A little nursery and its occupants


A PAIR of white-browed fantail flycatchers (Rhipidura albifrontata) were considerate enough to build a nest within a hundred yards of the house in which I spent a month's leave at Coonoor. The nest in question was placed on a forked branch, the lowest in the tree, and at a height of about ten feet from the ground. I use the past tense advisedly, for the nest is no longer in the tree.

After it had been vacated by the birds I had it removed, and it is now the property of the Bombay Natural History Society. The tree in which the nest was built grows on the slope of a steep hill, so that one had only to ascend a couple of paces in order to look right down into the nest. This latter is a work of art.

If you would make an imitation of it, and, no matter how deft your fingers be, the imitation would, I fear, fall far short of the genuine article, you had best purchase a small bunch of violets. The bunch should be of the description sold by flower-girls for buttonholes. It should be well put together, the stalks being tightly bound up with any fibrous material.

Having secured the bunch, the next thing to do is to cut away the heads of the flowers, together with the upper parts of the stems, until you have a hollow cup, of which the base is formed of stalks closely pressed together, and the sides of leaves. This must now be lined with soft material of which the strands should be delicately interwoven, and then, if a few cobwebs be wound outside the stalks, you will have a tolerable imitation of a fantail flycatcher's nest.

The Madras Museum possesses a specimen, but this is not nearly so well put together as the one I am describing. Birds of the same species display different degrees of skill in the construction of their nests. Some are more artistic than others. The fantail flycatcher's nest seems absurdly small for the bird. This has to sit on the nest, not in it.

Imagine a canary resting on an egg-cup, and you will have some idea of the picture presented by the sitting fantail. In this elegantly-shaped, shallow, cup-like nursery are deposited three cream-coloured eggs, spotted with greyish brown. They are conspicuous objects and may be distinguished at a distance of ten or twelve feet.

This is one of the many awkward facts which confront, at every turn, those naturalists who maintain that all birds' eggs are coloured so as to render them inconspicuous when in the nest. It seems to me that such men are slaves of a theory. So imbued are they with the doctrine of protective colouration that they are unable to see things as they are. But this is a digression.

The eggs require ten or twelve days for their incubation. I believe that both birds sit alternately. When the young hatch out they are of course ugly, large-mouthed creatures, innocent of a single feather. At first, they are very weak, and seem to have scarcely strength enough to raise their heads to receive the insects brought by their parents.

Their growth is, however, exceedingly rapid. When three days old they are fully twice the size they were when first hatched. They keep their fond parents very busy seeking food for them. This consists entirely of minute insects. Many of these are picked off the trunks and branches of trees, some are taken off the ground, while others are caught on the wing. Elegance marks every movement of the fantail flycatcher. It runs swiftly among the branches, and every now and again makes a pretty bow and spreads its tail; then suddenly it will make a little sally in the air, and return, with easy sweep, to the place whence it started. In grace of movement a fantail flycatcher is nearly equal to a wagtail.

While seeking for food the parents never go far from the nest. They keep a most jealous guard over this precious structure, and most necessary is it that they should do so, for crows are exceedingly fond of eating young birds, and are always on the look out for a nest ; and when they discover it, woe betide the occupants! " Eha " thus describes this phase of the corvine character, and that which he says is but too true: "What I cannot forgive is the constant and ruthless massacre of innocents that goes on where crows are allowed to have their own way. They watch every little bird to find out if it has a nest; they count the days till the first young sparrow flutters out on its untried wings; they pounce upon it and carry it to the nearest tree and hold it under one foot and pick it to pieces, absolutely callous to the shrieks of the parents as they flutter round, distracted but helpless.

Small wonder, then, that every tiny bird hates the crow with all the hatred of which its little heart is capable. The crows caused these flycatchers much annoyance. I was watching them performing their nursery duties on the second day after their chicks were hatched, when a great black corby alighted in the next tree. Both fantail flycatchers immediately attacked it, screaming angrily.

Their method of procedure was to make a series of dashes at the back and tail of the crow, pecking at it each time they approached. The crow did not appear to mind this treatment very much. It took it very philosophically. It, however, kept a keen eye on its puny aggressors, and, now and again, tried to seize one with its great beak, but they were always too quick for it. The crow was looking about intently, doubtless trying to locate the nest, for the conduct of the fantails betrayed the fact that it was not far off. In spite of the united efforts of the flycatchers, the crow maintained its position. Presently it began to caw. This brought up another " treble-dated bird." The flycatchers then directed their attack against the new-comer, leaving the first crow alone for a little.

