DOVES IN A VERANDAH
THE office building in which for some time past I have rendered service to a paternal government was once a tomb. That it is now an office is evidence of the strict economy practised by the Indian Administration. Since the living require more light than the dead, skylights have been let into the domed roof. In these the brown rock-chat (Cercomela fused) loves to sit and pour forth his exceedingly sweet little lay, while his spouse sits on four pale blue eggs in a nest on a ledge in a neighbouring sepulchre. But it is not of this bird that I write to-day; I hope to give him an innings at some future date.
Two little brown doves (Turtur cambaiensis) first demand our attention, since these for a time appro¬priated my skylights. This species is smaller than the spotted dove so common in Madras, and, to my way of thinking, is a much more beautiful bird. Its head, neck, and breast are pale lilac washed with red. On each side of the neck the bird carries a miniature chessboard. The remainder of its plumage is brown, passing into grey and white. The legs are lake-red.
It has a very distinctive note -: a soft, subdued musical cuk-cuk-coo-coo-coo. There is no bird better pleased with itself than the little brown dove. In the month of March the two doves in question were " carrying on " in my office skylight to such an extent as to leave no doubt that they had a nest somewhere. I discovered it on the rolled-up end of one of the bamboo verandah chiks. These are not let down in the cold weather, so that the doves had been permitted to build undisturbed.
"Eha" has humorously described a dove's nest as composed of two short sticks and a long one; that of the little brown dove is a little more compact than the typical nest, a little less sketchy, and composed of grass and fine twigs. There was plenty of room for it on the top of the rolled-up portion of the chik.
When I found the nest there were two white eggs in it. Every species of dove lays but two eggs. I do not know whether the smallness of the clutch has anything to do with the helplessness of the young birds when first hatched. Young doves and pigeons have not, like other baby birds, great mouths which open to an alarming extent. They feed by putting their beaks in the mouth of the parent and there they obtain "pigeon's milk," which is a secretion from the crop of the old birds.
Being at that time less versed in the ways of the little brown dove than I now am, I was under the impression that this nest was in rather a curious situation, so I determined to obtain a photograph of it with the young birds. I may here say that I dislike photography, and not without cause. Some years ago I visited the Himalayan snows, and dragged up a great camera and a number of plates to an altitude of 12,000 feet. Having no portable dark room, I endured untold agonies while changing the plates under the bedclothes. Being anxious lest the light should reach the exposed negatives, I wrapped them up very carefully, using newspaper, which was the only wrapping available. When I returned from the expedition I developed the plates, but lo and behold! instead of snowy peaks and sunny valleys, advertisements of soaps and pills appeared on the plates. Why do not books on the camera tell one not to wrap up plates in newspaper? I made a vow to leave photography to others, and I kept the vow until I saw those young doves perched so temptingly on the chik.
Having risked both life and limb in mounting a chair placed upon a table, I obtained a " snap " at the nest. On developing the plate everything appeared with admirable clearness except the nest. There was nothing but a blur where this should have been ; the rest of the chik came out splendidly. The only explanation of this phenomenon that I can offer is the natural " cussedness " of the camera. I have now renewed my vow to eschew photography.
The first young doves were successfully reared. No sooner had they been driven forth into the world than the parents set about repairing the nest, for doves are not content with one brood; when once a pair commence nesting there is no knowing when they will stop. As it was then April and the sun was growing uncomfortably hot, the letting down of the chik became a matter of necessity, and this, of course, wrecked the nest. I expected to see no more of the doves. In this I was mistaken. Before long they were billing and cooing as merrily as before. A little search showed that this time they had built a nest on the top of the same chik -: a feat which I should have thought impossible had I not seen the nest with my own eyes. Some sacking was attached to the chik, and this, together with the bamboo, presented a surface of about half an inch. On this precarious foundation the nest rested ; the twigs, of course, reached over to the wall from which the chik was hung. Thus the nest received some additional support. Needless to say, the young birds had to remain very still or they would have fallen out of the nest.
The second and the third broods were raised without mishap. One of the birds of the fourth family was more restless than his brethren had been; consequently he fell off the nest on to the floor of the verandah. He was picked up and brought to me. Although not strong enough to walk, or even stand, he showed unmistakable signs of that evil temper which characterises all doves, by opening his wings and pecking savagely at my hand. In spite of this behaviour I set natural selection at naught by putting him back into the nest. He fell out again next day and was again replaced. This time he stayed there, and is now probably at large.
When the fifth clutch of eggs was in the nest my chaprassi, who, since I have shown him how to play cuckoo, has been upsetting the domestic affairs of any number of birds, asked whether he might substitute two pigeon's eggs for those laid by the dove. The substitution was duly effected without rousing any suspicions on the part of the doves. The young pigeons soon hatched out and were industriously fed by their foster-parents, nor did these latter appear to notice anything unusual when the white plumage of the pigeons appeared. Two days before the changelings were ready to fly a terrific storm arose and so shook the chiks that the poor pigeons were thrown off and killed. Nothing daunted, the doves have since successfully reared a sixth family! Can we wonder that doves are numerous in India ?