Alexander the coppersmith


ALL Anglo-Indians are acquainted with the voice of the coppersmith bird, although, possibly, some do not know him by sight.

His unceasing, monotonous, metallic Tonk, tonk, tonk is perhaps the most striking of all the familiar sounds of an Indian garden. It is this which has given him his popular name. His note bears a remarkable resemblance to the sound of a hammer tapping upon metal. And, as the human coppersmith in the gorgeous East seems to spend most of his day in aimlessly hammering copper, it is easy to trace the origin of the bird's name. Indeed, the resemblance has struck both Indians and Europeans.

The notes of different individuals of the species are often of a different pitch. Some call more rapidly than others: when therefore two neighbouring birds sing simultaneously they give rise to the phenomenon of musical beats. The note of the coppersmith is by no means unpleasant; nevertheless, in this, as in all other cases, familiarity breeds contempt, and most Anglo-Indians are of opinion that they hear too much of the bird, and agree with Lockwood Kipling that "when you are down with fever and headache, you wish the noisy bird would take a holiday or go on strike."

Since the coppersmith's note is not confined to the breeding season, it is presumably not a love song designed to attract the attention of the opposite sex. Further, every bird seems to be able to emit but one note, and, as it will pour this forth by the hour at times when apparently there is not another member of the species within earshot, the note cannot be conversational.

I believe that the song of most birds is simply an ebullition of surplus energy, an expression of perfect health, an outward and audible token of pure and unalloyed happiness. I do not mean to say that birds cannot communicate vocally with one another, for they can and do. Their calls are, however, sharp, short notes, easily distinguishable from their songs.

Just as a man, when he is in good health and spirits, will sing while having his bath, so do the little coppersmiths pour forth their notes. In the former case, the pleasing contact of the water braces the nerves and forms the immediate stimulus ; in the latter, it is sunshine that sets the birds' vocal cords in motion.

Coppersmiths love not the cold; consequently they do not ascend the hills. In Northern India, during the cold weather, their voice is completely hushed ; but as soon as the warmer days come, the birds strike up; and, the hotter the weather, the more vociferous they grow. Thus the coppersmith bird might be called nature's thermometer. It will not, as a rule, sing if the temperature falls below 70°, while the warmer the weather, the louder is its note. In Madras the thermometer is rarely in the sixties; hence all day and every day we hear the coppersmith "toiling at his green forge."

The fact that the bird will not sing when the weather is cold bears out the theory that its note is merely an expression of happiness. When the temperature is low the coppersmith is miserable, so refuses to sing. Nature may be cruel in many respects. She is undoubtedly a hard task-mistress, for she ruthlessly destroys all the unfit. She is not a philanthropist; she provides her children with neither hospitals nor alms-houses, for she has no halt or maimed or blind to look after. Her creatures perish the moment they become weakened by disease. Is this cruelty, or is it the truest kindness ? Is it better to prolong a sick animal's misery, or to destroy the suffering creature ?

The drastic procedure of Dame Nature is certainly fraught with good results. All her creatures enjoy perfect health, health such as is vouchsafed to few civilized men. Birds and beasts in their natural state are therefore perfectly happy, and the songs which fill the welkin are the expression of this happiness.

The coppersmith is not a difficult bird to see; he is not of a retiring disposition, nor does he attempt to avoid publicity. He likes to sit upon the topmost bough of a lofty tree; as often as not he selects a branch devoid of leaves, and there pours forth his eternal Tonk, tonk, tonk, wagging his head from side to side by way of beating time. The result of this head-wagging is that the bird's note seems to come from a direction other than it really does, and, on this account, it is difficult to " spot" the bird, in spite of its loud note and conspicuous perch.

