THE SEVEN SISTERS
"The seven birds . . . that never part."
BABBLERS are the Bohemians of bird society. The Seven Sisters are to the rest of the fowls of India what the denizens of the Quartier Latin are to the remainder of Parisian Society. There is much to be said for an unconventional, restraint-free life. The poets, from Horace downwards, have hankered after such an existence.
It is, indeed, no small thing to be able to eat what one likes, drink what one likes, say what one likes, and do what one likes. Babblers enjoy all these advantages, and many more. Were there ever before, throughout all the geological ages, any birds so utterly indifferent to personal appearance? If a crow were to show himself in public in the unkempt condition of the average babbler, he would be forthwith socially ostracized; he would be blackballed by every corvine Club and never receive an invitation to dinner. Crows are great sticklers for etiquette, whereas babblers care not a fig for appearances.
" Liberte, Fraternity Egalite" is the motto of these birds, and they flourish under their republican constitution. There must be close upon a hundred species of babblers scattered over India. The family is an enormous one, and the most characteristic ornithological feature of the country. Go where you will in the " Land of Regrets," you will not be able to dodge the babblers. In every station, whether on the hills or plains, you will be confronted by companies of Seven Sisters.
In scarcely any two provinces will the same species greet you, but you will have no difficulty in recognizing each new form as a near relation of those you have already met. " I have often amused myself," says Jerdon, writing of the sisterhood, " in imagining that they are not inapt representatives of the Hindus; certainly as far as their frequent congregating together, and their incessant noisy chattering and gabbling, they agree; and were I disposed to carry on the similitude further, it would not, I think, be a difficult task. It is not a little remarkable, too, that in southern India there are several kinds which in some measure correspond in geographical distribution with the principal Hindu races of this part of the country."
What gives these birds so strong a family likeness is the slovenly appearance they all present. Babblers represent all the degrees of untidiness. First and foremost comes the Crateropus canorus, the common babbler of the plains of Upper India. This bird looks as though it were in imminent danger of falling to pieces; its tail appears to hang by a mere thread, and its wings droop as if they were broken.
It may be likened to the human being who refuses to recognize the use of a hair-brush, who persists in wearing dirzie-made clothes, although his friends warn him that he will one day be mistaken for a scarecrow, and who, as often as not, forgets to put on a necktie.
This babbler has, further, a voice which is a very fair imitation of the sound produced by a rusty axle in motion. Passing upwards, through a host of intermediate species, we come to another landmark, in the shape of Malacocercus somervillei, the common Bombay babbler, which, as " Eha" describes, " reminds you of old Jones who spends the day in his pyjamas." Eventually we ascend to the Madras babbler, Malacocercus griseus, which must be considered as the " toff" of the babbler brotherhood.
This bird is so well known, being found in numbers in every garden in South India, that all description is superfluous. No one but a blind man can help remarking the chattering greyish-brown birds with yellowish white heads which abound in Madras. The first ones I saw introduced themselves to me as I was driving out of the railway-station yard, three minutes after my arrival.
Some of these babblers are more hoary than others. I think that the older birds exhibit the whitest heads. The white on the head of the babbler fledgling is certainly not conspicuous. Babblers differ from all other birds in that the unit of the community is not the individual, nor even the family, but the Club. Babbler society is made up of a number of little Clubs, each composed of from seven to a dozen members; hence the popular name Seven Sisters, or Brothers, applied to the commoner forms. " The man in the street" has no word by means of which he can speak of a single member of the species. It is impossible to talk about " a seven sister." Nor is this defect in the popular vocabulary a serious one, for where, outside a museum, do you see a solitary babbler ? Is it possible to think of one of these birds without a friend to which it can babble ?
These little Clubs are not mere family affairs, for a babbler is a monogamist, and has at the most four children; and two and four make but six. Each little company of Seven Sisters is just an informal, free-and-easy, go-as-you-please Club, composed of members drawn together by identity of interest. Every babbler is greatly attached to its Club ; even when bringing up a family the parents feed in company. The reason for this is not far to seek.
A babbler is a feeble little bird. Its beak is but a puny weapon, and its power of flight is so limited that it is probably unable to take an uninterrupted journey of a hundred yards. It is, therefore, obvious that, had the species not learned to profit by the homely proverb "union is strength," it would long ago have been swept off the face of the earth in the fierce struggle for existence. Thanks, however, to their clannishness, babblers are among the most widely distributed of birds in India.
It requires a very smart fowl to circumvent a party of Seven Sisters. Directly one of them espies an enemy it gives the cry of alarm. This is followed by a general excited twittering and screaming. Then the various members of the little company take cover, and remain silently in hiding until the danger is passed. Some babblers will unite and boldly beat off a bird which attacks them. The Madras ones are not so brave; they hold discretion to be the better part of valour.
So, for the sake of safety, the members of each little company keep together, hopping about and rummaging among fallen leaves for the minute insects upon which they feed.
The tiny community has no leader. All the members are equal. Any one may take the lead, and the rest seem to follow as a matter of course. As they saunter along together, the babblers keep up a constant flow of small talk. Their voices are not beautiful, and those not familiar with the birds are apt to mistake pleasant conversation for squabbling.
" Fighting ?" says Phil Robinson, " not at all; do not be misled by the tone of voice. That heptachord clamour is not the expression of strong feelings. It is only a way they have."
Dick says: "Well, Bill, what luck?" "A bit of all right," replies Bill, with his mouth full. " Going strong, Jane?" asks Harry, as he discovers an insect on the under side of a decayed leaf. " What do you think ? " squeaks Jane. "Old Bob's having a fine blow out!" remarks Tom, casually. Jack suddenly calls out: " My eye! here's a find," and then the whole Club rushes to see what he has found, each member chattering at the top of his voice.
It is wonderful how rare fights among babblers are.
A Club of human beings under such circumstances would not be half so amiable; there would be constant bickerings and squabbles. Cliques would be formed, which would soon terminate the existence of the Club.
Good fellows though babblers be, they have their enemies. The Brain-fever Bird, that wicked Indian cuckoo, selects the sisterhood as her victims. She places her egg among the beautiful glossy blue eggs of the Seven Sisters, and thus forces these to perform her nursemaid's work. But they do not seem to mind ; they take things far too easily to be bothered by the strange appearance, voice, and habits of one of their nestlings. Nothing worries these birds. If one of them ever writes an autobiography he will certainly give his book the title " Hurrah for the life of a babbler!"