THE deep, sonorous "whoot, whoot, whoot" of the crow-pheasant is one of the most familiar of the sounds which greet the rising sun in India. Centropus sinensis, although it is to be heard at all hours of the day, prefers to indulge in its vocal exercises in the early morning or at the sunset hour; hence its cry is often mistaken for that of some belated, or early-rising owl.
The crow-pheasant, however, is not an owl. With the exception of the voice, there is nothing owl-like about the bird. It is not a creature of the night. It is just a respectable cuckoo which brings up its own family. Needless to say, the other members of the cuckoo tribe disown it. It is not admitted to any of the cuculine clubs.
For the benefit of those who are not initiated into the mysteries of cuckoo society, I may say that the qualifications for admission to one of their clubs are, firstly, zygodactyle feet, and secondly, the making of the following solemn affirmation: " I bind myself never, under any circumstances whatsoever, to do my¬self that which it is possible to make others do for me." The coucal is able to satisfy the former of these conditions, but cannot honestly attach its signature to the affirmation.
The crow-pheasant is not a bird of great beauty. Nevertheless, I think that " Eha " is a little severe on it when he dubs it a great, awkward bird. I myself rather admire its shape, and should have nothing to say against the bird, did not its plumage not partake so much of the nature of patchwork. Its head, body, and tail are black, and its wings chestnut in hue. Black and brown do not form a happy combination. Why the birds of both sexes are thus attired I know not. This is one of the many unsolved problems of animal colouration.
Were the thing not impossible, one would think that at some beanfeast long ago the crow-pheasant must have imbibed a little too freely, and then, in a moment of maudlin friendship, exchanged wings with some brown bird. For the wings do not match the rest of the plumage, nor are they large enough for the bird, hence its decidedly laboured flight. The smallness of its wings, however, does not worry the coucal, for it does not use those appendages much. It lives in thick cover, although it often ventures out in the open to feed. When alarmed, it flaps up to the nearest tree and then disappears from view in a mysterious way. As a tree-climber there is no other bird of the size which can approach a crow-pheasant.
It is most amusing to watch him seeking his breakfast, which consists chiefly of insects. The bird picks his food off the ground and hunts by preference in the neighbourhood of water. His walk is best described as a "mincing gait." He evidently does not mean to trip, for he lifts his feet absurdly high at each step. He never hops ; he would not do anything so vulgar.
The manner in which he picks up his food is in accordance with his gait. He does not, like the hoopoe or the common or garden fowl, greedily gobble up everything he comes across. He picks and chooses. He gives one the idea that he is an epicure. Whether this is so or not, he undoubtedly feeds with great caution.
His whole attitude is that of looking before he leaps. He goes systematically along a hedge, casting, as he progresses, frequent glances to right and left, occasionally pulling something small out of the ground -: presumably a grub or an insect. Now and again, he will penetrate the hedge, for, like small boys, he is addicted to worming his way into dense thickets merely for the fun of the thing.
Having eaten up everything to his taste in the vicinity of the hedge, the crow-pheasant will take to the open, progressing with the same mincing steps and looking about with the utmost wariness, and if he perceives a human being, he will at once make for the nearest tree. If the coast seems clear, the bird continues his stately progress. Suddenly he espies a grasshopper. He then casts off his phlegmatic air and makes a most undignified dash at the insect. The latter is usually too quick for him, and hops off, but the crow-pheasant is not to be denied ; he jumps after it, being assisted by his wings.
An exciting chase usually ensues, in which it is not safe for the sportsman to lay his money on either the little insect or the great fowl. The grasshopper often doubles, and is of course followed by the coucal, which, when making a sharp turn, often expands one wing, using it as a steering apparatus. The bird is said also to eat lizards and snakes. He possibly eats small frogs, for I have often seen crow-pheasants wading in water.
The nest is an interesting object. It is usually situated in the midst of some impenetrable thicket, for a coucal dislikes having his family affairs pryed into. It is a great structure, about the size of a football, composed chiefly of sticks. It is roofed in and has the entrance at the side. In spite of its size, it is usually so well concealed that it is not an easy thing to discover. Sometimes, when one knows for certain that there is a nest in a thicket, it is impossible to find that nest without pulling down the greater part of the bush round about it. I once spent a couple of hours looking in vain for a nest which I knew to be in a thick hedge ; then I told off two peons to find it without doing any damage to the hedge. They professed their inability to discover it, but I do not believe they made very sustained efforts to find it; I rather fancy they regarded the duty as beneath the dignity of their position ! Whether this was so or not, it is certain that the crow-pheasant is an adept at concealing his home.
The coucal is usually described in works on natural history as a shy bird. It is certainly exceedingly shy in Madras, much more so than it is in Northern India. The reason of this difference in behaviour is not apparent, for besides the innocent "griff" who shoots the bird in mistake for a pheasant, the lower caste Hindu folk of all parts of India, and most Mohammedans, look upon the flesh of the bird as a great delicacy. Hence the coucal is frequently trapped.
Yet the bird in Northern India is comparatively tame. In Madras, too, it is trapped ; there are usually two or three wretched-looking crow-pheasants to be seen in the Moore Market. These are kept in cages so small that their tails are crushed up against the wires, and the poor birds look the picture of misery, and are doubtless as unhappy as they look.
Even worse is the plight of the king-crows which are caught and kept in cages. These birds are, presumably, not eaten, and I do not think they are kept as pets, for so lively a bird as a king-crow could not live long in a cage. They are, presumably, caught and ill-treated merely to induce kind-hearted folk to pay for their liberation.
This is commonly done with crows. These birds are trapped and then taken to a Brahmin by some disreputable character, who threatens to destroy them, then and there, unless the Brahmin pays for the bird's liberation. It is surely time that these practices should be made punishable by law.