thirty or above sixteen thousand per second do not produce the sensation of sound to the average human ear. There are thus numbers of vibra¬tions continually going on which are lost to us; to this category belong the vibrations in the air produced by the vocal cords of the spotted munia. The ear of a bird is constituted very differently from that of man, so that it is not surprising if birds can hear certain sounds imperceptible to us human beings. I may here say that the range of the human ear varies greatly in different individuals. Some men can hear vibrations of which the recurrence is but fifteen in the second, while others are said to appreciate notes caused by forty thousand vibrations per second. I have a friend who cannot hear a black partridge when it is calling; its notes are too high for the unusually limited range of his ear. I do not know if there are any people to whom the note of the nutmeg bird sounds quite loud; if there be, and these lines meet their eye, I hope they will give their brethren of more limited capacity the benefit of their experience.