Winged Fisherfolk


GREAT is the community of the winged fisherfolk, and varied are its methods of securing its prey! Madras, being well supplied with sheets of water, is largely patronized by our feathered fishing friends. The kingfishers -: the most able exponents of the piscatorial art -: have already received our attention; we may, therefore, pass them over and proceed at once to study the ways of some of their professional brethren. Of these the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is, to my mind, facile princeps. There is, in nature, no finer spectacle than one of these great birds at work. Watch it as it makes its way high over the water, now flapping its broad pinions, now gliding as a kite does. Suddenly something below arrests its attention. It hovers for a second, its wings then close and it drops like a falling stone. It enters the water with a mighty splash, sending up showers of spray, and disappears for a moment. A second later it emerges, the water pouring off its back and wings, with a fish in its talons. It then betakes itself to some suitable place in which to devour its quarry.

The osprey is a winter visitor to India. It is abun¬dant about the great backwaters of the east coast.

There must be half a dozen of these fishermen which carry on their trade in the Pulicat Lake. The backwater at Ennore has also its complement of these magnificent birds. Seen as it rests on a pile marking the channel of the canal through the shallow lake, the bird may be easily mistaken for a large kite, its length being six or seven inches more than that of the common kite. Its head, breast, and lower parts are, however, white. There is a broad black bar running down each side of its neck. The back and wings are dark brown. But it is by its habits rather than its appearance that one recognizes the osprey.

The fishing operations of the terns, or sea-swallows as they are sometimes called, fall rather flat after those of the raptorial bird. When a tern dives there is none of the mighty splash which marks the performance above described. The tern does its work so neatly that it enters the water with little more commotion than that made by a falling pebble. The tern is to the manner born. It comes of a long line of fisher-folk.

For myriads of generations its ancestors have dived after their finny prey. The osprey, or fish-hawk as it is often called, is, on the other hand, a bird of prey which has taken to fishing. It is, so to speak, an amateur; exceeding skilled, it is true, but nevertheless, by comparison with the sea-swallow, an amateur. One naturally expects to see a tern dive for its food, but to witness a great bird of prey tumble headlong into the water, like a falling boulder, takes one's breath away.

It is the great skill of the tern which causes its performance to appear commonplace. What bird is there more graceful than the swallow of the sea? There is something truly fascinating about it as it sails through the air. The easy motion of its long wings puts me in mind of a perfectly trained racing eight paddling up to the starting-post before a race.

Terns resemble swallows in many respects. The former are, of course, larger and of lighter hue. There is a marked difference, too, in the mode of flight. If a tern reminds one of a rowing eight paddling along, the swallow resembles the eight racing at high pressure.

No one can fail to recognize a tern. If you see a slenderly-built bird of whitish tinge, with long swallowlike wings and a forked tail, a bird which sails along easily over water, sometimes diving for a fish, more frequently picking something off the surface of the water, you may set that bird down as a tern.

Three species are common about Madras. The most abundant is the gull-bird tern (Sterna angelica). This is the least beautiful of the terns, but albeit a handsome bird. It may be seen any day looking for its quarry over the Cooum. Its under parts are pure white, its beak and legs are black, and it has also some black, more in summer than in winter, about the head. Its tail is not very deeply forked.

A far more striking bird is the Caspian tern (Hydroprogne caspia). It is the largest of the terns, being twenty inches in length. By its size you may know it, also by its black head and coral-red bill.

The third of the common Madras terns is the black-bellied tern (Sterna melanogaster). This is a bird one frequently sees when out snipe-shooting, since it does not confine its operations to rivers; indeed, it is more partial to marshes and tanks. The breast and lower parts are black. The tail is deeply forked, hence this species is easily distinguishable from the other two common terns. It is a very elegant bird.

The transition from the tern to the gull is an easy one; so slight are the anatomical differences that some ornithologists look upon both groups as one family. The gull, however, is more stoutly built and flies differently. It is not so graceful. A gull looks best when riding on the water like a duck. It possesses great powers of flight, but is not the equal of the tern in this respect; its wings are smaller in proportion to the size of the body, hence gulls are often seen resting on the water, an attitude which terns rarely adopt, although their feet are webbed and admirably fitted to act as propellers.

