NO garden is worthy of the name if it possesses not a lawn of emerald grass, soft as velvet; likewise, no lawn in India is complete unless it be ornamented by one or two hoopoes. Delightful birds, these, and as unique as delightful. There are no birds like unto them. Theirs is a profession of which they enjoy a monopoly. They are the only birds which habitually dig into the springy turf for their insect food. Snipe, sandpipers, and innumerable other birds probe the soft mud of river-bank, marsh, or jhil for their prey; the hoopoe alone is able to force its long beak deep into dry soil. The bill of the ordinary long-billed bird is soft and pliant; that of the hoopoe is hard and stiff.
The hoopoe, then, as regards its manner of obtaining food, is a kind of dry-land snipe. It is, of course, in no way related to the snipe; the resemblance of the beak in the two species is but the result of similarity of habit. The snipe wades in water, so has long legs ; the legs of the hoopoe are very short, so short that the bird has to walk very primly in order to keep its tail from touching the ground.
Hoopoes are exceedingly numerous in India. It is but necessary to betake oneself to any open space, preferably a lawn refreshed by recent rain, in order to see some of these charming birds. In case there is any one who is not acquainted with the hoopoe, it will, perhaps, be well for me to say that the head and neck of the bird are fawn-coloured and ornamented by a crown of buff, edged with black -: a crown which, according to the Mohammedans, was given to the bird by King Solomon, in recognition of meritorious services! The wings and tail are composed of broad and alternating bars of black and white; these form a bold and pleasing contrast to the fawn of the head and neck: indeed, it is difficult to imagine a happier combination of colour and pattern than that presented by the plumage of the hoopoe.
One would naturally imagine a bird so clothed to be exceedingly conspicuous; but the hoopoe is not so noticeable as one would expect, for its colours harmonize with its environment. Yet it is a conspicuous bird, and, since it feeds in open places, is obliged to protect itself by means of a ruse when danger is at hand and there is no time to fly away.
"On the approach of a hawk or other enemy," writes Mr. W. P. Pycroft, " it throws itself flat upon the ground, drops its crest and spreads out its wings and -: heigho! as if in obedience to the magician's wand, our bird has vanished ; what appears to be a bundle of rags remains in its place." I myself have never seen the hoopoe act thus, but can well believe it does.
I know a parson who once did a similar thing. He was gardening, and was wearing the oldest of his old clothes (and that is saying a great deal, for his living was not a fat one), when he saw a lady parishioner driving in at the gate. With admirable presence of mind, the parson rammed his hat down over his eyes, stretched out his arms, and remained motionless in this attitude. The lady drove past him, learned at the door that he was not at home, and drove away again, little suspecting that the innocent-looking scarecrow was her spiritual adviser! There is, however, this difference between the parson and the hoopoe. The former consciously imitated a scarecrow, while the hoopoe's imitation of a bundle of rags is unconscious. It sees danger, is very frightened, and crouches in its abject terror. When it does this it has no idea that it is mimicking anything.
It is, I think, important! to bear this in mind, because books dealing with mimicry sometimes give us the idea that the mimicry is conscious, whereas it is nothing of the kind. While the hoopoe is feeding, its crest is completely folded back, and looks like a prolongation of the attenuated beak. But, directly a human being approaches, the bird stops probing into the ground and regards the intruder suspiciously. If the bird be further disturbed his crest is instantly erected, and he flies away.
Seen from a little distance, the hoopoe is so very beautiful that one is naturally desirous of approaching nearer; but close inspection means a sad disillusion¬ment. The cinnamon-coloured feathers, which from a little distance looked so soft and clean, are seen to be coarse, dry, and untidy, and here and there patches of bare skin may be visible. The full beauty of most birds cannot be appreciated except upon minute inspection. To this rule the hoopoe forms an exception.
Let us, then, content ourselves with watching him at a little distance. The crest of the bird, which was erected at our approach, gradually sinks, and feeding is resumed. Now, a hoopoe taking a meal always puts me in mind of a passenger hurriedly devouring dinner at a railway station. The bird feeds as though it were eating against time. It plunges its long beak into the turf with what appears to be feverish haste, seizes something, and swallows it at a gulp. It then takes a hurried step, and again plunges its beak into the ground. Besides excavating those insect larvae known as " ant lions," which set traps for unwary creeping things, the hoopoe digs up each and every kind of subterranean grub. It also feeds upon ants, small beetles, and grasshoppers. The bird must have a most voracious appetite, since, notwithstanding the fact that it eats so quickly, it spends most of the day in seeking food.
Hoopoes live in couples, and usually feed in company. When they fly they sweep through the air in undulating curves. Most beautiful objects do they appear as their vibrating wings flash in the sunlight. They then look, as Colonel Cunningham well says, more like great butterflies than birds. The hoopoe, though it seeks its food entirely on the ground, is gifted with no mean powers of flight. Mr. Phillips states that a trained hawk almost invariably fails to catch it.