Ornithologists have saddled this bird with the name of Xantholaema haematocephala. Since many persons will find this rather a mouthful, it is necessary to remark that it is scientifically correct to call the bird the crimson-breasted barbet. He is a coarse, showy bird. He may often be seen in the Moore Market at Madras, and, not infrequently, hawkers in the Mount Road offer the bird for sale. There are usually some coppersmiths in the Museum, in a cage near the entrance. These birds are made to share a ' dwelling with other species, such as Brahminy mynas. Under such conditions the coppersmiths never survive long. It is not that they are killed by the other inmates of the cage or that they cannot endure confinement. The reason of their speedy death is that the grain which is meat to so many birds is death to the coppersmith. If the latter be fed purely on fruit, he will often survive long in captivity. But the captive bird is not happy; no matter how warm the weather be, he never goes to work at his forge.

But this is a digression. To return to the appearance of the bird. It always puts me in mind of a woman who "makes up" very carelessly, who is not only exceedingly lavish of the paint, but does not understand how to shade it off gradually. The general colour of the bird's plumage is greenish, but on close inspection many greyish-white feathers are seen to be mingled with the green ones. There is a daub of crimson on the forehead and another on the throat. The sides of the face are pale yellow. The legs are coral-red. The build of the bird is exceedingly coarse.

The sparrow, when seen side by side with the coppersmith, looks almost a gentleman ! The coppersmith is the coarsest bird of my acquaintance, with the exception of the vulture. The coarseness of this latter, however, is of a different type; it is that of the despised outcast, while that of the coppersmith is the coarseness of a Whitechapel prize-fighter.

The coppersmith belongs to the barbet family. This is represented in India by seventeen species. The whole clan resemble one another very closely in habits. All live almost entirely on fruit. All have a loud, monotonous note. All are essentially tree-hunting birds. I do not remember ever having seen a barbet sitting on the ground. All nest in holes in trees.

The flight of every member of the family is undulating. The barbets are thus what men of science call a well-marked natural family. When you have once seen one, you cannot mistake its relations, nor confuse them with any other birds. The woodpeckers are perhaps their nearest relatives.

Coppersmiths nest only once in the year, about March in most parts of India, but earlier in Madras. The bird excavates a hole in a tree in much the same way as a woodpecker does. The coppersmith's beak, however, is not so efficient a pick-axe as that of its more highly specialized cousin. For this reason barbets usually select a place in a tree where the ants have been at work, and the wood is, in consequence, beginning to decay. When once the site has been decided upon, the excavation of the nest does not take long. A couple of days usually suffice.

The birds, both male and female, work like Trojans, and in this respect set a good example to human workmen. The husband and wife labour at the nest in turn. Each relief lasts about a quarter of an hour. The nest has no lining of any kind ; the eggs are laid on the bare wood, and the young, when hatched, have to lie on this hard couch. It has never been my good fortune to follow closely the nesting operations of the coppersmith. However, a pair of green barbets (Thereiceryx zeylonicus) once nested in an old pipal tree in my garden compound at Fyzabad, and so afforded me an opportunity of noting some of their habits.

Although the green barbet is found in most parts of India, he is not so well known as his cousin, the coppersmith. His cry is a loud Kurtur, kurtur, kurturuk. He would be a handsome bird but for his face. This is not sarcasm. Among birds the face is not so vital a feature as with human beings. A fine figure and beautiful feathers, rather than good features, determine whether a bird is handsome or otherwise. The plumage of the green barbet leaves little to be desired. Essentially a bird of the greenwood tree, it partakes of the hue of its surroundings. As it flies among the branches its plumage appears to be of a uniform rich leafy green -: the colour of the foliage in England after a rainy July day. Some brown feathers are visible in the head and neck, giving them a golden sheen under the influence of the sun's rays.

The bird has, however, a bare patch of yellow skin round each eye, which gives it a worn, haggard appearance, and greatly detracts from its beauty. Jerdon states that these naked patches are inflated when the bird emits its note. I have not been able to verify this, for the bird, when it pours forth its monotonous song, likes to conceal itself in tall, leafy trees.

To return to the nest in my compound. It was excavated in a bare branch of a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) about ten feet above the level of the ground. The entrance to the nest pointed upwards, but was so well shaded by the foliage above that it was not flooded by some heavy rain that fell before the young birds were fledged.

