" Kites that swim sublime In still repeated circle, screaming loud."
THE kite furnishes a good example of what political economists call " place value." A kite nestling found in England will sell for £25, while in India the bird will not fetch even the price of the biblical sparrow. It was not ever thus. Time was when the kite was as common in the United Kingdom as it now is in India. Kites of a species (Milvus ictinus) nearly allied to the Indian bird used to exist in London in their thousands in the " good old days " when the conservancy arrangements were such that the streets offered plenty of food for carrion-feeders.
As civilization and sanitation advanced, the kites found that refuse, which is their ordinary food, was growing beautifully less, hence they had to resort largely to the farmyard and the game-preserve to supplement their more normal diet -: a change of habit not welcomed by farmers and gamekeepers, who then began to shoot at sight every kite that came within range. Thus the species grew scarce. And when once this happens in England the end of that species is not far off.
The rarer the bird, the greater its value to the collector ; hence every uncommon species is shot to extinction. The kite is now just not extinct in England. Its extermination has been prevented only by the fact that a few landowners have interested themselves in the bird and are protecting it. The kite, however, flourishes in the East, and is likely to do so for many years to come. It will be a very long time before India is Europeanized to such an extent that the kites have to subsist on poultry.
The kite (Milvus govinda) is one of the commonest birds in the " Land of Regrets." It is so very common there that it does not receive half the attention it deserves. Were it a rare bird we should marvel at its wonderful powers of flight. Indeed, the new arrival in India, if he ever notices natural objects, is perhaps more struck by the kites than by anything else in this country. Colonel Cunningham writes, after thirty years' residence in India, that he was so impressed by the kites that it seems only yesterday that he first saw them wheeling over the stream of the Hooghly.
I cannot refrain from quoting his description of them : " In truth, they are very beautiful birds. Their bright, bold, brown eyes and cruel talons are splendid objects; the soft shading of their plumage is admirable, especially when seen at a short distance, as the great birds glide gently to and fro, passing and repassing through alternate zones of sunshine and shadow; nothing can prevent their flight, with its easy evolutions, smoothly sweeping spires and headlong plunges, from being an endless source of delight to the onlooker."
But, in order to fully appreciate the flying prowess of the kite, it is necessary to have been the victim of his larceny. You are perhaps eating a solitary breakfast, in the open, and your thoughts are far away. Suddenly you become aware of a presence, and a second later you behold a kite elegantly sailing away, carrying in its claws the mutton chop you were about to eat! I have seen a kite swoop down, snatch away a bone from between a dog's paws, and be out of reach before the dog had realized what had happened.
Mr. Jesse, in his account of the birds of Lucknow, writes: " On one occasion my khansama was walking across the compound with a bone on a plate when down swooped a kite and seized the bone, which, however, it dropped, knocking off the man's turban." On another occasion a kite carried off a tame squirrel from the shelter of its master's arms.
Well has Lockwood Kipling written of the athletic bird : " The kite is a notorious thief; no other creature is so splendidly equipped for larceny, for no other can snatch so unerringly and escape so securely." " When the kite builds look to lesser linen," says Autolycus. In addition to possessing marvellous powers of flight and accurate steering, the kite is able to use its claws as hands. It does not seize its food with its beak, as most birds do ; it snatches it away with its claws, and, unless the stolen object is too large to be swallowed entire, transfers it to its mouth during flight.
It is interesting to compare the methods of the kite with those of its rival thief, the crow. When the latter bird espies something edible, he looks all round him to see if the coast is clear; then he hops or sidles up to the desired object, and, having again taken a look round, seizes the food with his beak. A kite, on the other hand, directly he catches sight of anything edible, swoops down and snatches it with his claws. If a crow and a kite " spot" a piece of meat simultaneously, the kite will have carried it off before the crow has finished wondering whether he can safely approach the object.
I have sometimes known a kite miss the object at which it was aiming. But this was invariably due to nervousness; the kite does not quite like taking anything from the hand of that mysterious creature, man. It feels that this is a risky operation, and resorts to it only when very hard put to it to obtain food.
Kites and crows live side by side, feed upon the same food, and obtain it in similar ways, thus it is but natural that the two species should not be on very good terms with one another. The crow is afraid of the kite. No crow will admit this, but it is nevertheless true. Often and often have I seen a party of crows squabbling over a piece of food; suddenly the fighting ceases, the crows look scared, and a kite swoops down and carries off, in its talons, the bone of contention, and thus acts the part of the peacemaker. Fortunately for the crows, the kite is itself not over-valorous, nor are its intellectual powers great.
The poet Spenser was not far from the mark when he spoke of " the foolish kite." In spite of its superior size, strength, and powers of flight, the kite is not infrequently "scored off" by the crow.