Both corbies now began to caw loudly. After the gallant little flycatchers had made over fifty dashes at it, the second crow flew to a distance of a few yards. The flycatchers again transferred their attention to the first crow, which had maintained its position and was still, I believe, looking about for the nest. Presently the combined attack grew too hot for it, and it flew away. Then the flycatchers re-transferred their attention to the second crow, which eventually moved on. So excited had the fantails become that they continued to scream and swear for some time after the corbies had departed.

But, after a little, they calmed down and resumed their search for food. The crows annoyed them in this way not once, but many times. A few days later I saw these birds mob another crow. The attack lasted fully five minutes. This time it was well arranged. The flycatchers took up positions on each side of the crow and made alternate dashes at it. The corby had its work cut out in defending itself. I never before saw a crow display so much agility. Eventually it grew tired of twisting its head from side to side and flew off.

Being much interested in the plucky manner in which the little birds drove off the crows, I thought I would see what they would do to me if I made as if to take their young ones. Accordingly, when both the parents were near by, I moved up to the nest and stretched out my hand towards it, but it was just out of reach.

The flycatchers made no attempt to attack me. I think they were afraid of so large a creature as a human being. When such birds as bulbuls, babblers, and white-eyes alighted in the tree, in which the nest was situated, the flycatchers did not molest them. Their instinct taught them that these mild birds would not harm their young. But all crows, kites, and hawks that ventured near were promptly mobbed.

By the third day, the young birds had grown so big that there was no room for them to lie side by side in the nest. They lay jumbled together in a heap, of which the summit was higher than the walls of the nursery. By this time the tail and great wing-feathers had begun to appear ; these, being in sheaths, made their possessors look like miniature porcupines.

Their conduct in the nest was unlike that of any other young birds I have seen. As a rule, the moment a parent arrives, up into the air go all the gaping mouths, and there is quite a hullabaloo, each youngster being afraid he will be forgotten !

When the parent fantail came to the nest there was no clamour among the young birds, and only one of the three mouths opened. The decorous conduct of the young flycatchers is, probably, to be attributed to the action of natural selection ; for, living as they do in such an insecure nursery, the young birds would almost certainly fall out if they were of restless disposition, or if, when the parents came to the nest, they clamoured violently for food.

From the third to the sixth day the young birds did not make any great visible progress. But from the sixth day onwards they developed apace. On the eighth day the white feathers on the eyebrow began to show themselves, and on the tenth the young birds looked quite presentable. The body was then covered with downy feathers, those of the wings and tail being fully developed and the white eyebrow completely formed.

I had to leave Coonoor on the eleventh day after the young birds were hatched, so was unable to witness the first lesson in flying, which was given when they were fourteen days old.

What human play or pageant is so entertaining as the sight of young birds making their first attempts at flight? The excited parents, while giving vent to twitters of endearment and encouragement, make little sallies into the air by way of example. They are saying, in bird language, " Come, my dears, you are quite old enough to fly. See how easy it is and how delightful." But the young birds seem disinclined to emulate their parents. They look fearfully around them.

Again and again, the old birds exhort them; but the young ones still hesitate. They are afraid to trust themselves to their feeble little wings, just as a child, who cannot swim, fears to plunge, head first, into the still water of a swimming-bath.

Eventually the bravest of the little creatures overcomes its fears, and, amid the delighted cries of its parents, essays a short flight. It flutters awkwardly, but manages to reach a neighbouring branch, upon which it alights, trembling with excitement and exultation. The battle is now half won. The other nestlings follow the good example, and, one by one, they learn how delicious is the sensation of sailing on outstretched wings through the thin air.

Bombay Ducks; An Account Of Some Of The Every-day Birds And Beasts Found In A Naturalist's Eldorado
Dewar, Douglas. Bombay ducks: an account of some of the every-day birds and beasts found in a naturalist's Eldorado, 1906.
Title in Book: 
A little nursery and its occupants
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
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Common name: 
A Little Nursery And Its Occupants

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