THE COMMON DOVES OF INDIA
THE dove family ought to have become extinct ages ago, if all that orthodox zoologists tell us about the fierce struggle for existence be true. They form a regular " Thirteen Society." They do everything they should not do, they disobey every rule of animal warfare, they fall asleep when sitting exposed on a telegraph wire, they build nests in all manner of foolish places, their nests are about as unsafe as a nursery can possibly be, and they flatly decline to lay protectively coloured eggs -: their white eggs are a standing invitation to bird robbers to indulge, like the Cambridge crew of 1906, in an egg diet; yet, in spite all of these foolhardy acts, doves flourish like the green bay tree. This is a fact of which I require an explanation before I can accept all the doctrines of the Neo-Darwinian school.
There are so many species of dove in India that when speaking of them one must perforce, unless one be writing a great monograph, confine oneself to two or three of the common species. I propose to-day to talk about our three commonest Indian doves, that is to say, the spotted dove (Turtur suratensis), the Indian ring-dove (Turtur risorius), and the little brown dove (Turtur cambayensis). I make no apology for discoursing upon these common species. I contend that we in India know so very little about even our everyday birds that it is a needless expenditure of energy to seek out the rarer species and study their habits ; we have plenty to learn about those that come into our verandahs and coo to us.
The curious distribution of our common Indian doves has not, so far as I know, been explained. In very few places are all three common. One or other of them is usually far more abundant than the others, and this one is usually the spotted dove. It is the commonest dove of Calcutta, of Madras, of Travancore, of Tirhoot, of Lucknow, but not of Lahore or Bombay or the Deccan. Why is this? Why is it that, whereas the Deccan is literally overrun by the ring- and the little brown dove, one can go from Bombay to Malabar without meeting one of these species, but seeing thousands of the spotted dove ?
The only explanation that I can offer of this pheno¬menon is that the spotted dove is the most pugnacious and the most pushing; that where he chooses to settle down he ousts the other species of dove more or less completely; but he, fortunately for the other species, does not choose to settle down in all parts of India. He objects to dry places. Hence he is not seen at Lahore or in the Deccan, or in the drier parts of the United Provinces, such as Agra, Muttra, Etawah, and Cawnpore.
This is only a theory of mine, and a theory in favour of which I am not able to adduce very much evidence, since my personal knowledge of India is confined to some half-a-dozen widely separated places. Moreover, this theory does not explain the absence of the spotted dove from Bombay. I should be very glad to know if there are any other moist parts of India where the spotted dove is not the most abundant of the cooing family.
The nest of the dove is a subject over which most ornithologists have waxed sarcastic. A more ramshackle structure does not exist; yet the absurd thing is that doves are most particular about the materials they use.
The other day I watched, with much amusement, a little brown dove at work nest building. It was constructing a shake-down in a small Lonicera bush. Now, obviously, since the nest is just a few twigs and stalks thrown together, any kind of short twig or stem will serve for building material. This, however, was not the view of the dove. If that creature had been constructing the Forth Bridge it could not have been more particular as regards the materials it picked up. It strutted about the ground, taking into its bill all manner of material only to reject it, until at last it picked up a dead grass stalk and flew off with it in triumph!
Presumably doves take the same trouble in selecting a site for their nest, nevertheless they sometimes eventually choose the most impossible spot. Thus Mr. A. Anderson has recorded the existence of a nest of a pair of little brown doves that " was placed close to the fringe of the kunnaut of his tent on one of the corner ropes, where it is double for some six inches and there knotted. The double portion was just broad enough, being three inches apart, to support the nest with careful balancing; the knot acted as a sort of buffer and prevented the twigs from sliding off, which most assuredly would otherwise have been the case, for the rope just there was at an angle of 45°."
Those foolish birds were not permitted to bring up their young, because the tent had to be struck before the eggs were laid.
In Lahore a favourite nesting site for the little brown dove is on the top of the rolled-up portion of the verandah chik. As the chik is composed of stout material, the rolled-up portion forms an excellent platform some four inches broad. But as the doves nest just as the weather is beginning to grow warm, the little home is apt to be somewhat rudely broken up. One pair, however, has this year successfully reared up two young hopefuls in a nest on this somewhat precarious site. The doings of these form the subject of the next article.
I once came across a nest of this little dove in a low, prickly bush beside a small canal distributory, three miles outside Lahore. The dove appeared to have used as the foundation for its nest an old one of the striated bush babbler (Argya caudata). (I object to calling this bird the common babbler, since, like common sense, it is not very common.) In the same bush, at the same level, that is to say, about a yard from the ground and only a couple of feet from the dove's nest, was that of a striated bush babbler containing three dark blue eggs. This is a case upon which those who believe that eggs laid in open nests are protectively coloured would do well to ponder.
There, side by side, in precisely the same environment, were two nests -: one containing white and the other dark blue eggs. Obviously both sets of eggs could not be protectively coloured ; as a matter of fact, both clutches of eggs were conspicuous objects. It not infrequently happens that the Indian robin (Thamnobia cambayensis), which lays white eggs thickly spotted with reddish brown, brings up a family in a disused nest of a striated bush babbler's. The eggs of this latter are dark blue. It is surely time that zoologists gave up throwing at us their everlasting theory of protective colouring. If this were a sine qua non of the safety of birds' eggs, then the whole dove tribe would, long ago, have ceased to exist.
This family presents the ornithologist with yet another problem in colouration. In every species, except the red turtle-dove (Oenopopelia tranquebarica), both sexes are coloured alike. In this latter, however, there is very pronounced sexual dimorphism. The ruddy wing feathers of the cock enable one to distinguish him at once from his mate and from every other dove. Now the habits of this dove appear to be exactly like those of all other species. It constructs the same kind of nest and in similar situations; why then the sexual dimorphism in this species and in no other species ? If the lady rufous turtle-dove likes nice ruddy wings, and thus the red wing has been evolved in the cock bird, why has she too not inherited it? I presume that even the most audacious Neo-Darwinian will not talk about her greater need of protection when sitting on the nest, for if she needs protection, how much more so do her white eggs ? Further, it is my belief that the cock bird takes his turn in the incubation.
It must not be thought that I am needlessly poking fun at modern biologists. I merely desire to call attention to the unsolved problems that confront us on all sides, and to protest against the dogmatism of biology which declares that the Darwinian theory explains the whole of organic nature. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the field naturalist cannot but feel that natural selection is turning out rather a failure.
In conclusion, one more word regarding the red turtle-dove. Its distribution has not been carefully worked out, and what we do know of it is not easy to explain. Hume says that it breeds in all parts of India, but is very capriciously distributed, and he is unable to say what kind of country it prefers, and why it is common in one district and rare in a neighbouring one in which all physical conditions appear identical.
It is very common in the bare, arid, treeless region that surrounds the Sambhur Lake. It is common in some dry, well-cultivated districts, like Etawah, where there are plenty of old mango groves. It is very common in some of the comparatively humid tracts, like Bareilly, and again in the sal jungles of the Kumaun Bhabar and the Nepal Terai. On the other hand, over wide extents of similar country it is scarcely to be seen. Doubtless there is something in its food or manner of life that limits its distribution, but no one has yet been able to make out what this something is.