A CROW IN COLOURS
From bough to bough the restless magpie roves, And chatters as she flies.
The magpie has been well called a crow in gay attire. The two species are related, and, as regards character, they are " birds of a feather." Both are bold, bad creatures, both rogues, thieves, and villains, and, as such, both appeal to me. The magpie with which we are familiar in England can scarcely be called an Indian bird. It does disport itself in happy Kashmir, and has been seen in the uninviting tract of land over which the Khan of Khelat presides. But India, as defined in the Income Tax Act, extends neither to Kashmir nor to Baluchistan, hence Pica rustica may decline to be considered an Indian subject. In this land of many trials his place is taken by his cousins the tree-pies. One of these -: the Indian tree-pie (Dendrocita rufa) -: is distributed throughout the plains of India, at least, so the books tell us. As a matter of fact, I have never seen the bird in or about Madras. This is curious, for Madras is a garden city (I speak not of Georgetown), and the bird ought to revel in the well-wooded compounds which beautify the capital of the Southern Presidency. Lest its absence from Madras be attributed to the profession tax, let me say that the best legal authorities are of opinion that the bird would not be liable to pay the tax. Not that it would make any difference if the bird were liable. If I know him aright, he would say to the importunate tax collector, " Go and get your hair cut," or words to that effect. Nor is there, so far as I can see, anything in the much-abused climate of Madras to frighten away the bird. Perhaps the doves are too much for him. If there be one thing more than another calculated to disturb the easily upset equilibrium of the gentle dove it is the sight of a tree-pie. In those places where it occurs you may, any day of the week, see one of these long-tailed rascals being pursued and buffeted by a pair of irate and hysterically screaming doves. In this particular case the doves have some excuse for their anger. The tree-pie, or the Indian magpie as Jerdon calls him, is, to use a colloquialism, dead-nuts on a new-laid egg for his breakfast, and, as doves always display their oological productions on a shakedown in a tree, and as I defy even a museum ornithologist to discover any trace of protective colouration about the aforesaid oological treasures, we cannot be surprised if the tree-pie thinks that doves lay eggs for his especial benefit. Even if the tree-pie does not happen to have been breakfasting off their eggs the doves have ample excuse for chastising him, for does not tradition tell us that Noah's curse is upon the bird? The rascal flatly refused to enter the Ark with the other birds, so that the Patriarch had actually to send Japhet to catch it!
Unfortunately, the tree-pie does not draw the line at eggs. It is said that it makes no bones about devouring a young bird. I have never seen the creature commit this enormity, but Jerdon is my authority for the fact that " Mr. Smith" has known a bird to enter a covered verandah of a house and nip off half a dozen young geraniums, visit a cage of small birds, begin by stealing the grain, and end by killing and eating the birds, and repeating these visits daily until destroyed. Facilis est descensus Averni.
This is only one side of the bird's character. I have seen a tree-pie literally obey the Biblical doctrine of turning the smitten cheek to the smiter; nor, so far as I know, did it, like the well-brought-up boy, after having allowed its second cheek to be smitten, take off its coat and thrash the smiter. The bird in question sat motionless on a branch with a seraphic smile on its face, and appeared to be ignorant of the fact that two little furies, in the shape of fantailed flycatchers, were making puny pecks at its plumage.
But before discoursing further upon the merits and demerits of our crow in colours, let me describe him. What applies to him applies to her. To the human eye there is no external difference between the two sexes. This by way of introduction. The tree-pie is a foot and a half long, one foot being tail and the remaining inches body. The head, neck, and breast are sooty brown, and the greater part of the remaining plumage is reddish fawn. The wings are brown and silver-grey. The tail is ashy grey broadly tipped with black. It is impossible to mistake a tree-pie; there is no other bird like it. Its flight is very characteristic, consisting of half a dozen rapid flaps of the wing followed by a little sail. The two middle tail feathers are much longer than the others, the pair next to the middle ones are the second longest, and the outer ones shortest of all. The bird, like all others, spreads out its tail during flight, and the expanded tail gives it a curious appearance.
The Indian tree-pie, as its name implies, dwells principally in trees, and spends most of its time in picking insects off the leaves and branches. When fruit is in season, it feeds largely on that. It moves with great agility from branch to branch, but it frequently descends to the ground to feed and drink. It does not, I think, ever accompany cattle, as does our poor, persecuted magpie at home. It is a sociable bird and is frequently seen in little companies of six or seven.
Like all socially inclined birds, it is very conversational. It has a great variety of notes, many of which are harsh and angry-sounding, others are whistling, metallic calls, acceptable to the human ear. The commonest of these sounds something like coch-lee, cock-lee. If, in a place where magpies abound, you hear any new and strange cry, you are tolerably safe in attributing it to one of those birds.
The Indian pie is not so expert a nest-builder as its European cousin. This latter, it will be remembered, builds a large domed structure of prickly twigs with an entrance at one side, well protected by thorns. I have not been able to discover why this bird is at such pains to protect the entrance to its nursery. It is so aggressive and pugnacious that no sane thing in feathers would dream of attempting to rob its nest. One ornithologist has put forth the brilliant suggestion that the protection is against its brother magpies. I cannot accept this, for I take it as an axiom that where one magpie can enter, there can another. We must also bear in mind that the Indian species manage to thrive very well in spite of their roofless nests.