A COUPLE OF NEGLECTED CRAFTSMEN
TWO Indian birds have a world-wide reputation. Every one has heard of the weaver bird (Ploceus baya) and the tailor-bird (Orthotomus sutorius). Their wonderful nests are depicted in every popular treatise on ornithology. They are both master-craftsmen and deserve their reputation. But there are in India birds who build similar nests whose very names are unknown to the great majority of Anglo-Indians. The Indian wren-warbler (Prinia inornata) weaves a nest quite as skilfully as the famous weaver bird. This neglected crafts¬man is common in nearly all parts of India, and, if you speak of the weaver bird to domiciled Europeans, they will think you mean this wren-warbler, for among such he is universally called the weaver bird; the famous weaver, whose portrait appears in every popular bird book, is known to them as the baya.
As its name implies, Prinia inornata is a plainly attired little bird. Its upper parts are earthy brown. It has the faintest suspicion of a white eyebrow, and its under plumage is yellowish white, the thighs being darker than the abdomen. Picture a slenderly built wren with a tail three inches in length, which looks as though it were about to fall out and which is constantly being waggled, and you have a fair idea of the appearance of this little weaver. But this description applies to dozens of other birds found in India. The various warblers are so similar to one another in appearance as to drive ornithologists to despair. The inimitable " Eha" admits that they baffle him. " There is nothing about them," he writes, "to catch the imagination of the historian, and they will never be famous. I have been perplexed as to how to deal with them. ... To attempt to describe each species is out of the question, for there are many, and they are mostly so like each other that even the title ornithologist does not qualify one to distinguish them with certainty at a distance. If you can distinguish them with certainty when you have them in your hand you will fully deserve the title."
It is, however, possible to recognise the Indian wren-warbler by its note. When once you have learned this you are able to identify the bird directly it opens its mouth. But how shall I describe it ? It is a peculiar, harsh but plaintive, twee, twee, twee; each twee follows close upon the preceding one, and gives you the idea that the bird is both excited and worried. If you see a fussy little bird constantly flitting about in a cornfield and uttering this note, you may be tolerably certain that the bird is the Indian wren-warbler. It never rises high in the air; it is but an indifferent exponent of the art of flying. It moves by means of laborious jerks of its wings. It is a true friend to the husbandman, since it feeds exclusively on insects. The most remarkable thing about it is its nest. This is a beautifully woven structure, composed exclusively of grass or strips of leaves of monocotyledonous plants which the bird tears off with its bill. These strands are invariably very narrow, and are sometimes less than one-twentieth of an inch in breadth. The nest may be described as an egg-shaped purse, some five or six inches in depth and three in width, with an entrance at one side, near the top. It is devoid of any lining, and its texture puts one in mind of a loosely made loofah. The nest is sometimes attached to two or more stalks of corn, or more commonly it is found among the long grasses which are so abundant in India. When the nest is built in a cornfield the birds have to bring up their family against time. They are unable to begin nest-building until the corn is fairly high, and must, if the young are to be safely started in life, have brought them to the stage when they are able to leave the nest by the time the crop is cut.
In India nearly every field of ripe corn has its family of wren-warblers; the two parents flit about, followed I by a struggling family of four. These little birds do not by any means always defeat time. Numbers of their nests containing half-fledged young are mown down at every harvest by the reaper's sickle. The nest is woven in a manner similar to that adopted by the baya; the cock and hen in each case work in combina¬tion. Its texture is looser than that of the more famous weaver, but it is not less neatly put together. In it are deposited four or five pretty little green eggs, marked with brown blotches and wavy lines.
Our second neglected craftsman is a tailor. It sews a nest so like that of the world-famous tailor as to be almost indistinguishable from it. Some authorities declare that the two nests are distinguishable. They assert that the nest of Orthotomus is invariably lined with some soft substance, such as cotton-wool, the silky down of the cotton tree, soft horse-hair, or even human hair, while that of the species of which we are speaking is lined with grass or roots. This distinction does not, however, invariably hold. I have seen nests of this species which have been lined with cotton-wool.
This bird is known to ornithologists as the ashy wren-warbler (Prima socialis), Anglo-Indian boys call it the tom-tit. It is a dark ashy-grey bird, with the sides of the head and neck and the whole of the lower plumage buff. There is a tinge of rufous in the wings and tail. It is most easily distinguished by the loud snapping noise it makes during flight. How this noise is produced we do not know for certain. Reid was of opinion that the bird snapped its long tail. What exactly this means I do not know. Jesse believes that the sound is produced by the bird's mandibles. I have spent much time in watching the bird, and am inclined to think that the noise is caused by the beating of the wings against the tail. This last is constantly being wagged and jerked, and it seems to me that the wings beat against it as the bird flits about. When doves and pigeons fly, their wings frequently meet, causing a flapping sound. I am of opinion that something similar occurs when the ashy wren-warbler takes to its wings.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this bird is the well-authenticated fact that it builds two types of nest. Besides this tailor-made nest, the species makes one of grass, beautifully and closely woven, domed, and with the entrance near the top. I have never seen this latter type of nest, but so many ornithologists have that there can be no doubt of its existence.
The strange thing is that both types of nest have been found in the same neighbourhood, so that the difference in the form of nursery is not a local peculiarity.
I am at a loss to account for the existence of these two types of nest. I have no idea how the habit can have arisen, nor do I know what, if any, benefit the species derives from this peculiarity. So far as I am aware, no one can say what it is that leads to the construction of one type of nest in preference to the other. The nests of this species present a most interesting ornithological problem. I hope one day to be in a position to throw some light on it; meanwhile I shall welcome the news that some one has forestalled me. The ashy wren-warbler is a common bird, so that most Anglo-Indians have a chance of investigating the mystery. The same kind of eggs are found in each type of nest. They are of exceptional beauty, being a deep mahogany or brick-red, so highly polished as to look as though they have been varnished.