Gulls are fond of fish, but they are inclined to be lazy. In preference to fishing for themselves they will follow a ship and pick up the scraps thrown overboard by the cook, or will hang about near a human fisherman for the sake of the fish rejected by him. Almost any day, half a dozen laughing-gulls may be seen in attendance on the fishermen of the Cooum, waiting for what these latter cast away, for there apparently exist aquatic creatures at which even a Cooum fisherman draws the line!

A number of crows usually keep the gulls company. There is consequently a great scramble for the leavings of the net, stand-up fights sometimes taking place between " a lurking villain crow" and a gull over a tit-bit.

A number of gulls inhabit the Thames in London, and feed almost exclusively on the bread thrown to them by the passers-by. These gulls have now become quite an institution, and many clerks and other City men make a point of feeding them every day.

On the voyage to and from England gulls follow the steamer for the greater part of the journey. It is on these occasions that one is best able to realize the flying powers of a gull. The birds keep pace with a P. and O. steamer with ridiculous ease. A dozen flaps of the wing in a minute suffice to enable them to outdistance the ship.

The commonest gull in Madras is known to naturalists as the laughing-gull (Larus ridibundus). Why it is so called I have never been able to discover. It is difficult to describe this or any other gull in such a way as to render its identification an easy matter, unless, of course, the bird be held in the hand.

The laughing-gull may be distinguished from the brown-headed gull, which also visits Madras, by the fact that the wing of the former is the shorter by over an inch and its first quill is white, with black edges and tip, while in the latter species the quill is black, with a subterminal white band. To recognize a free bird in this way is about as easy as catching it by putting salt on its tail. Then, again, young gulls differ considerably in appearance from the adults. Lastly, most species are seasonally dimorphic; in winter the head is usually white, while in summer it becomes dark brown or black.

We must, in conclusion, consider a fishing bird of a very different type. I refer to the little cormorant (Phalacrocorax javanicus). This fowl, if not found actually within the limits of Madras city, is plentiful enough on the Red Hills tank and other sheets of water, fresh or salt, in the neighbourhood. The little cormorant is a duck-like bird of which " Eha " seems to entertain a very low opinion. " I dare say," he writes, " it often passes for a sort of black duck, but it differs from a duck as a gentleman differs from a loafer. The cormorant is a thoroughly shabby bird, with a large ragged tail, and coloured all over a sordid black, like the Sunday coat of a Goanese cook."

Here I am obliged to respectfully differ from " Eha." I consider the little cormorant a handsome bird, and as a swimmer or a diver it has no equal. It has the power of suddenly changing its specific gravity. One moment the bird is floating, cork-like, on the surface of the water, the next it is sinking like a stone. I once saw a wounded cormorant give three determined men half an hour's chase in water less than three feet deep. The bird had been shot to provide for the " inner men " of our boat coolies, so they rushed eagerly to seize their booty, but the bird, although wounded, had no . intention of surrendering. Whenever a pursuer drew near, the cormorant dived and, thirty seconds or so later, reappeared at a distance of several yards. That cormorant must have dived thirty times before it was secured.

Had it not been made into a curry that night, the German Emperor would undoubtedly have sent it a telegram and probably decorated it. The sight of three men being repeatedly " scored off" by the bird would have been most ludicrous, had one not known that the poor creature was wounded and fighting for its life.

The little cormorant lives exclusively on fish, for which it dives. It is most voracious. I have never taken the trouble to count the number of fish put away by a cormorant in the course of a meal. One observer did, and saw the bird swallow 108 fish in the course of an hour and a half.

The heathen Chinee, with diabolical cuteness, makes the cormorant fish for him. He puts a rubber ring round the bird's neck, so that it cannot swallow its prey. It is, therefore, obliged to disgorge its booty into its master's basket. This is exploitation of labour if you like.

What a grand simile for the labour agitator! Just as a wicked Chinaman robs the poor cormorant of its earnings, so does the abominable capitalist exploit the working man. Therefore down with the bloated aristocracy, and let the honest worker enjoy twelve hours' play and twelve hours' sleep, and spend the remainder of the day in manly toil!

But this is a digression. It is only fair both to the cormorant and its master to say that the Chinaman now and then allows the bird to eat a fish, just to keep it in a good temper!

The meal over, the little cormorant betakes itself to a post, upon which it squats with its wings partially expanded, looking like a church lectern.

Cormorants are very fond of perching on piles, from which they contemplate the world in solemn silence; in such an attitude they always put me in mind of the pillar saints of old.

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: 
Winged Fisherfolk
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Page No: 
Common name: 
Winged Fisherfolk

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