THE GOLDEN ORIOLE
DAME Nature must have been in a very generous mood when she manufactured golden orioles, or she would never have expended so much of her colour-box upon them. Orioles are birds which compel our attention, so brilliant are they; yet the poets who profess to be the high-priests of Nature give us no songs about these beautiful creatures; at least I know of no maker of verse, with the exception of Sir Edwin Arnold, who does more than mention the oriole. Here then is a fine opening for some twentieth-century bard!
Two orioles, or mango birds as they are sometimes called, are common in India. They are the Indian oriole (Oriolus kundoo) and the black-headed oriole (0. melanocephalus). The Indian oriole is a bird about the size of a starling. The plumage of the cock is a splendid rich yellow. There is a black patch over and behind the eye. There is some black on the tail, and the large wing feathers are also of this colour. The bill is pink and the eyes red. In the hen the yellow of the back is deeply tinged with green.
The black-headed oriole may be distinguished by his black head, throat, and upper breast. The habits of both species are similar in every respect. The Indian oriole seems to be merely a winter visitor to Madras, and it is seen in the Punjab only during the hot weather. In the. intervening parts it may be observed all the year round; hence the species would appear to perform a small annual migration, leaving the South in the hot weather. In those parts where orioles are found all the year round it is not improbable that the birds one sees in the winter are not those that are observed during the summer.
The oriole is essentially a bird of the greenwood tree; if you would see him you should betake yourself to some well-irrigated orchard. I have never seen an oriole on the ground; its habits are strictly arboreal, but it does not seem to be at all particular about taking cover. It perches by preference on the topmost bough of a tree, and if this bough be devoid of leaves, so much the better, for the bird enjoys a more extensive view of the surrounding country. Very beautiful does such a bird look, sitting outlined against the sky, as the first rays of the morning sun fall upon and add fresh lustre to its golden plumage. Orioles feed upon both fruit and insects, and so cannot be regarded as unmixed blessings to the agriculturalist.
As I have already said, Dame Nature has been exceedingly kind to this bird; not content with decking him out in brilliantly coloured raiment, she has endowed him with a voice of which any bird might well be proud. It is a clear, mellow whistle, which is usually syllabised as peeho, peeho, or lorio, lorio ; indeed, the name oriole is probably onomatopoetic. In addition to this the bird has several other notes.
These are not pleasant to the ear and may be described as blends, in varying proportions, of the harsh call of the king-crow and the miau of a cat. The hen almost invariably utters such a note when a human being approaches the nest; but the cry apparently does not always denote alarm, for I have heard an oriole uttering it when sitting placidly in a tree, seemingly at peace with all the world; but perhaps that particular bird may have been indulging in unpleasant day dreams; who knows ?
We hear much of the marvellous nests of tailor- and weaver-birds, but never of that of the oriole. Naturalists, equally with poets, have neglected this beautiful species. An oriole's nest is in its way quite as wonderful as that of the tailor-bird. If a man were ordered to erect a cradle up in a tree, he would, I imagine, construct it precisely as the oriole does its nest. This last is a cup-shaped structure slung on to two or three branches of a tree by means of fibres which are wound first round one branch, then passed under the nest, and finally wound round another bough. The nest is therefore, as Hume pointed out, secured to its supporting branches in much the same way as a prawn net is to its wooden framework.
In places where there are mulberry trees the oriole shaves off narrow strips of the thin, pliable bark and uses these to support the nest Jerdon describes one wonderful nest, taken by him at Saugor, that was suspended by a long roll of cloth about three-quarters of an inch wide, which the bird must have pilfered from some neighbouring verandah. "This strip," he states, " was wound round each limb of the fork, then passed round the nest beneath, fixed to the other limb, and again brought round the nest to the opposite side ; there were four or five of these supports on either side." The nest was so securely fixed that it could not have been removed till the supporting bands had been cut or had rotted away. Here then is an example of workmanship which the modern jerry-builder might well emulate.
I have made repeated attempts to see orioles at work on the supports of the nest, but so far have only managed to observe them lining it. Upon one occasion I came upon a nest some fifteen feet from the ground from which hung two strips of fibre about sixteen inches long that had been wound round one branch. I waited for some time, hoping the birds would return and allow me to see them finish the adjustment of these fibres; but unfortunately there was no cover available, and the oriole is an exceedingly shy bird; it will not do anything to the nest if it knows it is being watched.
The completed nursery, viewed from below, looks like a ball of dried grass wedged into the fork of a branch, and may easily be mistaken for that of a king-crow, but this last is, of course, not bound to the branches like that of the oriole.
A very curious thing that I have noticed about the Indian oriole's nest is that it is always situated either in the same tree as a king-crow's nest or in an adjacent tree. I have seen some thirteen or fourteen orioles' nests since I first noticed this phenomenon, and have, in every case, found a king-crow's nest within ten yards.
The drongo builds earlier, for it is usually feeding its young while the oriole is incubating. It would therefore appear that it is the oriole which elects to build near the king-crow. I imagine that it does so for the sake of protection ; it must be a great thing for a timid bird to have a vigorous policeman all to itself, a policeman who will not allow a big creature to approach under any pretext whatever.
The oriole lays from two to four white eggs spotted with reddish brown. These spots readily wash off, and sometimes the colour " runs " and gives the whole egg a pink hue. Although both sexes take part in the construction of the nursery, the work of incubation appears to fall entirely upon the hen. I have never seen a cock oriole sitting on the nest.