THE UGLIEST BIRD IN THE WORLD
MEN may differ as to which is the most beautiful of the fowls of the air, but there can be no two opinions as to which is the ugliest bird in the world. This proud distinction, I submit, indubitably belongs to the white scavenger vulture (Neophron ginginianus), better known as " Pharaoh's chicken." Naturalists vie with one another in calling the creature names. " Eha " stigmatizes it as " that foul bird." Colonel Cunningham grows quite eloquent in his abuse of the Neophron tribe. According to him, they are " truly ' base and degrading' objects" ; " any close acquaintance with them," he writes, "and specially a near view of them, as they wander about over heaps of rubbish in quest of their loathsome food, can only tend to arouse a sense of wonder that any birds should have succeeded in becoming so repulsive. St. Beuve, in writing of Talleyrand, affirms that " it takes a great deal of trouble to become wholly depraved," but Neophrons have certainly spared no effort to attain that end. Perhaps the question will be asked: " Why discourse upon this unlovely bird ? "
Let me answer it in anticipation. Firstly, the creature is, like Ally Sloper, a true friend of man. How we should get on without him in that land of primitive sanitation -: India -: I know not. Secondly, this vulture is, in South India, or, at any rate, in some parts of the Madras Presidency, a sacred bird.
The ancient Egyptians, also, seem to have held " His Riverence" in high esteem, for several portraits of the nearly allied Egyptian species are displayed in the museum of antiquities at Cairo.
Before dilating upon the virtues of the noble fowl it is necessary to describe it. The bird is delightfully easy to depict. There is no other creature like unto it. It is about the size of a kite. Its plumage is dirty white, except the tips of the wings, which are shabby black. The neck is covered with feathers, which stick out like the back hairs of a schoolboy. These are, if possible, rather dirtier-looking than the rest of the plumage, and frequently assume a rusty hue. Its bill is yellow, so are its naked face and its legs.
As " Eha " remarks: " It does not stand upright, like the true vultures, but carries its body like a duck and steps like a recruit."
There is told a story, which has by this time become quite a seasoned "chestnut," of a keen "griffin" going out with his gun on the day after his arrival at his first station in India. His bag for the day consisted of one Neophron ginginianus. This he sent, on the advice of a fellow-subaltern, to his Colonel's wife, with a polite note expressing the hope that she would accept the results of his first day's shikar. The inventor of this story might read with benefit a certain address delivered by a certain Viceroy of India at a University not a thousand miles from Calcutta.
The scavenger vulture is found all over India; when, however, you come to the neighbourhood of Delhi his beak becomes less yellow and he grows larger. Needless to say that this is quite sufficient provocation for the manufacture of a new species.
The scavenger vulture of the Punjab is known as Neophron perenopterus. This multiplication of species is doubtless a very fine thing. But it makes things exceedingly unpleasant for the birds that live in the region where the races fuse with one another. These birds do not know what to call themselves: their bill is too yellow to allow their admission into the perenopterus clan, and too dusky for the ginginianus tribe to have anything to say to them. In such a case it would, I think, be as well to round off matters by creating a third species -: Neophron neither-one-thing-nor-the-other.
Of the feeding habits of Pharaoh's chicken the less said the better. It eats filth of any and every kind, and is quite content to subsist upon food which the vultures proper reject as unfit for vulturine consumption. Mr. Finn puts the matter in a nutshell when he states that the bird is " appallingly accommodating of stomach."
Most vultures seek their food by soaring high above the earth, and thus commanding a wide expanse of country. When a vulture espies a carcass it at once wings its way earthward. Its neighbour, who is soaring at a distance of some miles, sees it depart, and follows it. The second bird's neighbour does likewise, so that there are, in quite a short time, half a dozen or more vultures feeding on the carcass, to say nothing of a rabble of crows. The scavenger vulture adopts a different procedure. There are in every town in the East certain places where its food is almost invariably to be found; these it visits in turn. It is a good flier, and when seen upon the wing looks quite a respectable fowl. The under parts of its wings appear pure white in the sunlight, and the black border gives them a finish.
The nest of the scavenger vulture is in keeping with the character of the bird. It is a mass of sticks, dirty rags, and other rubbish heaped together anyhow. It is sometimes placed on a stout forked bough of a large tree ; more often it is to be found on a building.
For many years some of the Madras Neophrons have utilized the steeple of the Scotch kirk as their nursery. As soon as one pair of vultures has brought up its family, the site is seized by another couple ; hence, during most of the cold weather a lady vulture is to be seen " sitting " high up in the steeple.
This species seems rarely to lay more than two eggs. Frequently, as in the illustration, one only is laid. The egg is the solitary beautiful thing connected with scavenger vultures. Its colour is dark red or crimson, richly blotched with russet. These hues, alas! wash off. The bird will have nothing to do with cleanliness in any shape or form; if you want to keep her eggs you must have them unwashed. Yet even this most degraded of birds is not without its virtues. The hen scavenger is a good mother. It takes a lot to make her leave the nest The bird at the kirk allowed Captain Fayrer and myself to come within a few feet of her and take a photograph. Mr. William Jesse states that upon one occasion, when he wanted to take the egg, the hen vulture refused to budge, and had to be poked off the nest with a stick. This behaviour is not altogether due to the maternal instinct; the bird is of a sluggish disposition, shows little fear of men, and is easily tamed. One of these fowls used to be kept as a pet in the Madras Museum ; it recently died of paralysis.
The young scavengers, when they leave the nest, are sooty brown in colour, and in consequence are often taken for members of a different species. Then, gradually, white feathers show themselves, so that, after a time, the birds have a speckled appearance. Eventually they emerge resplendent in the adult plumage. Is this transition from dark to light the result of sexual selection ? Can it be that the lady vulture has taste in dress; that dirty white is to her what the hues of a sunset sky are to human beings ?
We have, in conclusion, to regard the fowl in its sacred aspect. The scavenger vulture is the last bird around which one would have expected to see the halo of sanctity, and I believe that I am right in saying that the Hindus do not regard all scavenger vultures as sacred, but merely a chosen few. These may be seen at Conjeeveram, in the Madras Presidency, by those who are not sinners. Those of us who are scathed by the wickedness of the world may see, hanging up in the Madras Museum, a photograph of the holy birds being fed by a Brahmin. These birds are said to be metamorphosed human beings. I forget their former names, nor do I remember the why and the wherefore of the punishment inflicted upon them by Siva. But what matters this ? Are not dates and facts but the dry bones of history ? Let us have the flesh and blood of myth and tradition and leave the dry bones to others.
We are told that the Conjeeveram vultures are very aged; to be, for once, exact, they are twenty or thirty hundred thousand years old -: more or less; but their eyes are not dim, and they have the invaluable gift of feeling the presence of a sinner. When a sin-stained human being approaches the portals of the temple, they refuse to show themselves. This, taken in connexion with the fact that thousands of men have seen these sacred birds, says much for the moral condition of the Madras Presidency.