A FEATHERED SPRINTER
WHICH is the most difficult bird to shoot? You may put this question to a dozen sportsmen; probably no two will name the same bird, and each will be able to give excellent reasons why the particular fowl he mentions is the hardest to hit. The reason for this diversity of opinion is simply that there exists no bird more difficult to shoot than all others. Even as beauty is said to be in the eye of the beholder, so does the difficulty, or otherwise, of shooting any particular species depend upon the idiosyncrasies of the would-be slayer. To some shooters all birds, with the possible exception of the coot, are difficult to bring down, while others are able to make every flying thing appear an easy mark.
To my way of thinking the chukor (Caccabis chucar) takes a lot of hitting, but this species receives much help on account of its mountainous habitat. It is difficult to hit even a hoary old peacock if the bird gets up when you, already pumped to exhaustion by a stiff climb, are engaged in scrambling from one terraced field to another with your gun at " safe." The chukor, thanks to the fact, conclusively proved by our friend Euclid, that any two sides of a triangle are greater than the third, enjoys so great an advantage over the wingless shikari that it would be a contemptible creature were it not difficult to shoot. Were I the leader of a covey of chukor, I should thoroughly enjoy an attempt to shoot me. Having taken up a strategic position near the summit of a steep hill, I should squat there in full view until the sportsman had by laborious effort climbed to a spot some hundred and twenty yards from where I was sitting; I should then gracefully retire with my retinue across the khud to the opposite hill, and watch with interest the shooter clamber down one limb of an isosceles triangle and swarm up the other. Some time before he had completed the operation I should again proceed to give him a practical demonstration of the fact that the base of certain triangles is considerably shorter than the sum of the other two sides.
If you take away from the chukor his natural advantages I am inclined to think that the grey partridge (Francolinus pondicerianus) is the more difficult bird to shoot. This species is common in most parts of India, yet I do not remember ever having heard of any one making a big bag of grey partridge. Some there are who say that the bird is not worth shooting. If these good folk mean that the shooting of the partridge involves so large an expenditure of ammunition as to deter them from the undertaking I am inclined to agree with them. Given a fair field in the shape of a plain well studded with prickly pear, there is, in my opinion, no bird more difficult to hit than the grey partridge. It is, like all game birds proper, a very rapid flier for a short distance. But it is not so much this which makes it hard to shoot as the rapidity with which it can run along the ground and the close manner in which it lies up. According to Mr. Lockwood Kipling, the grey partridge, as it runs, " suggests a graceful girl tripping along with a full skirt well held up." In a sense the simile is a good one, for the lower plumage of the partridge is curiously " full," and so does make the bird look as though it were holding up its skirts. But until graceful young ladies are able to gather up their ample skirts and sprint the " hundred " two or three yards in¬side " level time," it will be inaccurate to compare the tripping gait of the one to the speedy motion of the other. The grey partridge is a winged sprinter, a feathered Camilla. It can for a short distance hold its own comfortably against a galloping horse. Frequently have I come upon a covey, feeding in the open and giving vent to the familiar call, and have immediately proceeded to stalk it in the hopes of obtaining a couple of good shots. Before getting within range, one of the birds invariably " spots " me and gives the alarm. The calling immediately ceases and the partridges walk briskly to cover. The instant they disappear I dash towards the cover, hoping to surprise and flush them, but they run three yards to my two, and by the time I reach the bushes into which they betook themselves they are laughing at me from afar.
Then the way in which a partridge will sometimes lie up in comparatively thin cover is remarkable. One day, when shooting snipe at sunrise, I surprised a partridge feeding in a field. I fired, but apparently did not hit the bird, for it disappeared into a clump of palm trees and prickly pear. Taking up a position close to this clump, I instructed my beaters to throw stones into it. This they did, but half a dozen stones, to say nothing of as many chunks of clay and the most frantic yells and shouts, elicited no response from the partridge. I therefore moved on, and the moment I had turned my back on the clump the bird flew out! This is typical of my experience as a partridge shooter; the birds almost invariably get up from cover at a moment when I cannot possibly take a shot at them. Well might I sing with Cowper -:
I stride o'er the stubble each day with my gun Never ready to shoot till the covey is flown.
For these reasons partridge shooting is to me a particularly exasperating form of sport. There are few things more annoying than to hear -: "the partridge burst away on whirring wings," from a bush on which you have just turned your back after having thrown into it half the contents of a ploughed field !
I am not a bloodthirsty individual, and enjoy watching birds through a field-glass quite as much as, if not more than, shooting them with a gun, but there is something in the call of the grey partridge which makes me want to shoot him. His shrill " pateela, pateela, pateela," seems to be a challenge. Grahame sings -: Cheerily The partridge now her tuneless call repeats.
For " cheerily " write " cheekily " and you have a good description of the call of our Indian grey partridge, which may be heard in Madras every morning during the winter months.
This bird does not build an elaborate nest. There is no necessity for it to do so. A nest is a nursery in which young birds are for a time sheltered from the dangers that beset them in the world. When they have developed sufficiently to be able to look after themselves they leave the nest.
It is one of the characteristics of the gallinaceous family of birds, which includes grouse, poultry, pea- and guinea-fowl, pheasants, turkeys, and quail, that their young are able to run about almost immediately after issuing from the egg. They are born covered with down, and are thus at first very unlike their parents. They are in reality larvae, that is to say, embryonic forms which are able to fend for themselves with little or no assistance from their parents. They change into the adult form, not hidden away in a nursery, but in the open world.
The nest, then, of the partridge is a very insignificant affair. It is usually a depression in the ground, so shallow as to be barely perceptible, and always well concealed in a bush or tuft of grass. Sometimes the eggs are laid on the bare soil, but more usually the depression is lined with grass or leaves. Occasionally the lining is so thick as to form a regular pad. From six to nine whitish eggs are laid. These do not match the ground or material on which they lie, hence cannot be considered as examples of protective colouring. Their safety depends on the fact that they are hidden away under a bush or tuft of grass. The hen, too, is a very close sitter, and her plumage assimilates well with the surroundings of the nest.