AN article on the subject of noisy birds recently appeared in the "Spectator." It is evident that the writer is not personally acquainted with India. Had he been, he would certainly have taken some of his examples of noisy fowls from the avifauna of this country. It is true that India can boast of no quiet bird so vociferous as the campanero or bell-bird of America, whose voice is said to carry for three miles, that being about the distance " which would be selected (by preference) by its auditors !" However, as generators of noise, hornbills are not very far behind the bell-bird. The flapping of the wings of that most extraordinary of birds -: the Great Hornbill -: can be heard a mile away, the sound resembling that made by a railway train. The voice of the bird, moreover, carries a distance of many furlongs.
The writer in the "Spectator" declares that England, although it cannot boast of many vociferous birds, has some " which can hold their own with all but the most strenuous voices of the bird population of other lands." As a matter of fact, there is only one such bird in England, and that is the corn-crake. Take away this from the British Isles, and there is no bird left nearly so noisy as a dozen of our commonest Indian birds -: birds which haunt our gardens and housetops.
As a sound-producer the corn-crake (Crex pratensis) is worthy of all respect; it has a faculty of " getting on the nerves " in a manner that might excite jealousy even in the breast of the Indian brain-fever bird. The corn-crake, or land-rail, as it is often called, is a summer visitor to the British Isles; stragglers have been heard of in India, but the bird does not properly belong to avifauna of that country.
Upon arrival in England it takes up lodgings in a cornfield, one next to a house by preference. Every evening, as the shades of darkness steal o'er the land, the bird tunes up. It has but one note -: a raucous, rasping "crake." The bird shouts "crake" a hundred times a minute without a break until sunrise. It is impossible to drive the bird from the field in which it has taken apartments; at least, all the attempts I have made failed miserably. Yet some of them were well planned out and marked with determination.
Upon one occasion, the whole of a large and indignant household turned out into the fields, and, having formed a line, attempted to drive the crake before it. As the line approached the middle of the field the bird became silent. We hoped that it was running away. Presently we heard behind us, " Crake, crake, crake!" Again and again, the line was formed and the field beaten, but all in vain. The crake always managed to get behind us. This behaviour is fully in accordance with the description of the habits of the bird given in books on ornithology: it rarely flies, and, if chased, sprints along the ground amid the corn and " never runs straight, but makes as many turnings as a hare." After tramping the fields for nearly an hour, the aforesaid household returned home with the poor satisfaction of having provided some amusement for the bird.
I am told that debating societies are often at their wits' ends to find subjects for debate which have not been discussed ad nauseam. If this be so, I would suggest as a new subject -: " Which is the more deserving of the title 'Brain-fever Bird,' the Indian hawk-cuckoo or the corn-crake?" Anglo-Indians will, of course, plump for the Oriental bird, which certainly has in its favour one strong point: it names the disease it tries to give you. It shrieks : " Brain fever, brain fever, BRAIN FEVER," until you think its syrinx must burst! But which is the greater evil -: a succession of series of crescendo notes or one continuous rasping sound ?
The Indian bird is certainly assisted by the climate. It makes a noise only in the hot weather. It avoids the hills. It does not patronize the city of Madras, for the reason that the climate is rarely warm enough for it. It cannot sing to advantage when the thermometer stands at anything like 90° in the shade. Nay, in the Punjab, when the iced drinks hiss as they come into contact with the parched throat, is its ideal climate. But you can see and shoot a brain-fever bird, which is more than you can do to a corn-crake.
Take away the latter bird from the English team, and what have you left? A lamentable "tail" composed of rooks, magpies, and starlings. I do not take account of such birds as peewits and curlews, for these, although blessed with loud, penetrating voices, shun human habitations ; they are denizens of lonely moors and fens, where any bird or man is at liberty to raise his voice to the uttermost without being dubbed "noisy." If the English team is sadly weakened by the absence of the corn-crake, the brain-fever bird is scarcely missed from the Indian eleven. His cousin, the koel (Eudynamis honorata), who is very partial to Madras, is an efficient substitute. Indeed, he is often called the brain-fever bird in this part of the world, but never by those who have listened to the real article. His crescendo " Kuil, kuil, kuil," heard both by day and by night, is a noise of which any fowl might be proud.
The white-breasted kingfisher is another noisy bird very common in Madras. His harsh scream is only too familiar to us. But we tolerate it for its beauty's sake. As he dashes through the air, with the sun shining on him, he is a truly magnificent object -: a dazzling flash of blue, of which the brilliance is enhanced by a setting of chocolate and white.
In spite of his small size, the spotted owlet can hold his own, as regards vociferousness, against all comers. It is true that his caterwaulings cannot be heard three miles away. If they carried that distance the inhabitants of India would all be deaf mutes. In the vicinity of Madras there must be between six and seven hundred spotted owlets to the square mile, so that, if their voices were audible three miles away, and all spoke at once, we should spend our nights listening to a chorus of about two thousand spotted owlets.
The peacock is another Indian bird whose histrionic efforts " take a lot of beating." Like so many noisy birds, he prefers to raise his voice in the night time. His note resembles a loud, plaintive, very much drawn-out " miau," such as a lusty cat might emit. In some parts of India pea-fowl are accounted sacred birds and are often semi-domesticated, roosting in the trees near a village and feeding on the crops. When camping near such a village, for the first time, one is apt to pass a sleepless night, thanks to the pea-fowl, the jackals, and the village dogs.
The boisterous screams of those ruffians the " green parrots" are not often heard in Madras ; nevertheless, these birds must be numbered among the noisy members of society. They are very numerous in many mofussil stations, while in the city of Bombay they are as abundant as mynas. The voice of the green parrot does not get on the nerves; it is, on the contrary, pleasant to the ear, being heard only for an instant as a flight of the birds dashes overhead upon felony intent. Of all the cultivator's enemies, the green parrot is the chief.
Another noisy bird, which is very common in most parts of India, but which, for some reason or other, avoids Madras, is the Indian magpie (Dendrocitta rufa). Although nearly related to the English magpie, this bird is of very different appearance, being dark brown with greyish wings and tail. This latter is over a foot in length. The Indian pie lives chiefly in trees. It goes about in small companies, which spend half the day in loudly squabbling among themselves and the other half in robbing birds' nests. The green barbets would take a prominent position among the noisy members of bird society in any country. Their note is loud, persistent, and penetrating; but they are not found in Madras itself. There their cousin, the coppersmith, replaces them. He is not nearly so noisy as they, but he is an untiring musician, and thinks it impossible to have too much of a good thing, when that good thing happens to be his own voice -: a characteristic which he shares with some human beings.
Indian birds exist which have remarkably loud voices for their size, to wit, the ubiquitous tailor-bird and the iroa. These are so small that they would go comfortably into one's watch-pocket, yet their voices can be heard at a distance of two hundred yards or more. Were these birds as large as the great hornbill, and their voices increased in proportion, they would be formidable rivals of the American bell-bird. But they are not as big as hornbills, and we must take things as they are and not include them among our noisiest birds. They, however, deserve a place in the second rank, with the crows, the babblers, the black partridges, the king- crows, and the other minor poets.