PADDY-BIRDS AND EGRETS
THE paddy-bird, alias the pond heron, alias the blind heron, alias Aideola grayii, is one of the few animals that really understand the art of loafing. Unlike the majority of the feathered tribe, he makes no pretence of being busy. He does nothing all day, and does not try to hush up the fact. Nor does he endeavour to delude himself into believing that the day is not long enough for the work he has to get through. The paddy-bird lives chiefly on frogs.
I do not know the extent of the appetite of a pond heron, never having had to cater for one. Nevertheless, were I given the contract to feed a number of them, I would not allow more than three frogs per head per diem. If any bird clamoured for more, I would promptly set him down as a glutton, and make him mortify the flesh by fasting once a week.
Now, to a professional fisherman, the capture of three frogs per day is not an Herculean task, yet this constitutes the average daily labour of a paddy-bird; it is not sufficient to debar the bird from belonging to a trade union. I am of opinion that every pond heron, when about to die, might say with truth, " I have never done an honest day's work in my life!" He stands all day, presumably because he is too lazy to sit, looking as though he were thinking of his grandmother, or posing for his photograph. He does not often condescend to seek his prey. He prefers to wait for the food to come to him, which it seems to do with unfailing regularity. The bird is a philosopher, his philosophy being of the description enunciated in the well-known song entitled " You've got to have 'em, whether you want 'em or not" (the " 'em" in this case denoting mothers-in-law, measles, etc.). Although he does not strictly follow the advice to open his mouth and shut his eyes and see what somebody sends him -: for it is Utopian, impossible of attainment -: he does what in the end comes to much the same thing. He stands with his mouth shut and eyes open until a juicy frog passes his way, when he seizes and swallows it.
Up-country the paddy-bird is so absurdly tame as to receive the name of " blind heron." Those that dwell in Madras are far more wary. I suspect that they are highly esteemed as table-birds by the unsophisticated Madrassi; hence the unusual shyness.
The paddy-bird flies as little as possible. He takes the minimum amount of exercise necessary to keep himself in good health, just sufficient, indeed, to stave off attacks of liver. During most of the day he takes up his position in some puddle, where he stands motion¬less for hours, by preference in a strange attitude. He would make a perfect artist's model. If he could only look pleasant he would be a subject after the heart of the photographer. But so sad a bird is he that I fear the exhortation, " Think of 'er," would scarcely raise a smile from him.
As he stands and contemplates his image in the murky waters of the village pond, he forms a strange contrast to dhobis -: the other denizens of the tank -: who seem to work with might and main, the livelong day, trying to dash garments to pieces against a rugged stone, under the impression that they are doing a little washing. The look of silent contempt which the paddy-bird bestows on the perspiring, grunting washerman would make the latter feel very uncomfortable if he only had the leisure to notice it. The dhoti and the paddy-bird form perfect contrasts; yet they have one common feature. They are both anomalies. The washerman is the exception which proves the rule that Orientals are placid individuals who never do a stroke of unnecessary work. The blind heron is the exception which proves the rule that birds are active, busy, bustling creatures.
The paddy-bird, to adapt one of Mr. Phil Robinson's happiest phrases, sits all dingy gray and flies all white. As he loafs on the margin of the murky water he is an inconspicuous object. His brownish plumage, dirty yellow beak, and dingy green legs are all of the hue of the environment. As he takes to his wings the bird is transfigured. He is changed, as if by fairy touch, into a beautiful milk-white bird. His pinions are large, their under surface is snow-like, and they are so conspicuous as he floats through the air that they distract the eye from all else. The human eye is able to obtain only a general impression of a moving object. A flying kingfisher is a flash of light blue, and a redstart one of fiery red. The most conspicuous feature of the moving thing seems, as it were, to obliterate, to render invisible, all others.
Thus, when horses are racing, the attitude which is so striking as to swallow up all others is that of the straining animals with extended legs. As a matter of actual fact, the horses' legs are doubled up under the body just as frequently as they are stretched out. The doubled-up horse is, however, not a striking object, so the eye fails to retain it, and notices only the panting steeds with outstretched legs. This phenomenon accounts for the fact that photographs of racing horses are almost always disappointing; they appear unnatural and seem to exhibit the animals in all manner of impossible and awkward attitudes.
