" A wren, light rustling Among the leaves and twigs."
WERE a census taken of the birds of Madras, the crows would come easily first on the list; but there would be keen competition between the mynas and the tailor-birds for the second place, and I should hesitate to say whether the sparrows or the king-crows would establish a right to the fourth place, a long way behind the third. Abundant though they be, tailorbirds are unknown to quite a number of people. It is not that they avoid the public gaze or shun the "madding crowd." Far from it. The tailor-bird is essentially a creature of garden and verandah; but he is not arrayed in gay plumage and is very small, so fails to attract the eye. His feathers are of sober hue, but he makes up with vivacity what he lacks in brilliance of plumage.
Little folks tend to be more vivacious than big ones. The reason of this is, I suppose, that the little people have less bulk of body to keep going, and consequently have a larger stock of surplus energy. It is as well that this is so. How ridiculous would a man of 6 feet 5 inches appear who habitually gesticulated and flung himself about like a volatile Frenchman! Equally absurd would a goose be that flirted its tail and hopped about as a tailor-bird does. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.
Some little men and women are as stolid as buffaloes, and some small birds are as sedate as Mark Twain's frog was after the shot had been administered to it. But these are few and far between. They are merely the exceptions which prove the rule.
I must now describe the tailor-bird, or, to give him his full name and title, Orthotomus sutorius. He is just a tiny greenish-brown wren-like bird; indeed, he is a relative of Mistress Jenny Wren, with whom we are so familiar in England.
During the greater part of the year Mr. and Mrs. Durzie are alike in outward appearance. The upper plumage is greenish with a dash of gold or chestnut on the head. This last is set off by a neat black collar, visible only when the neck is stretched; but as the bird cannot sing without stretching its neck, and as it sings, or rather makes a noise, all day long, the black collar is not difficult to distinguish. The lower parts of the bird are dull white, and are thus lighter in colour than the back and wings. This arrangement is very common in nature among many classes of animals.
Of the birds clothed in sombre plumage, such as snipe, sandpipers, and babblers, fully ninety percent are darker in colour above than below. Paradoxical though it may seem, this distribution of colour causes an animal to be less conspicuous than it would be were it of a uniform brown hue.
This is proved by the following experiment conducted at the Natural History Museum, South Kensington. In a square box, lined with grey flannel, are placed two bird models, which are covered with flannel of the same hue as that which lines the box. One model is painted dark above and white below, the other is left un-coloured, or, rather, is grey all over. The uncoloured bird is the more conspicuous. The painted bird, by counteracting the normal light and shade, becomes at two yards' distance almost invisible. This may be one of the reasons why so many birds, beasts, and fishes are darker in colour above than below.
But to return to the description of the tailor-bird. In the breeding season, that is to say, from April to August, the two middle tail-feathers of the cock bird grow to a greater length than the others and project two inches beyond them as sharp bristles.
Such then are tailor-birds, of which a dozen or more are to be seen in almost every garden in the plains of India, flitting and hopping about among the shrubs and plants looking for insects, and giving vent to their note, which may be syllabized as to-wit, to-wit, to-wit, or pretty, pretty, pretty. The sound varies greatly with the individual. Some people object to the call of the tailor-bird; they complain that it " gets on their nerves."
Personally, I would not willingly miss the joyous note from the bird-chorus, although I am prepared to say, with Colonel Cunningham, that whilst listening to it " one realizes the beauty of the dispensation that has decreed that in the animal kingdom there should be no necessary direct ratio between size and vocal power; an elephant with a voice on the scale of that of a tailor-bird would have been a nuisance to a whole district."
The tailor-bird is interesting chiefly on account of the nest it constructs, which is one of the most wonderful things in Nature. The nursery in which the young tailors are born is composed of one or more leaves which are sown together by the parents. The bird's beak is its needle, and the cotton is begged, borrowed, or stolen. If the fruit of the silk-cotton tree be ripe, the tailor-bird extracts cotton from this and spins it into thread with beak and feet If there be no silk-cotton trees in the neighbourhood the bird often has recourse to "the fibrous webbing at the bases of the petioles of the common toddy palm."
A lady who resides in Madras informs me that she once saw a tailor-bird spinning thread for its nest out of a spider's web. The bird of course prefers its cotton thread ready-made when it can find it, so does not hesitate to rifle a lady's work-box if it espies one in an accessible place. I would advise those who are fond of watching birds to leave some pieces of cotton in the verandah during the nesting season, and if there be some cannas among the pot plants the chances are that a pair of tailor-birds will elect to construct a nest in that friendly verandah.
The method of nest-building varies with the kind of leaf. If it be a large one, the sides are drawn together and stitched to keep them in situ. Exactly how the sewing is performed and the knot made, I do not know. I have not yet had the good fortune to watch the process, nor do I know any person who has. If no large-leafed plants are available in the selected site, the bird has to content itself with smaller leaves, and it sews two or more of these together. A leaf of tough texture is, of course, a sine qua non; one that tears easily would not stand the strain of the weight of a family of young durzies. I once came across a nest of which the threads had torn the leaves very badly, and as the youngsters had only just emerged from the eggs, I was afraid they would come to an un¬timely end; but the leaf did hold out, and the chicks went forth into the world with all their little limbs intact.
The nest, which is thus a kind of purse or pocket, is well lined with cotton or other soft material, and looks remarkably cosy when completed. It is almost invariably placed within three feet of the ground, and is usually in the neighbourhood of a human habitation.
There was a tailor-bird's nest this year in one of the plants outside the verandah of the Grand Stand on the " Island" at Madras. The nests are common enough, but so cunningly are they wrought that they are not easy to find. Last April, a friend of mine was trimming his cannas when he noticed that one of the leaves was withering, so cut it off. After he had severed it from the plant, he discovered in it a nearly completed tailor-bird's nest. He then stuck the leaf back into the pot, hoping that the birds would continue the construction of the nest. But they quickly discovered that something was wrong, held a consultation, and came to the conclusion that the foundations were shaky, so built a second nest on a sound leaf.
As soon as the nursery is ready, three, four, or five diminutive eggs are laid in it. The tailor-bird, like several other species, lays more than one type of egg. In this case there are three varieties : those with a white background with red blotches, those whose surface is white and but faintly speckled with red, and those which have a blue background blotched with red.
This presents a difficult problem to those who believe that birds' eggs are coloured so as to render them inconspicuous. I am unable to share this belief. In nine cases out of ten, eggs are conspicuous objects in a nest, and, even if they were not, it would be difficult to persuade me that a bird, which habitually devours the eggs of other birds, which is, so to speak, a professional egg-stealer, would, when it has once discovered a nest, be deceived into thinking it were empty because its contents were inconspicuously coloured.
When a burglar has broken into a house he does not at once leave it because he does not see the silver on the dining-table. Nor does an egg-stealing bird which has discovered a nest leave it without first carefully scrutinizing the interior. Instinct teaches birds to build their nests in hidden places, and if, in spite of this, the nest is discovered, it is then too late to think of saving the eggs.
The case of those birds which do not construct nests, but lay their eggs on the bare ground, is very different; such eggs are invariably protectively coloured, and so well do they harmonize with their surroundings that even a trained zoologist may take ten minutes or more to discover a clutch of eggs which he knows to be lying within five yards of where he is standing!