THE BATHING OF THE BIRDS
THERE is on the side of the Mount Road, Madras, near Munro's statue, a miniature pond formed by the overflow from a water-pipe. To this pool all the larger birds of the neighbourhood repair for bathing purposes. Every one passing the place, a little before sunset, will almost certainly see one or two crows, some mynas, and possibly a kite, enjoying an al fresco bath. It is a pleasure to watch the birds at their ablutions, for, while splashing about in the water, they are obviously as happy as the proverbial king.
Time was when scarcely a day passed on which I did not witness, from beginning to end, the toilette of one or other of the feathered creatures. That was in the Himalayas. In those mountainous regions water is a precious commodity during the greater part of the year. Deep was the sorrow of my malt that my little garden did not boast of a reservoir. Necessity, as usual, proved the mother of invention: the malt discovered an old galvanized iron bath, which he converted into a tank and placed in the middle of the lawn.
When I perceived the outcome of the gardener's ingenuity, my first impulse was to say hard words and issue peremptory orders for the removal of the unsightly tub. But, even while I shouted for the bearer, a myna alighted upon the rim of the bath (which was nearly full of water) and then proceeded to take a header into the liquid element!
I had never seen a myna do anything like this before, so a struggle took place within me between the naturalist and the artist; needless to say, the former prevailed. The bath was allowed to remain and disfigure the garden. In a few days it had become the recognized bathing place and drinking fountain of the birds of the vicinity.
The crows ruled the roost. When they came to bathe, all the other birds had to make way for them; for, in the feathered world, the strong invariably take precedence. Now crows, notwithstanding all their bravado, are not courageous birds. Nothing will induce one of their corvi to plunge into water beyond his depth. When it is a matter of bathing in one or two inches of water the crow is as bold as the famous Baltic Fleet. He will strut valiantly into the midst of the shallow pool, flutter his wings, and even duck his head in the water. But when it comes to a galvanized iron bath, in which the water may be eighteen inches deep, the crow behaves very differently. I never saw a crow brave enough to trust himself to the abyss of my bath.
The modus operandi of the bather was to take a firm grasp of the rim of the bath with both feet. He would then, still gripping for dear life, plunge his head and neck into the water and agitate them violently, and, at the same time, flap his wings and wag his tail. By these means he would contrive to splash over himself a considerable quantity of water. Next, the bird would fly to a tree near by, shake himself as a dog does, and then begin violently to preen his feathers, dressing in turn all parts of his plumage, twisting his wings about in the most wonderful manner, and undergoing all kinds of acrobatic contortions in his endeavours to make his beak reach the more inaccessible parts of his anatomy. Presently, the crow would fly back to the bath, again duck his head and neck, and then return to the tree to resume the preening of his feathers. Perhaps he would go back to the water a third, a fourth, or even a fifth time, evidently enjoying his bath so immensely that he found it difficult to tear himself away from the water.
The mynas were more venturesome than the crows. They used to plunge into the water and disappear completely beneath the surface. But even they found that they had to summon all their courage before taking a dive. The bathing myna would perch on the edge of the bath and look for some time wistfully at the water, as much as to say, "Dare I?" just as a child will do before entering the sea. As a rule the complete immersion would be led up to by a number of half plunges.
The myna would hop from side to side of the bath; at the second or third hop he would allow the tip of his tail to touch the water. Then, with each subsequent jump, more of the body would be immersed, until finally the bird would do a tout a fait and disappear entirely. Having made this final effort the myna, looking very bedraggled, would fly off to a neighbouring tree in order to complete his toilette. Sometimes, when the water in the bath was low, so that a great dive of twelve inches was necessary to reach it, the would-be bather could not bring himself up to the point of taking the plunge. After much hopping to and fro, he would fly away, vowing, I doubt not, to take an extra good bath the next day, calling upon the saints to witness the fact that never again would he miss his bathe, no matter how low the water should be; in short, making all manner of good resolutions.
During the winter months the birds used not to visit the bath until the sun had had time to warm it. Birds do not like their bath water quite cold.
The bathing of the kite is a very sedate operation. It is accompanied by none of the splashing and napping of wings which characterizes crows and mynas. The ungainly bird wades leisurely into the water and squats down in it for a few minutes. It then seeks some convenient spot and there remains motionless, with wings and tail expanded to the uttermost.
Kites may often be seen in such an attitude, face to the wall, on the ledge of the spire of the Fort Church in Madras. Vultures bathe in much the same way as kites do. They select a gently sloping river bank and enter the water to a depth of three or four inches. There they remain for a few minutes, sometimes motionless, sometimes sedately napping their wings. They then walk out of the water, shake their great pinions, and stand perfectly still, until the sun dries their outstretched wings.
The smaller birds naturally require less water for their bath. Sparrows are quite content with a puddle. It affords fine safe bathing. The blithe little tailor-birds and the sprightly honeysuckers bathe in palm leaves, filled during the night with that same dew, which sometimes on the buds Was wont to swell, like round and orient pearls."
Fairy baths, these, and surely filled by the elf who cried *
" I must go seek some dewdrops here, And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear."
Other birds prefer a dust to a water-bath. The beautiful little bee-eaters bathe in this way, as does the hoopoe, and our friend the barn-door fowl.
When driving into the Adyar Club, Madras, you may, if you are fortunate, come upon two or three bee-eaters squatting with ruffled feathers in the dustiest part of the road, and rubbing their plumage in the soft dust with the utmost enjoyment. Then, after much preening of feathers, the little company of birds take to their wings and, uttering their faint little twitters, perform graceful curves in the air, becoming alternately green and gold with the changing angles of their wings.
There seems no reason why some birds should like water-baths, while others prefer nettoyage d sec. It is presumably merely a matter of taste. Some birds take both kinds of bath.
In addition to their ordinary evening bathe, most birds indulge in a shower-bath whenever it rains, and I think they enjoy this form of bathing best of all, provided the rain be not too heavy. They literally revel in a gentle shower. First one wing, then the other, is opened, the tail expanded, and the feathers ruffled in order that the soft water may penetrate to the skin. And when the rain is over, what a drying, what a shaking of wings and preening of feathers, take place! The bird world turns itself temporarily into a great Toilette Club. Then, the universal wash-and-brush-up over, the birds go forth on gladsome wing, looking as fresh and sweet as an English orchard after a shower in the merrie month of May.