Upon one occasion I watched the mother leave the nest, and then took up a position immediately under it, in order to ascertain whether she would venture in with me so near at hand. In a few minutes she returned, but, seeing me, alighted on a branch above that containing the young birds. There she sat and contemplated me. She next flew to a neighbouring branch, then back again. After thus behaving for about three minutes she summoned up her courage and flew into the nest. I could almost have touched her as she did this, so close was I. She made no pretence of concealing the whereabouts of the nursery, for, not only did she enter it before my eyes, but as soon as she was inside, she and the youngsters began talking loudly. In this case maternal anxiety seems to have got the better of prudence. On another occasion I saw a parent bird enter the nest with something in its beak. I wanted to have a good look at it as it emerged, so ran up close to the nest, but, as I did so, trod on some dried leaves, and the bird took alarm and flew out again without having fed her children. She went to the next tree and there stood and looked at me with a very large berry in her beak; she remained for some time in that attitude, and then, herself, swallowed the fruit. Judging from the efforts she made in disposing of it, the berry must have been an exceedingly hard one, and I take credit to myself for saving a young barbet from a violent attack of indigestion !

Barbets, like most birds, are very unwilling that any animal should approach their nest. One afternoon a myna chanced to perch upon the bough in which the above-mentioned nest had been excavated. Immediately afterwards one of the parent barbets happened to return. Without a second's hesitation it flew at the astonished myna, who had no idea of the existence, of the barbet's nest. The myna hopped with great speed on to the next branch, and there stood looking at the barbet, and his attitude expressed mingled surprise and pain caused by the thought that any bird could behave so rudely to htm. The barbet again "went for" him, and the myna, mystified, but thinking discretion the better part of valour, flew away. And he did well, for a myna is no match for a barbet. Indeed, if we may believe Layard, this latter is an exceptionally fierce bird. He states that a barbet kept in captivity used to devour its fellow-prisoners, who were inoffensive munias.

I hoped to witness the first attempt at flight of the young barbets, but was doomed to disappointment, for, being "by thronging duties press'd," the time I was able to devote to the young barbets was limited. I, however, saw indications that the time was at hand when the youngsters would trust themselves to the air, for their voices became more powerful, and the visits of the parent birds to the nest grew less frequent. As they began to wax strong, the youngsters would take it in turn to look out of the window of the nest and contemplate, with awe-struck eyes, the wondrous world.

At first they did not fear me, but would watch me with great curiosity; after a few days, however, curiosity gave way to fear, the birds seemed to learn that man was an enemy to be shunned, for they would disappear as soon as I approached the nest. One day I passed by and saw no little bird looking out, nor did any sound come from the nest. In vain did I wait to hear the well-known cry. Then I realized that the young barbets had begun in earnest to fight the battle of life.

Barbets are said to nest in the same hole year after year. It is not easy to prove this assertion; indeed, the only way of doing so would be for some person who has a fixed abode in India to catch a bird whose nesting place was known and to tie a piece of cotton to its leg, or give it some other recognition mark, and then wait and see whether it nested in the same hole next year. Jerdon states that the same nest is repeatedly used, and that each year fresh excavations take place, so that the original cottage in which the whole family once pigged must in course of time develop into what a house-agent would call a " palatial mansion."

So closely do the habits of the coppersmith resemble those of the green barbet, that the above account of the nesting operation might apply equally well to either species. In the Madras Museum there is an exhibit of a coppersmith's nest which was cut in a casuarina tree. The exhibit shows a young hopeful, looking out of the nest, with a wide-open beak, its invariable attitude when it catches sight of its parents. In nature, young birds do not, I think, as a rule, put their heads so far out of the nest, but the fact that the bird in the Museum does so has the advantage of enabling one to see that in plumage it differs from the adult in the absence of the crimson patches on the head and breast!

Bombay Ducks; An Account Of Some Of The Every-day Birds And Beasts Found In A Naturalist's Eldorado
Dewar, Douglas. Bombay ducks: an account of some of the every-day birds and beasts found in a naturalist's Eldorado, 1906.
Title in Book: 
Alexander the coppersmith
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Page No: 
Common name: 
Alexander Coppersmith

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