This happens mostly when the scavenger has dined well, rather than wisely. This, I regret to have to say, happens whenever the opportunity presents itself. Having gorged himself to bursting point, the kite likes to sit on the ground and meditate. A couple of crows then appear on the scene; one settles in front of the kite and the other behind him. The posteriorly situated crow then makes an attack a tergo. The kite turns savagely on the aggressor. This is the opportunity for which the front crow has been waiting; he attempts to remove one or more of the glead's tail feathers. After a little the irate scavenger flies off, amid corvine jeers.
Kites can scarcely be called birds of prey. They usually aim at more humble game. They are content to live on refuse. It is not that they do not like nice fresh meat; far from it. There is nothing that a kite enjoys so much as a tender little bird; but, before you can eat your hare, you have to catch him, and kites are lazy and cowardly. They choose the line of least resistance, and that is to pick up dead matter.
However, if a sickly little bird or a feeble nestling presents itself, the kite " makes no bones " about carrying it off. Sometimes the kite, in spite of the vigilance of the parents, manages to carry off a young crow. If he can get away before the parents discover what has happened, all goes well so far as the kite is concerned ; but if the crows catch him red-handed, it is the very dickens!
Not many days ago the conversation of a choto haziri party, at which I was present, was interrupted by a great commotion overhead in a tree, and, looking up, we saw a crow abusing a kite. The kite looked at the crow in such a way as seemed to say: "Oh, you naughty rude woman! How can you demean yourself by calling me such shocking names ? " And when we beheld all the fury of the crow virago we could not help sympathizing with the kite, who looked piety itself. Then we noticed that he was holding, under one claw, part of a young crow.
The other part of the unfortunate bird was doubtless inside him, and it was nothing but the mad fury of the crow, and the occasional feints she made at pecking the plumage of the slayer of her young one, that prevented the part of the crow nestling outside the kite joining the portion inside it. After having perceived the cause of the wrath of the crow, one could scarcely sympathize any more with the kite. Had any other bird been victimized, I should have experienced keen sorrow for the bereaved parent, but for a crow, no ! All sympathy on crows is sympathy wasted. I regarded her, not as a sorrowing parent, but as Satan rebuking sin.
Interference on my part did not appear to be called for. Presently the kite flew off, carrying in its claw the remains of the young crow. The mother bird followed him up, swearing like a bargee, and, for all I know, she may still be giving that kite a bit of her' mind.
The above episode renders it obvious that crows have good cause to dislike kites. The reason of the hatred towards them displayed by king-crows is not so apparent; but then drongos attack all birds. Sometimes the crows and king-crows unite in mobbing a kite, the individual differences of the two former being forgotten in face of a common foe.
A kite's nest is a very untidy affair. It is composed of coarse twigs, is sometimes lined with mud, and almost invariably contains a number of disgustingly dirty rags, some of which are utilized as lining for the nest; most of them, however, appear to be regarded as ornaments, since they are allowed to hang down and flap in the wind. Rags are by no means the only trinkets to be found in the nest. Brickbats, and, in Northern India, pieces of kunkur help to add to the beauty of the structure.
Kites usually build their platform-like nests in the fork of a strong branch of a tree, but they sometimes nest on mosques, temples, and old buildings. December and January are the commonest nesting months. A kite's nest is not a difficult object to see, being about three times the size of a football. The eggs are white in colour, splashed with red or brown. Two seem to be the usual number of a clutch.
I have already remarked that kites are not possessed of a vast amount of brain-power, and when nesting their stupidity knows no bounds. A Calcutta kite was once discovered trying to hatch a pill-box! This performance is, however, eclipsed by that of the kite which Mr. Littledale found sitting tight upon a hare's skull. One can only surmise that these objects must originally have been stolen as ornaments for the nest. But the kite, having a short memory, soon forgot the history of the foreign object and then mistook it for an egg.
Greater proof than this can scarcely be adduced to show that birds during the nesting season are mere automata, creatures of impulse, driven by some inborn force to do many actions of which they understand not the meaning. The more one studies nature, the more does one become convinced of this.
" I once found," writes the American naturalist, Burroughs, " the nest of a black and white creeping warbler in a mossy bank in the woods, beneath which was an egg of the bird. The warbler had excavated the site for her nest, dropped her egg into the hollow and then gone on with her building." This conversion of birds into mere automata at the nesting season is perhaps the most wonderful phenomenon in nature.
It is obvious that if birds did not, at certain seasons, throw intelligence to the winds and become mere automata they would neither build nests nor sit on the eggs they laid. A bird which has never seen a nest, one, for example, which was hatched out in an incubator, will at the appointed time build a nest of the usual pattern, yet such a bird has had no experience to guide her. When, therefore, a bird sets itself for the first time to collect materials and to weave them into a nest, it is not consciously making a nursery for its chicks, it cannot know why it is collecting sticks. It probably never puts this question to itself. It is content to obey blindly an impulse planted in it by Him who watches over the little birds, and teaches them how to hold their own in the struggle for existence.