THE BLUE JAY
HE is not a jay at all; but the misnomer is perhaps a pardonable one, for in more respects than one the bird resembles the true jays, and I am told that the European roller (Coracias garrula), a near relative of the Indian blue jay, is known in parts of Germany as the Birch Jay. American visitors to India, however, make no such mistake. You never hear one of them call the roller a jay. They dub him the Surprise Bird, a name which admirably suits both him and the paddy bird, for when either takes to its wings a startling transformation occurs. The dingy heron is suddenly metamorphosed into a beautiful milk-white bird, while the untidy nondescript-coloured roller is transfigured into a gorgeous harmony of light and dark blue, into a bird flying the Oxford and Cambridge colours, putting one in mind of Putney on Boat-race Day.
Beauty is often a curse to its possessor; it certainly is in the case of the Indian roller. This bird has a wide distribution. It is, or should be, found all over India; but, alas! it is not. It is a significant fact that the bird is not common in the Presidency towns.
"Eha" does not even mention the roller in "The Common Birds of Bombay." The bird is far from abundant in either Calcutta or Madras. A couple of blue jays live on the " Island " in the last-named town; but I cannot call to mind any others within municipal limits. It is not that the roller shuns cities and towns. Far from it. The bird is very common in Lucknow; I have seen as many as twenty of them studded over the maidan in front of the Oudh and Rohilkand railway station. Nor can we explain the rarity of the bird in Madras by assuming that the climate is unsuited to the roller.
The bird is common enough a hundred miles inland, and becomes rarer as one nears Madras. Any one who travels from Bangalore by the day train can verify this assertion for himself.
The truth is that European and American women are responsible for the rarity of this beautiful creature. It is one of the many victims of the abominable practice, indulged in by some women, of wearing birds' plumage in their hats. If this custom does not die a speedy death, all the most beautiful birds will, ere long, be swept off the face of the earth, in spite of the laws passed with a view to bird protection; for such laws are easy to break. Few can be aware of the enormous trade that is carried on in birds' skins.
Every number of "Bird Notes and News," the journal of the Society for the Protection of Birds, contains an entry similar to the following: -:
" At the feather sale at the Commercial Sale Rooms, London, on 19th April, 1904, there were 161 packages of osprey feathers, of varying quantities, these being all the plumes of the various egrets and small eastern herons, with a few of the common heron (A. cinera). Of birds of paradise from New Guinea, there were 3255, chiefly P. apoda; of Impeyan pheasants from the Himalayas, 648 ; of Indian rollers (blue jays) no fewer than 3913, with also a large number of East Indian pigeons (wings), and pittas, Indian owls, parrots, and jungle cocks. One firm catalogued 469 Chinese mandarin ducks. The remainder of the birds were mostly from America, comprising 52,628 humming birds, and numerous cardinals, tanagers, trogans, toucans, parrots, etc. There were also a large quantity of wing quills from pelicans, swans, geese, turkeys, and eagles."
At the June sale ten cases of peacock-feathers were sold, each case containing about 100 lb. of feathers. Thanks to the efforts made by the Society for the Protection of Birds, of which the Honorary Secretary for India is Mr. W. Jesse, F. Z. S., Meerut, United Provinces, many ladies now have scruples about wearing in their hats the corpses of little birds.
As an antidote to this, the "Trade" has started the fiction that " ospreys " are now manufactured artificially.
This has been more than once " shown up." It is not possible to manufacture such artificial plumes, and I hope that no statements to the contrary made by the feather trade will delude any lady into thinking the contrary.
But we must return to our blue jay, who, as we have seen, is no jay at all; nor is he nearly related to the jay family. The rollers constitute a curious little clan, isolated from all other tribes. They show affinities to both bee-eaters and kingfishers, especially to the latter. Indeed, rollers are the terrestrial counterparts of kingfishers: they are kingfishers which do not fish. Both families are clothed in brilliant plumage, and in each the sexes are alike. Both nest in holes, and both lay white eggs. These last two characteristics, however, do not count for much as evidence of relationship, being merely the consequences of similar habits.
It is almost a law of nature that those species of which both the cock and the hen bird are clothed in gay plumage lay whitish eggs and either nest in holes, or build covered nests. There are exceptions to the rule, which cannot be dealt with in this place. The reason of this general provision of nature is not far to seek. The hen, when she is sitting on her eggs, is liable to be attacked unawares by birds of prey; hence it is obviously to the interest of the species that she be as inconspicuous as possible, unless, of course, she be a bird, like our universal friend the crow, fully capable of looking after herself, or like the king-crow, a real fighter.
Thus it has come to pass that, in many species of birds, the hen is clothed in sombre plumage, even when the cock bird is arrayed, like Joseph of old, in a coat of many colours. It is, however, obvious that if a species nest in a hole, there is no necessity for the hen bird to be inconspicuous, hence among kingfishers, woodpeckers, rollers, and bee-eaters, which build in holes, both sexes rejoice in brilliant plumage.