Hoopoes are pugnacious birds and are treated with great respect by their neighbours. Even the redoubtable king-crows dare not take liberties with them. The other day, as I was walking through a compound, I came across a pair of hoopoes feeding on the grass. A king-crow, which was perched on a tree hard by, made a dash at an insect and passed close to one of the hoopoes. The latter appeared to regard this as an affront, for he pecked savagely at the passing king-crow ; the latter, having no mind to act as a target for the hoopoe, changed its course. Presently it had occasion again to pass quite close to the hoopoe, and the latter again pecked at it viciously. The king-crow then decided to go and hunt insects in a less dangerous place.
Hoopoes are, upon the whole, silent birds. They sometimes emit a curious little note, which Colonel Cunningham syllabizes as "uk, uk, uk, uk, uk." They can boast of no kind of song.
Like the common barn-door fowl and a great many other birds, hoopoes indulge in a daily dust-bath. Sometimes one may surprise them just before sunset rubbing their feathers in the soft cleansing powder which lies in a thick layer upon the less-frequented parts of the road. I have never seen a hoopoe bathing in water ; I have an idea that the bird, like cats and Tibetans, and unlike Scotsmen, has a theory that water is injurious to the skin and should be only administered internally.
Both sexes are clothed alike, and as they are showy birds one would surmise that the hoopoe nests in a hole. This surmise is correct. The birds will build in almost any description of hole, in a cavity in the trunk of an old tree, in a hole in the wall of a house under the eaves, or in a hole in a bank. The entrance to the nest is often so small that it seems impossible that a hoopoe could squeeze through it.
But it is the feathers that make a bird; take away these, and what remains is but a fraction of the original. A sparrow will pass with the utmost ease through an aperture which is scarcely larger than a wedding ring. A hoopoe's nest is an exceedingly unsavoury affair. Any sanitary officer would unhesitatingly condemn it as totally unfit for habitation ; but birds, like natives of this country, seem able to thrive in spots so odoriferous as to paralyse European olfactory nerves! The nest is just a bundle of rags, feathers, and rubbish, and has no distinctive shape or form.
Mr. William Jesse states that he once came across a hoopoe's nest into the structure of which a dead hoopoe had been worked. This is surely practising economy with a vengeance. Pallas states that he found a hoopoe's nest "within the exposed and barely decomposed thorax of a human body, with seven young birds just ready to fly, which defended themselves by a most foetid fluid." It is in the face of facts such as these that I find it difficult to accept the theory of sexual selection, according to which the beautiful plumage and the magnificent songs of birds are due to the aesthetic tastes of the females.
Books on Indian natural history state that the nesting season of the hoopoe is from February to May. These limits, however, must be considerably extended. Last January two hoopoes brought up a family in an old tree in Madras. I further came across a nest in June at Gonda, in Northern India. The nest was in the mud wall of a stable, just below the roof. The nest is quite easy to find. It is only necessary to watch some hoopoes in the earlier months of the year, and, if they are nesting, you will be able to track them to their lair without difficulty. The parent flops lazily along, right up to the nest. It may feed the young from outside, or may enter the nest and remain there for a few seconds.
If you see a hoopoe visit any hole ten or twenty times in the course of an hour, you may be absolutely certain that it has a nest in that hole. Birds which nest in holes take no precautions to conceal the fact that they are going to the nest, as many birds, which build exposed nurseries, do. In the former case there is no need for caution, in the latter there is.
I have often amused myself by sitting quite close to a nest in a hole; the parent returns with some tasty morsel for the youngsters, and is disgusted to find an ogre sitting- near the nursery. As a rule the bird will fidget about for a little outside the nest, in the hope that the intruder will take himself off, and, if this does not happen, it will boldly enter the nest. From four to seven eggs are usually laid by the hoopoe; these are pale blue or greenish white in colour.
Two species of hoopoe are found in India, but they are so similar that it seems unnecessary to divide them. One form is called the European hoopoe (Upupa epops) and the other the Indian hoopoe (Upupa indica). They are distinguished by the former having some white in the crest. But most birds in Northern India display more or less white, and these are regarded as hybrids between the Indian and European forms.
The hoopoes which occur in Burma have rather longer beaks than those found in India proper, so some species-makers want to form yet another species of him. The hoopoe frequently visits England and would breed there if it were allowed to do so; but the moment the beautiful bird sets foot on our shores it is shot by some collector, who then proceeds to boast about his exploit. The consequence is that the hoopoe is a very rare bird in England, and is likely to remain so until severe measures are enacted against that enemy of nature, the collector of birds.