THE CLOWNS OF THE FOREST
TRUTH is sometimes stranger than fiction, even in natural history. Thus Pliny, while he swallowed the stories about dragons and other fabulous creatures, refused to believe in the existence of hornbills. Later naturalists were obliged to acknowledge the occurrence of these " Rhinoceros Birds," but declined to credit the extraordinary stories that travellers told of their habits. Nevertheless, these stories contained more than the proverbial grain of truth.
It is to-day, an established fact that, when the breeding season comes round, the lady hornbill is barricaded up in a hole in the trunk of a tree, and remains thus incarcerated until the eggs are hatched. In order that the female may not starve to death a window is left in her prison, through which the male bird feeds her. This extraordinary habit seems to run through the whole family of hornbills. The hole in which the hen-bird is plastered up is usually situated high in a lofty tree ; when she has taken her place in it, both she and her husband proceed to close it up, except for the slit above referred to, by means of earth mixed with bird-droppings, or in some cases with droppings alone.
Here, then, among the hornbills, during the nesting season, is a division of labour as complete as that which prevails among human beings -: the male goes forth and brings back food for his family, while the female stays at home and attends to domestic affairs.
How this strange habit arose it is difficult to imagine. Its raison d'etre can scarcely be the protection of the female while sitting on her eggs, for her enormous beak is a weapon calculated to keep all raptorial birds at a respectful distance. It would almost seem as if the female hornbill is by nature a nighty young thing, a gad-about, and that consequently her eggs, despite the admonitions of her husband, used to suffer. She, no doubt, tried to do her duty, but the attractions of the gay world round about her proved irresistible; her spirit was willing, but her flesh was weak; consequently she and her spouse recognized that " durance vile" was the only remedy.
Many weak-minded human beings pursue a similar policy. I once knew a man at Cambridge who could not bring himself to take sufficient exercise to keep his body in health, so he hit upon the plan of starting out with three shillings in his pocket, and taking a cab to the railway station, which cost him two of his shillings ; the last he used to spend on a third-class ticket to a station twelve miles out, and, once landed there, he had no option but to walk home.
I wonder whether any one has ever shot a cock horn-bill at a time when his wife is plastered up in her nest. It would be a cruel but interesting experiment. What would the hen bird do when the cock failed to come and feed her ? Would she stick to her position and die of starvation ? Would she break open the barrier and thus put an end to her self-imposed imprisonment ? Or would she sit at the window of her castle and endeavour to attract, by the " sweet melancholy " of her voice, some knight-errant of a hornbill ? I have never had the opportunity of performing such an experiment, as, although hornbills are fairly numerous in Northern India, they seem very secretive with regard to the position of their nests.
Hornbills are caricatures of birds, freaks of nature, ludicrous clowns. There is not a single feature about them which is not comical. Mr. Wallace thus describes a hornbill nestling: " A most curious object, as large as a pigeon, but without a particle of plumage on any part of it. It was exceedingly plump and soft and with a semi-transparent skin, so that it looked more like a bag of jelly, with head and feet stuck on, than like a real bird." If possible the adult is a yet stranger object. The great hornbill (Dichoceros bicornis) is an enormous creature. It is over four feet long. Its great beak measures a foot in length and has a tremendous horny excrescence, known as the casque, which causes the bird to look as though it were wearing a cap.
What the utility of this " helmet" is to the bird no naturalist has yet been able to discover. Buffon thought that great injustice was done to the birds by their having to carry about this enormous deformity; he imagined that it hindered the birds from getting their food with ease ! As a matter of fact, Buffon's sympathy was misplaced, for the casque is hollow, and so is almost without weight. During flight the wings of this hornbill, like those of most of its species, make a tremendous noise. Wallace compares it to the puffing of a steam-engine when starting with a train ; that the simile is not exaggerated may be judged by the fact that a flying hornbill can be heard a mile away.
The voice of the hornbill is quite in keeping with the rest of the bird. There exist certain toys with which every one is familiar. Each takes the form of a clay figure representing some animal. This is highly coloured, and is placed on a miniature concertina. When the concertina-pedestal is pressed a horrible squeak is produced, which is apparently intended to represent the voice of the animal. It is only necessary to imagine such a toy over two feet in length, with a two-feet square concertina, in order to arrive at the voice of the Bengal pied hornbill, a bird found in the sub-Himalayan forests. When a hornbill talks it puts body and soul into its vocal efforts, its tail vibrates with each note, just as that of a crow does at every " squawk."
Hornbills have eyelashes, a very unusual feature in birds. This accounts in part for the knowing, comical look of the creatures.
It is needless to say that these birds cannot eat their food without buffoonery. They live chiefly on fruit, but they will eat insects, lizards, fish, and even scorpions; each morsel of food that is picked up is tossed into the air and caught in the huge beak!
Books on natural history state that hornbills are very shy, retiring birds. This has not been my experience. Recently, when I was sitting in a machan, waiting for a leopard, a pied hornbill alighted on the tree in which I was hidden. After having screamed a short solo, he caught sight of me, and although he was within three yards of my machan he did not fly off in alarm, but just cocked his head on one side and winked at me in the most familiar manner. I was not surprised ; nothing done by a hornbill could ever surprise me.
When coolies are beating the jungle for game the hornbills of the neighbourhood usually follow the line, passing from branch to branch overhead, apparently enjoying the fun. These facts seem to negative the idea that the birds are shy.
The flight of the hornbill is characteristic. It consists of one or two rapid flaps of the wings, followed by a bout of sailing, with the wings expanded and motionless. Thus the line of flight is composed of a series of undulations.
Hornbills seem to be gregarious birds. They buffoon through life in little companies of six or seven. Fifteen species of these weird creatures are to be found in the Indian region. Of these, three patronize the " Bombay side."