IN the matter of cuckoos India can give points to the British Isles. The good folk at home see only one species of cuckoo, and that spends less than half its time on the British shores; we in India, on the other hand, can boast of an avifauna in which the sub-family cuculinae is represented by no fewer than thirty species.
Lest the above statement should excite the righteous indignation of British ornithologists, let me hasten to say that it is not strictly true, that it requires a little modification.
Species of cuckoo, other than the common or garden Cuculus canorus, have been seen in England outside the Zoological Gardens. Three bold species have, at divers times, visited the shores of Albion, and warm was the reception each received.
Thanatology is a science carried to perfection in the Homeland. So-called naturalists shoot, at sight, every strange bird. In 1871 an American Black-Billed Cuckoo was seen at Belfast and shot. On five different occasions the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo -: the American Rain-bird -: has visited our shores only to be put to death. A similar fate overtook the two Great Spotted Cuckoos that at different times ventured to set foot in the United Kingdom. Woe betide the strange bird who ventures near the hospitable shores of England! But let us leave this unpleasant subject. Let us turn to the Indian cuckoos, which are not persecuted by man.
The European cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is a regular visitor to India. In the Himalayas during the months of April, May, and June its melodious voice is heard unceasingly from early morn to dewy eve. This bird does not venture in great numbers into the plains ; but it does come, and has been seen as far south as the Godavery District.
The two essentially Indian cuckoos are our ubiquitous friends -: the Brain-fever bird and the Koel. The former is known to scientists as Hierococcyx varius. It is also called the hawk-cuckoo, on account of its resemblance to a hawk. Its face is its fortune; for the little birds, when they see it, are said to mistake it for a hawk, and so allow it to drive them out of their nests and deposit its eggs in them. The "seven sisters" are its usual victims.
The brain-fever bird is, perhaps, the noisiest creature in India. It can boast of a variety of calls ; the one of which it is most fond and which it utters throughout the hot weather, both by day and by night, is a penetrating crescendo, "brain fever, brain fever, BRAIN FEVER," which pierces one through and through. The koel (Endynamys honorata) is another vociferous cuckoo, which exhibits a great predilection for the climate of Madras. In that part of the world it is only less common than the crow. The male is a glossy black bird, which, when seen during flight, looks like a slenderly built crow with an extra long tail. The female is a brown bird spotted with white. This species makes the crow do its nursemaid's work for it.
Needless to say, the Indian grey-necked crow is not the bird to be bluffed out of its nest by an ass in a lion's skin in the shape of a hawk-like cuckoo. If the hen-cuckoo went up threateningly to a crow and tried to enter the nest, the crow would probably remark, " Very sorry, ma'am, full inside, try outside !" It therefore becomes necessary for the koels to resort to artifice. The female, who is inconspicuously coloured, remains in the background, while the showy black cock bird swaggers up to the crow's nest upon which the pair have designs. As a rule, the mere sight of an adult male koel drives a crow almost mad with fury.
Nothing is commoner in India than the sight of a couple of crows chasing a koel. Indeed, the cuckoos are most unpopular with birds of all classes. They are the outlaws of the bird world; so they usually keep well to cover. When they do venture into the open they usually make a wild dash, like that of a boy from one " base " to another when playing at rounders.
Upon this occasion, however, the koel turns his unpopularity to account. If the sight of him is insufficient to provoke the crows at the nest to give chase, he begins to insult them. "Call that thing a nest?" he says mockingly. " Why, if I could not raise up a more respectable structure than that I would lay my eggs in some other bird's nest!" The crows, of course, will not tolerate this kind of thing. They give chase.
Now, in a race between a koel and a crow the latter has about as much chance of winning as a cart-horse would have if pittied against a Derby winner. The koel, however, is content to keep just ahead of his corvine pursuers; thus he lures them from the nest, and meanwhile his mate is placing her egg in it. When the male bird hears his wife's voice he knows that the fell deed is done, and so puts on a spurt and leaves his pursuers far behind, screaming as he disappears from view: " Get back to the nest, you blockheads, the eggs are getting cold !"
The crows realize that this is really their most sensible course. On their return they fail to recognize the prank which has been played upon them; and so hatch out the strange egg along with their own. But the curious thing is that when the young koel is hatched, its foster-parents do not wring its neck, but tend it most carefully.
Birds, when sitting on their eggs or looking after their young, are mere automatons, creatures of instinct. At this period they seem to cast intelligence to the wind, and to obey implicitly the promptings of instinct. Instinct teaches a bird to feed all the young in its nest without questioning their origin. We may thus account for the care which the crow parents lavish upon their koel foster-children.
But we have yet to overcome a further difficulty. How is it that when the young koels first begin to fend for themselves they are not set upon by the strange crows of the neighbourhood and devoured? A crow, as a rule, never loses an opportunity of attacking a koel. Here would be a golden opportunity for them; they would experience no difficulty in catching or destroying a newly fledged cuckoo.
Some authorities have thought that during the earlier part of their life young koels retain the crow smell, and so are let alone by the strange crows they encounter. I do not think that this is the explanation.
Smell does not appear to play an important part in the life of a bird. Of all the avine senses that of smell seems to be the least well developed.
So far as my observation goes, it is the male koel which is chiefly attacked by the crows. I do not remember ever having seen a female chased; she is so different from the cock bird in appearance that it is possible that the crows do not know that she is a koel. Now young koels of both sexes resemble the female in plumage, and I think that it is to this fact that they owe their immunity from attack.
Cuckoos are, indeed, wonderful creatures. They are not content with victimizing poor helpless little birds; they select as their victims and dupes the boldest and bravest of the feathered race. The brain-fever bird victimizes the social and alert babblers. The koel chooses crows, of all birds.
Another cuckoo, the Drongo-cuckoo (Surniculus lugubris), goes one better. It selects as its dupe the valiant and ever-vigilant king-crow. As we have already seen, the king-crow is, during the nesting season, a little fury. It will attack any bird or beast that ventures near its nest. It takes no account of size. The cuckoo that desired to victimize it might be as big as the mythical roc; but this would profit the parasitic bird little : the king-crow would stand up to it. It is by craft, not by " bluff," that the cuckoo succeeds in "scoring off" the drongo. Surniculus lugubris is, perhaps, the most wonderful example of mimicry in nature. It has adopted the dress of the drongo. It is black all over and has a forked tail. It is said to be a very uncommon cuckoo.
I do not know whether I have ever seen a live species or not, for I cannot distinguish it from a king-crow. I am not ashamed of this admission : for the king-crow himself is in this respect no better off than I am. I submit that if A cannot distinguish B from his (A's) own brother, it is surely not to be expected that I, a stranger, can do so!
The drongo-cuckoo has a smart appearance and a straight flight, and thus differs from the majority of cuckoos, which are slovenly birds, the kind of birds which, if they wore clothes, would slouch about with their hands in their pockets and their hats on the back of the head. The drongo-cuckoo, the lion in the ass's skin, is allowed to hover about in the neighbourhood of a king-crow's nest, and seizes the opportunity of depositing an egg when the back of the owner of the nest is turned.
India boasts of some respectable cuckoos, that is to say, cuckoos which build nests and do not shirk parental responsibilities. The best known of these is that widely distributed bird, the coucal, or crow-pheasant. He is a personage of sufficient importance to demand a chapter to himself.