THE EMERALD MEROPS
IF I have a favourite bird it is the little green bee-eater (Merops viridis). There is no winged thing more beautiful or more alluring. More showy birds exist, more striking, more gorgeous, more magnificent creatures. With such the bee-eater does not compete. Its beauty is of another order. It is that of the moon rather than of the sun, of the violet rather than of the rose. The exquisite shades of its plumage cannot be fully appreciated unless minutely inspected. Every feather is a triumph of colouring. No description can do the bird justice. To say that its general hue is the fresh, soft green of grass in England after an April shower, that the head is covered with burnished gold, that the tail is tinted with olive, that a black collarette adorns the breast, that the bill is black, that a streak of that colour runs from the base of the beak, backwards, through the eye, which is fiery red, that the feathers below this streak are of the purest turquoise-blue, as are the feathers of the throat -: to say all this is to convey no idea of the hundred shades of these colours, or the manner in which they harmonise and pass one into another. Nor is it easy for words to do justice to the shape of the bird ; even a photograph fails to express the elegance of its carriage and the perfection of its proportions. Were I to string together all the superlatives that I know, I should scarcely convey an adequate impression of the grace of its movements. I can but try to make the bird recognisable, so that the reader may see its beauties for himself.
He should look out for a little green bird with a black beak, slender and curved, and a tail of which the two middle feathers are very attenuated and project a couple of inches as two black bristles beyond the other caudal feathers. The bird should be looked for on a telegraph wire or the bare branch of a tree, for the habits of bee-eaters are those of fly-catchers. The larger species prey upon bees, hence the popular name, but I doubt whether the little Merops viridis tackles an insect so large as a bee. It feeds upon smaller flying things, which it captures on the wing. As it rests on its perch its bright eyes are always on the look out for passing insects. When one comes into view, the bird sallies forth. Very beautiful is it as it sails on outstretched wings. The under surface of these is reddish bronze, so that their possessor seems to become alternately green and gold as the sun's rays fall on the upper or lower surface of its pinions. Its long mandibles close upon its prey with a snap sufficiently loud to be audible from a distance of five or six yards. This one may frequently hear, for bee-eaters are not shy birds. They will permit a human being to approach quite near to them, as though they knew that the fulness of their beauty was apparent only on close inspection.
The little green bee-eater utters what Jerdon calls "a rather pleasant rolling whistling note," which, if it cannot be dignified by the name of song, adds considerably to the general attractiveness of the bird. Bee-eaters are, alas! not very abundant in Madras, but, if looked for, may be seen on most days in winter. The Adyar Club grounds seem to be their favourite resort. When driving into the club at sunset I have often surprised a little company of them taking a dust bath in the middle of the road. The bath over, the little creatures take to their wings and enjoy a final flight before retiring for the night.
Bee-eaters are, I think, migratory birds. It is true that they are found all the year round in many parts of India, but such places appear to be the winter quarters of some individuals and the summer residences of others. There is an exodus of bee-eaters from Calcutta about March. A similar event occurs in Madras, although in the latter place the birds are seen all the year round, a few remaining to breed. In Lahore, on the other hand, the birds arrive in March, and, having reared their young, leave in September.
The nest is a circular hole excavated by the bird, usually in a sandbank, sometimes in a mud partition between two fields. I saw a nest in Lahore in one of the artificial bunkers on the golf links. Major C. T. Bingham states that in 1873, when the musketry instruction of his regiment was being carried on at Allahabad, he observed several nest holes of this species in the face of the butts. The birds seemed utterly regardless of the bullets that every now and then buried themselves with a loud thud in the earth close beside them. Colonel Butler gives an account of a bee-eater nesting in an artificial mudbank, about a foot high, that marked the limits of the badminton court in the Artillery Mess compound at Deesa. One of the birds invariably sat upon the badminton net when people were not playing, and at other times on a tree close by, while its mate was sitting on the eggs. As I have already said, bee-eaters are not afflicted with shyness.
Very soon after their arrival at Lahore the birds begin their courtship. At this period they seem to spend the major portion of the day in executing circular flights in the air. They shoot forth from their perch and rapidly ascend by flapping their wings, then they sail for a little on outstretched pinions and thus return to the perch.
Courtship soon gives place to the more serious business of nest construction. When a suitable spot has been found, the birds at once begin excavating, digging away at the earth with pick-like bill and holding on to the wall of the bank by their sharp claws until the hole they are making becomes sufficiently deep to afford a foothold. As the excavation grows deeper the bird throws backwards with its feet the sand it has loosened with its beak, sending it in little clouds out of the mouth of the hole. While one bird is at work its mate perches close by and gives vent to its twittering note. After working for about two minutes the bird has a rest and its partner takes a turn at excavation. Thus the work proceeds apace. Bee-eaters look spick and span, even when in the midst of this hard labour. The dry sand that envelops them, far from soiling their plumage, acts as a dust bath. When the hole, which is about two inches in diameter, has reached a length of some four feet, it is widened out into a circular chamber about twice the size of a cricket ball. In this three or four white eggs are laid. These have been well described as "little polished alabaster balls." They are placed on the bare ground. Young bee-eaters lack the elongated bristlelike tail feathers of the adult birds. A very pleasing sight is that of a number of the youngsters sitting in a row on a telegraph wire receiving instruction in flying.
In conclusion, mention must be made of a near relative of the little bee-eater. I allude to the blue-tailed species (Merops philippinus), which also occurs in Madras. This is a larger and less beautiful edition of the green bee-eater. It is distinguishable by its size, the rusty colour of its throat, and its blue tail. It is usually found near water. He who shoots snipe in the paddy near Madras comes across numbers of these birds sitting on the low walls that divide up the fields. The habits of the blue-tailed bee-eater are those of its smaller cousin. Although its song is more powerful, it is a less attractive bird.