During flight the paddy-bird emits at intervals a guttural croak -: not a cheerful sound, but one in keeping with the character of the bird. When at rest his appearance is not prepossessing. His attitude is misanthropic. He looks as though he shunned the company of other birds, and desired above all to be allowed to remain in peace. Yet the paddy-bird is not a quarrelsome creature. Dozens will sit in a row along the margin of a lake, separated by short intervals, and not one will take the least notice of any of the others. I have never seen two paddy-birds fighting. I have, indeed, seen one fly up to where another was standing, but the latter promptly flew away, without even casting a backward glance at the intruder. The truth is that it requires two energetic persons to organize a fight, and where are these to be found in paddy-bird society?
At the advent of the monsoon, when the frogs begin to croak in deafening chorus, the male birds "go a-courting." They assume nuptial ornaments which consist of a ruff and some maroon feathers. The hen birds deck themselves out in similar finery, which is very annoying of them, for they thus present to naturalists a very awkward problem. Neither natural nor sexual selection will explain this change in both sexes. The dingy brown hue cannot be improved upon so far as the former is concerned, and, if this be doffed in deference to sexual selection -: the preference of the ladies for bright colours -: how are we to account for the change in the female? It would rather seem that the change is an adventitious one, connected with the reproductive function, and not in any way benefiting the bird.
It is scarcely necessary to state that the paddy-bird's nest, which is built in a tree, is an untidy structure, made of sticks, and is, in every way, in keeping with the general character of the bird.
The cattle egret (Bubulcus coromandus) is nearly related to the paddy-bird.
Never did two kinsmen present a greater contrast. The pond heron is solitary, inconspicuously coloured, and sluggish even for a heron. The cattle egret is gregarious, conspicuously clothed in white, and is the most energetic member of the heron tribe. It does not wait for its food to come to it, but " walks up " the insects upon which it feeds. It not infrequently makes a cow act as its beater.
Insects, whatever Lord Avebury may say to the contrary, are not intelligent creatures. They seem to lead a blissful, happy-go-lucky life. They refuse to be worried ; they decline to be always on the qui vive watching for the devourer who may never come their way. If they are caught, well -: they are caught. That is the long and the short of it. It is true that Nature has given many of them clothes calculated to render them as inconspicuous as possible, but most of the insects seem unable to understand how to profit by their disguises. It is useless to dress up an ass to look like a lion, if the animal will persist in braying upon every possible occasion.
Whenever there is a commotion in the grass the grasshoppers and their friends jump into the air and thus show themselves to their enemies; whereas, had they the common sense to lie low, they might not be detected. Of course there is the point of view of the insect. I can quite imagine one turning round and saying: " It is all very fine for you to talk of sitting still in presence of danger. Try it yourself. If you were seated in your garden quietly taking afternoon tea and you saw a great monster, as big as the Albert Hall, coming towards you and making the earth shake as if it were in the throes of an earthquake, I am prepared to bet you two to one in antennae that you would take to your heels and run for your life!"
Well, perhaps, there is after all something to be said for the insects, but the stern fact remains that, when surprised by a cow, they jump out of the way of its feet and find they have leapt out of the frying-pan into the fire, for, before they realize what has happened, they find themselves being roughly hustled down what they take to be a dark cavern, but which is, in reality, the gullet of a myna or an egret. These birds look upon cattle as organisms created solely to act as beaters for them. It is, therefore, quite evident that there is no need for an egret to be inconspicuously coloured in order to obtain its meals. It may dress as it pleases. It affects white except when it goes a-courting, when it arrays itself in gorgeous plumes and is then as proud as 'Arriet when she issues forth resplendent in her Sunday finery.
The difference in the food consumed accounts for the difference between the two species in habits and appearance.
When I want to shoot a black buck I don inconspicuous clothing and go forth alone into the jungle and stealthily stalk my game. But if I am after quail or snipe I take no pains to render myself inconspicuous. I like friends to accompany me and employ beaters to put up the birds. In the former case I hunt a la paddy-bird, in the latter I do a little shikar after the manner of the cattle egret.