MORE than fifty species of bulbul are found in India -: bulbuls of all sorts and conditions, of all shapes and sizes, from the brilliant green bulbuls (which, by the way, strictly speaking, are not bulbuls at all) to the dull-plumaged but blithe white-browed member of the community, so common in Madras; from the rowdy black bulbuls of the Himalayas to the highly respectable and well-behaved red-vented bulbuls. He who would write of them is thus confronted with an embarras de richesses. The problem that he has to solve is, which of the many species to take as his theme.
The polity of birds is said to be a republic. The problem may, therefore, well be elucidated on democratic principles. The first and foremost of these -: the main plank of every demagogue's platform -: is, of course, "one bulbul, one vote." The second is like unto the first, " every bulbul for itself." Therefore, on being asked to elect a representative to be the subject-matter of this paper, each will vote for his own species, and the result of the poll will be : Bulbuls of the genus Molpastes first, those of the genus Otocompsa a good second, and the rest a long way behind. Let us then conform to the will of the majority and consider for a little these two species of bulbul, which resemble one another very closely in their habits.
Molpastes is a bird about half as big again as the sparrow, but with a longer tail. The whole head is black and marked by a short crest. There is a conspicuous crimson patch of feathers under the tail. The remainder of the plumage is brown, but each feather on the body is margined with creamy white, so that the bird is marked by a pattern that is, as "Eha" points out, not unlike the scales on a fish. Both ends of the tail feathers are whitish.
Otocompsa is a more showy bird. The crest is long and projects forward over the forehead. The crimson patch, so characteristic of bulbuls, also exists in this species. There is a similar patch on each side of the head -: whence the bird's name, the red-whiskered bulbul. There is also a white patch on each cheek. The white throat is separated from the whitish abdo¬men by a conspicuous dark brown necklace. This bird must be familiar to every one who has visited Coonoor or any other southern hill station. The less showy variety -: the red-vented bulbul, as it is called -: is common in and about Madras.
It will be noticed that I have refrained from giving any specific name to either of these two genera. This is due to the fact that these bulbuls are widely distributed and fall into a number of local races, each of which has some little peculiarity in colouring. For this reason, bulbuls are birds after the heart of the museum ornithologist. They afford him ample scope for species-making.
If you go from Madras to the Punjab you will there meet with a bulbul which you will take for the same species as the bulbul you left behind in Madras. But if you look up the birds in an ornithological text-book you will find that they belong to different species. The Punjab bulbul is known as Molpastes intermedins, while the Madras bird is called M. haemorrhous. The only difference in appearance between the two species is that in the Madras bird the black of the head does not extend to the neck, whereas in the Punjab bird it does. Similarly, there is a Burmese, a Tenasserim, a Chinese, and a Bengal red-vented bulbul.
Now, I regard all these different bulbuls as local races of one species, which might perhaps be called Molpastes indicus; and I think that I am justified in holding this view by the fact that the bulbuls you come across at Lucknow do not fit in with the description of any of these so-called species. The reason is that the Bengal and the Madras races meet at Lucknow, and of course interbreed. The result is a cross between the two races.
In addition to the above there are some Molpastes which have white cheeks and a yellow patch under the tail. In all, nine or ten Indian " species " of Molpastes have been described.
The same applies in a lesser degree to Otocompsa. This is a widely distributed species, but is not so plastic as Molpastes. There is the Bengal red-whiskered bulbul (Otocompsa emeria), which is distinguishable from the southern variety (O. fuscicaudata) by having white tips to the tail feathers, and the dark necklace interrupted in the middle. There is also an Otocompsa with a yellow patch under the tail.
This division of a species or genus into a number of races or nearly allied species is interesting as showing one of the ways in which new species arise in Nature quite independently of natural selection. It is unreasonable to suppose that the extension into the neck of the black of the head in the Punjab bulbul and its non-extension in the Madras bulbul are due to the action of natural selection in each locality, that a bulbul with black in its neck is unfitted for existence in Madras.
Whenever a group of animals becomes isolated from its fellows, it almost invariably develops peculiarities which are of no help to it in the struggle for existence. Thus isolation is the cause of the origin of dialects and languages. A dialect is an incipient language, even as a race is a potential species.
But let us return to our bulbuls. The habits of both Otocompsa and Molpastes are so similar that we can speak of them together. They are what Mr. Finn calls thoroughly nice birds. They are, none of them, great songsters, but all continually give forth exceedingly cheery notes. The twittering of the red-whiskered bulbuls is not the least of the charms of our southern hill stations.
Bulbuls feed on insects and berries, so are apt to be destructive in gardens. They built nests of the orthodox type -: cups of the description always depicted on Christmas cards. These are built anywhere, without much attempt at concealment. Rose bushes are a favourite site, so are crotons, especially if they be in a verandah. A pair of bulbuls once built a nest in my greenhouse at Gonda. Among the fronds of a fern growing in a hanging basket did those unsophisticated birds construct that nest. Every time the fern was watered the sitting bird, nest, and eggs received a shower-bath!
Sometimes bulbuls do by chance construct their nest in a well-concealed spot, but then they invariably " give the show away" by setting up a tremendous cackling whenever a human being happens to pass by.
I have had the opportunity of watching closely the nesting operations of seven pairs of bulbuls; of these only one couple succeeded in raising their brood. The first of these nests was built in a croton plant in a verandah at Fyzabad. One day a lizard passed by and sucked the eggs. The next was the nest at Gonda already mentioned. In spite of the numerous waterings they received, the eggs actually yielded young bulbuls; but these disappeared when about four days old. The mali probably caused them to be gathered unto their fathers. The third nest was situated in a bush outside the drawing-room window of the house in which I spent a month's leave at Coonoor. This little nursery was so well concealed that I expected the parents would succeed in rearing their young. But one morning I saw on the gravel path near the nest a number of tell-tale feathers. Puss had eaten mamma bulbul for breakfast! The fourth nest -: but why should I detail these tragedies? Notwithstanding all their nesting disasters, bulbuls flourish so greatly as to severely shake one's faith in the doctrine of natural selection.
In conclusion, a word or two must be said concerning bulbuls in captivity. These birds make charming pets, but as their diet is largely insectivorous, they cannot be fed on seed. They become delightfully tame. One I kept used to fly on to my shoulder whenever it saw me, and open its mouth, nutter its wings, and twitter, which was its way of asking to be fed. It would insist on using my pen as a perch, and as one's handwriting is not improved by an excitable bulbul hopping up and down the penholder, I was obliged to shut the bird up in a cage when I wanted to write. The bulbul used to resent this, and did not hesitate to tell me so. In young birds the tail is very short, and the patch of feathers under it is pale red instead of being bright crimson.
Natives of India keep bulbuls for fighting purposes. These birds are not caged, but are tied to a cloth-covered perch by a long piece of fine twine attached to the leg. Bulbuls, although full of pluck, are not by nature quarrelsome. In order to make them fight they are kept without food for some time. Then two ravenous birds are shown the same piece of food. This, of course, leads to a fight, for a hungry bulbul is an angry bulbul.