THE NATURALIST IN A RAILWAY TRAIN
IN most parts of India a kind of" general post" of officials takes place at the commencement of every cold weather. The authorities seem suddenly to discover that the majority of public servants are stationed at unsuitable places, and thereupon seek to remedy this state of affairs, to the great profit of the railway companies. Having been an active participator in the latest "general post," I have been afforded an excellent opportunity of studying nature from the interior of a railway carriage. It must, in truth, be admitted that there are many worse points of view, for one sees an astonishing amount of animal life from a moving train.
The railway has now become quite an important factor in the life of many birds, chiefly owing to the fact that the iron road is accompanied by telegraph wires. When first erected, these caused the death of many an unsuspecting bird. The fowls of the air enjoy so vast a space, free from obstacles, in which to move about, that when flying they are not obliged to look very carefully where they are going. If a bird wishes to reach a certain place, it forthwith takes to its wings and makes a bee-line for its destination. Its chances of colliding with other birds are infinitesimal, it is not afraid of running up against a lamp-post, tripping up over a stone, or being run over by an omnibus or cab, so it puts down its head and lets itself go in much the same way as an athlete sprints a hundred yards race.
Thus it happened that when the telegraph was first erected many a feathered creature killed itself by coming into violent contact with the wires, which, for a time, were veritable death-traps. Calamities, such as these, are now happily things of the past.
Birds profit by experience. They have learned to avoid the treacherous wires during flight. They have further discovered that a telegraph wire forms a very comfortable perch, which that incomprehensible and eccentric being -: man -: has erected for their special benefit. Thus it happens that the traveller by railroad sees a succession of birds perched upon the message-bearing wires, as though they were sitting for their photographs, for the passing of the train does not perturb them in the least. A telegraph wire is, however, too attenuated to form a comfortable perch for some birds. For such there are the poles and insulators ready to hand, and of these the hawks and kites are not slow to avail themselves.
Birds which feed upon flying insects are particularly addicted to the telegraph wires, for these latter constitute an ideal point of vantage from whence the bird can look out for its quarry. Thus king-crows (Dicrurus ater) are to be seen distributed along the whole extent of every railway, sitting on the wires until an insect comes within range, when the drongos at once take to their wings and give chase.
It is amusing to notice how the king-crow always seeks shade when the sun is very hot. In the middle of the day fully 80 per cent of the king-crow habitue's of the telegraph wire will be seen seated quite close to a pole, so that its shadow falls upon them.
The roller (Coracias indica), or blue jay, as it is more commonly called in India, is another bird which is very partial to the electric telegraph. It sits indiscriminately on either wires or poles.
Doves, too, are very fond of resting on the wires. They are not insectivorous birds, and are, consequently, not on the look out for prey, but love to sit in the sun, especially in the early winter morning when the air is still chilly, and in this attitude they ponder over the problems which agitate the feathered world. The pretty little bee-eater (Merops viridis) is another frequenter of the telegraph wires. Very beautiful he looks in his green dress as he sits facing the line, and still more striking is his appearance when he makes a sudden dash at some Lilliputian quarry, for, when flying in the glare of the sun, his plumage assumes a golden hue.
The birds perched on the telegraph wire, although they absorb the greater part of one's attention, form but a small fraction of the species to be seen during a railway journey. It is no exaggeration to assert that a traveller by rail from Peshawar to Madras should, aided by a good field-glass, be able to distinguish fully one-third of the commoner birds of India.
The train passes through most kinds of country. It jogs along over barren usar lands, across fertile fields coloured emerald-green by the young shoots of the luxuriant crops, over broad rivers, past jhils great and small, through bushy jungle, amid long feathery grass, through forests, among bare rocky hills and green undulating down-like country. Each of these tracts has its characteristic species. Now a flock of mynas (Acridotheres tristis) comes into sight, chattering with delight over some newly-discovered field rich in food. These disappear and a pair of sarus cranes (Grus antigone) absorb one's attention. The sarus is a strange bird, which, like an Englishman, seems to take its pleasures sadly; it invariably looks depressed, although in reality it is perfectly happy in the company of its spouse. The crane and his wife form an inseparable and devoted couple. When one is taken and the other left, the survivor is said soon to die of grief at the loss of its mate.
Scarcely have these tall creatures vanished from sight than a flight of birds of a very different feather comes into view -: a screeching crowd of "green parrots" (Palaeornis torquatus) on their way to commit dacoity in an orchard of ripening fruit. The train now wends its weary way through a tract of marshy country, where, here and there, a paddy bird (Ardeola grayii) may be seen, lazily gazing into the water of some murky jhil. Near by are some duck and coots swimming on the surface of another sheet of water. Not far removed from them is a stork, and overhead are flying a number of white egrets (Bubulcus coromandus) and other kuchnes, disturbed by the noisy train.
Once again the land becomes parched, and a hoopoe (Upupa indica), Solomon's brilliant messenger, is seen making its way with undulating laboured flight.
And so interminable numbers of birds appear in rapid succession.
Nor are mammals wanting. These, of course, are neither so numerous nor so conspicuous as the birds. Apart from the domesticated animals, monkeys and black buck (Antilope bezoartica) are the mammals most frequently seen from a railway train in Northern India. The latter are now, alas, far less frequent than they used to be.
Writers of fifty years ago speak of the vast herds of these elegant herbivora which abounded in those days. Such multitudes are almost unknown in most parts of Upper India in this twentieth century. The companies are now few and far between, and so sadly have they diminished in size that a tiny herd, consisting of one solitary dark-skinned buck, surrounded by his little harem of fawn-coloured does, has become no uncommon sight.
As the grey mists of dawn are lifting, or when the sinking sun has become transformed into a great fiery ball, seen through miles of dust and smoke, jackals may here and there be observed sneaking furtively back to their " earth," or from it, on their way to help their comrades form a search-party which will presently render the night hideous by its unearthly yells.
The fauna of the railway station is not devoid of interest. There is such a fauna, for on this little earth of ours there is no nook or cranny in which Nature has not placed some of her children. Directly the iron horse pulls up, a crowd of kites may be seen soaring overhead, waiting for some scraps of food which a passenger will assuredly cast away. Needless to say, the crows are also on the war path, and, as they hang about, most impudent beggars, close to the carriage wheels, they get the pick of the food which is thrown out.
These bold birds, however, are not dependent on the charity of man ; they help themselves, being obviously disciples of Dr. Smiles, whose book, "Self-Help," is so popular in India. A goods train loaded with sacks of grain pulls up at a station, and is at once invaded by crows, who proceed to bore with their powerful beaks holes in the sacks, through which they abstract the corn.
The enumeration of the fauna of the railway station would be incomplete without mention of the ubiquitous sparrow (Passer domesticus). Then there is the half-starved pariah dog, who is a regular institution at every wayside station, attending all trains. Experience seems to have taught him that charity is most rife among Europeans, for he usually takes up a position on the platform in front of a carriage occupied by them; but even their charity appears to be very uncertain, for his attitude is suppliant, he wags his tail in a half-hearted manner, he gives it the undecided motion that denotes hoping against hope. His ribs are very conspicuous objects, and the wistful look in his eyes makes one feel almost sorry that one's baggage does not include an assortment of juicy bones.