THE BRAHMINY KITE
THE Brahminy kite (Haliastur lindus) is a puzzle to naturalists. Its habits are obviously those of a kite, but it looks too fine a bird to be a scavenger; it seems too well dressed to be a performer of Nature's dirty work. Hence the bird used formerly to be placed among the sea-eagles.
Nowadays, naturalists seem inclined to dethrone it from its former high position, to regard it as an ass in a lion's skin, and to declare that, although it has the colour of the eagle, which, according to Shelley," sits in the light of its golden wings," it is but a scavenger. However, the question is not yet decided. One is at liberty to regard the bird, either as a degraded eagle, or a glorified kite. Blanford declines to commit himself, and in this he is perhaps wise. He says: " Haliastur has been classed alternatively with the sea-eagles and with the kites, and is allied to both."
But the systematic position of the bird is after all not a matter of great importance. Let us leave ornithologists to squabble over this, while we take a look at the bird and study it as it is.
It is one of the commonest birds in Madras. Let me say, for the benefit of those unacquainted with it, that the general hue of its plumage is a bright, rich chestnut, but its head, neck, lower parts, and the tip of its tail, are white. Each white feather has a brown shaft, but this is not visible except at close quarters. From a distance the bird appears chestnut in colour, with a snowy head and breast. Such is the adult creature; but it is not until the young Brahminy kite is nearly a year old that it assumes this beautiful plumage.
When it first leaves the nest, early in the year, it is a dingy brown bird, and, although it undergoes a number of changes in appearance, it remains a brown bird until the winter. Hence young Brahminy kites often pass for the common pariah bird. However, nothing is easier than to distinguish the two species, no matter in what stage of plumage. The tail of the pariah kite is more or less forked, the two outer feathers on each side being a trifle longer than the inner feathers. The tail of the Brahminy kite is fan-shaped. It is nicely rounded off, the' outer feathers being slightly shorter than the inner ones.
In general habits the Brahminy very closely resembles the common kite. Both birds are gifted with wonderful powers of flight. They will remain on the wing for hours, soaring high above the earth, with but an occasional movement of the wing.
On one occasion I watched a Brahminy kite circling over the River Cooum at Madras. For fully five minutes the bird did not once flap its wings, yet it was moving the whole time. The wind furnished the motor power, and a slight depression of the wing, or a twist of the tail, sufficed to guide the bird. Thus it circled round and round, without effort, looking for its prey. Brahminy kites seem, like their vulgar relatives, to be almost omnivorous. They pick their food off the water by preference, while the common kites hunt over dry land. Thus the two species may be said to divide the land and water between them; but, unfortunately for the peace of the community, each frequently encroaches on the preserve of the other; this leads to a considerable amount of mutual abuse, which takes the form of squeals.
Some authorities declare that the Brahminy kite lives chiefly upon insects. This is not so; the bird will devour insects, as it will eat most things, but it lives chiefly upon garbage, which it finds floating on the water, and on frogs and crabs, which abound in paddy-fields. Numberless Brahminies are seen when one is out snipe-shooting near Madras, and these birds make no bones about carrying off a wounded snipe if they are given half a chance. On one occasion, when I was shooting duck, one of these kites made off with a teal that I had wounded. I fired at him to punish him for his impudence, but he flew off, apparently unscathed, carrying his quarry.
Some naturalists declare that Haliastur catches fish, much as an osprey or fishing-eagle does. Thus Colonel Sykes says: " It occasionally dips entirely under water, appearing to rise again with difficulty." I do not believe that the bird ever does this; the worthy Colonel must have mistaken some other species for a Brahminy kite upon this occasion.
The bird, however, does sometimes (very rarely I think) snatch with its claws a small fish or a prawn that is swimming near the surface of the water. Colonel Cunningham thus describes some fishing operations which he witnessed on a pond that had, owing to the drought, become very shallow : -: " For several days the numbers of arrivals steadily increased, so that for a time the neighbourhood of the pond was thronged by hundreds of birds in various stages of plumage, and filling the air with clamorous cries as they flew in bewildering mazes over the water, or sat among the branches of all the surrounding trees. Every now and then one of the moving crowd would suddenly stop to sweep along over the surface of the pond, and rise again, grasping a little glittering fish, which he either carried off to be devoured at leisure on a tree, or disposed of while on the wing, just as common kites do when hawking in a swarm of white ants." Such sights are not seen every day.
Another observer witnessed " a Brahminy kite kill and eat a kingfisher that had carried off a small fish on which the kite was in the act of swooping." Truly there were giants in those days !
Brahminy kites sometimes come into collision with the crows; but then, what bird or beast does not do this? In Madras the crows treat their larger neighbours with great respect, having no liking for the feel of their powerful claws. But in places where Brahminy kites are uncommon birds, the crows mob them, as they do all strange birds.
Crows are very conservative. They hate any new addition to the local fauna, and they show their dislike in no uncertain way, as a cockatoo, which recently escaped from captivity in Madras, discovered. The Brahminy kite is very fond of hearing its own voice, which is best described as a disagreeable squeal. It is uttered while the bird is on the wing.
The nest is built high up in a tree, often a palm-tree. It is not much of a structure if regarded from an architectural point of view; nevertheless, it is less bulky and less untidy than the nursery of its plebeian cousin, the pariah kite. It is composed of sticks roughly put together and lined with leaves or mud. The eggs are dirty white, sometimes splotched or speckled with reddish brown. The Brahminy kite rejoices in a great variety of names. Many Anglo-Indians call it the fish-hawk. Mr. Thomas Atkins calls it the bramley kite, which is his way of pronouncing Brahminy kite!
The Mohammedan name for the bird is Ru-Mubarik, which, being translated, means " lucky face." The bird is so called from a superstition that, when two armies are about to enter into an engagement, the appearance of one of these auspicious birds over the head of either of the armies means victory to that side. Now, since there must be quite a dozen Brahminy kites hovering over every army in the field in India, each side should always go into battle feeling cocksure of success. Garuda is the Hindu name for the bird, which is sacred to Vishnu. That god selected the bird as his vehicle, and it would be impossible to imagine a finer steed; but the bird, of course, is not up to weight.
Mr. P. V. Trivikrama Rau writes in the " Calcutta Review " : " Whenever Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu, is seen, Hindus pay their veneration to it by touching their cheeks with their fingers as they repeat a Sanskrit verse which, when rendered into English, is as follows: ' I bow to thee, king of birds, and (as such) the vehicle of Vishnu, whose parts are coloured crimson and whose neck is bright as the moon.'" Now, I presume that Mr. Trivikrama Rau is here indulging in a little Oriental hyperbole.
It would be all very well for the pious Hindu to act thus when he lives in a place where one only sees a Brahminy kite once in a blue moon, but it is surely expecting too much of the Madras Hindu to do all this whenever he sets eyes on one of these birds. Every one in Madras must see dozens of Brahminy kites daily, and I cannot bring myself to believe that he does and says all the above every time he beholds one. Mr. Trivikrama Rau also tells us that the sight of a Brah¬miny kite " on any day, and particularly on Sunday mornings, is considered lucky, for it is believed that it is then returning from Vishnu, whom it has gone to see on the previous evening." The Madras Hindus are certainly in luck's way, for every one of them may depend on seeing a dozen or more Brahminy kites every Sunday morning throughout the year.