Again, if a bird nest in a dark place, it is important that its eggs should be as conspicuous as possible, for a bird cannot count, and if the hen is unable to see her eggs, she will not be able to tell when some of them get separated from the others. For this reason, it is my belief -: but the belief is not quite orthodox -: that natural selection has caused the eggs of birds which nest in holes to become white.
One of the puffins, which nests in a dark burrow, lays coloured eggs, and actually whitewashes them to make them conspicuous! This sounds as though that bird was a " real cute one," but I believe that the action is instinctive, that the bird does not know why she whitewashes her eggs.
Thus the fact that hen rollers and hen kingfishers are both gaily attired and lay white eggs, does not count for much as evidence of kinship. But in other respects they betray evidences of relationship. Both possess remarkably ugly voices. I have already dilated upon the vocal achievements of the beautiful white-breasted kingfisher, which is so common in Madras ; I may now mention the fact that one of the Australian kingfishers has earned for himself the name of the laughing jackass. The Indian roller has a peculiarly ugly croaking note, and when angry emits " a grating cry or scream."
The members of both families are inclined to lead solitary lives. Although their food differs widely in nature, both families obtain it by like methods. Kingfishers take up a position on a rock, stone, or branch overhanging water, and sit motionless until an unwary fish comes along; then, in less time than it takes to relate, the little fisherman has dived into the water, come out again, dashed his prey to death on a stone, and swallowed the luckless fish.
The roller obtains his insect quarry in a very similar way. He takes up his position on the summit of a post, or on a railing, or a telegraph wire, and sits there motionless, pretending to be asleep. As a matter of fact, he is keeping a very sharp look out Presently he espies an insect moving on the ground below, whereupon he flies to the ground and returns to his perch with the insect inside him. Both kingfishers and rollers must have marvellous eyesight. A roller will " spot" an insect in the grass twenty of thirty feet away and fly down and seize it.
The white-breasted kingfisher is, as we have seen, an example of a bird which is undergoing evolution under our very eyes. As generation succeeds generation, this bird goes in less for fishing and more for insect catching, so that now he often lives and flourishes far away from water, feeding almost entirely on insects. Hence his habits approximate very closely to those of the roller. There is, consequently, nothing wildly improbable in the hypothesis that, far back in the dim vista of time, there was no distinction between rollers and kingfishers, that the ancestral roller-kingfisher was a brilliantly coloured bird which picked up a living in a varieiy of ways, sometimes catching insects and at others fish, those that lived near streams naturally devoting themselves more exclusively to fish catching, and those which dwelt on the plains, far from water, contenting themselves with hunting insects.
Thus two races, having distinct habits, were formed, and the kingfishers and the rollers proper came into being. It is necessary to say that the roller's diet is by no means confined to insects. The bird is not only able to swallow a toad, but to digest the unsavoury amphibian. A correspondent informs me that on two occasions he saw a roller devour a small snake. I have watched both kingfishers and rollers for hours together, and have never observed either species drinking. The former bird, when diving for his quarry, probably consumes as much liquid as he requires; but how does the roller obtain the wherewithal to wet his whistle? That organ must surely require wetting sometimes, especially in Northern India before the monsoon has burst. Perhaps he drinks on the sly.
This abstemiousness is not peculiar to the Indian roller. The European bird, writes Mr. W. J. Gordon, "would seem to be the total abstainer of the bird world, for we are gravely assured that 'it has never been known to drink.'"
Although we must admit that the blue jay sets a noble example to the over-ardent votaries of Bacchus, we cannot help wishing, with Mr. Gordon, that the bird would drink a little, if only for the benefit of his voice, which is very dry and thirsty sounding.
The Indian roller is sacred to Vishnu. It must be a very fine thing to be a sacred fowl, but I imagine that the blue jay would sell for a mere song its garment of sanctity. The bird must strongly object to being made captive, even though it be caught only to be liberated at the Durga Puja.
Four species of roller are found in India. One of these is Coracias garrula, the European form. This bird sometimes visits the hospitable shores of Old England, where it is promptly shot by the bird-collector; but, as a set-off to this treatment, its appearance is recorded in the newspapers.
According to books on ornithology, the bird has been noticed in England " about a hundred times since it was first recorded by Religio Medici Browne in 1644." In other words, a hundred specimens of the bird have been shot in England, and probably not one in ten of the hundred slayers could have told you anything about the habits of the bird from personal observation.
Burma boasts of her own special blue jay, known to science as Coracias affinis. It resembles the Indian species very closely, and, were it not rank heresy to say so, I should feel inclined to maintain that the Burmese bird is but a variety of the Indian one. Certain it is that the two species interbreed freely.
Lastly, there is the broad-billed roller -: a beautiful green and blue bird with vermilion beak and legs. It inhabits leafy forests and does not visit towns. This genus, like the other, exhibits local variations, and one ornithologist tried to make three species out of it, and had he been allowed to have his own way he might have made a dozen more; but the majority of zoologists stoutly resisted temptation. The result is, that instead of our having a number of species of broad-billed roller, so alike that it would need a committee of experts to distinguish one from another, we have one species only, which can be recognized at sight.