Indian song birds

INDIAN SONG-BIRDS

HAVING discoursed upon the noisy birds of India, it is but fitting that we should give the songsters an innings, for we have some song-birds in the East, notwithstanding the article of the Anglo-Indian creed, which declares that in the country of his adoption birds do not sing, that they caw, croak, squeak, and make all manner of objectionable and abominable noises, but sing -: no! This article of belief is a gross libel on many birds. Nevertheless, those who subscribe to it are able to plead extenuating circumstances, for, as we have seen, India is the happy hunting ground of a whole army of noisy birds, many of which are exceedingly abundant, and not only exasperate the European beyond measure by their importunity, but drown the melody of those birds which have tuneful voices.

" The nightingale, if she should sing by day When every goose is cackling, would be thought No better musician than the wren."

India possesses some song-birds which can hold their own against all comers. This any unprejudiced observer will admit. The Englishman is, of course, not an unprejudiced observer. It is impossible to bring him to believe that the song of any foreign bird can equal the avine melodies of the homeland; and from his point of view he is undoubtedly right. Here in India the associations are wanting which endear to him the voices of the feathered folk at home. Yet a real live nightingale sometimes visits India. It is true that the melodious bird does not venture far into that uninviting land. Nevertheless the Persian nightingale (Daulias golzi) does pay parts of the Punjab a visit in the cold weather. Many are taken to Calcutta in captivity. Since a good specimen will fetch as much as Rs.200 in the Calcutta market, it is not surprising that some men make it their profession, and a cruel profession it is, to catch, imprison, and then send these birds to the city by the Hooghly.

Of the permanent residents in India, the shama (Cittocincla macrura) is perhaps the finest singer! This bird is not likely to be heard in any large town. It loveth not the unseemly din of the city. It lives among shady hills, and, if we would hear its splendid voice in its full magnificence, we must betake ourselves to one or other of the great forests of India. A fine songster, nearly related to the shama, and which is found in nearly all parts of India, is the magpie robin or dhyal (Copsychus saularis). This is a charming creature, having the confiding habits of the robin, the bright colouring of the magpie, and the voice of the canary. It is nearly always found near human habitations. It is essentially a garden bird, nesting in holes in trees, or buildings. I once found a magpie robin's nest in the dilapidated wall of a stable. It generally breeds from April to July.

I am ashamed to say that I had known the bird for a long time before I became acquainted with its song. One day, my work detained me late, so, instead of going to club as usual, I took a stroll in the garden ; my progress was soon arrested by an exceptionally fine song, of considerable power and great compass: on looking up, I discovered, to my great surprise, that the vocalist was a common magpie robin which was sitting on a bare branch. Since that day I have listened to its voice so frequently that it is a mystery to me that I had never heard it before.

How is it possible to explain this want of knowledge of the song of the common birds of India ? Of course, the human ear is a strange organ. It continually receives thousands of vibrations, capable of being perceived as sound by the brain, which are never heard at all, sounds which, so to speak, pass in at one ear and out of the other. Soft sounds seem never to be perceived unless the ear is consciously or unconsciously listening for them.

In the early morning and late afternoon, when most of the Indian birds pour forth their song, the ear is greeted by myriads of sounds, many sharp and powerful, so that the soft musical ones, which do not grate upon the auditory nerve, are apt to pass unnoticed.

Then one walks so little in India. When driving, the rumbling sound of the carriage wheels drowns, to a great extent, the songs of the smaller birds; under such circumstances, these can be heard by listening for them, and, in order to listen for a sound, one has to know it. If we in India could only indulge in country walks as we do in our own land, we should soon learn to recognize and to love the tunes of the commoner singing birds. But alas! a country walk in India without grassy downs, gay hedgerows and leafy glades, is apt to have a depressing effect on the exiled European, so he takes his exercise in the form of games.

The plumage of the cock dhyal is glossy black, except the breast, abdomen, and sides of the tail, which are white. The bird is also marked by a broad white band on each wing, seen when the latter is closed. The animal has, therefore, a smart appearance ; it is always spick-and-span, and struts about in a most sprightly manner; its jaunty air is heightened by the fact that the tail is carried erect. In the female the black of the plumage is replaced by a slaty colour.

The magpie robin will live in captivity; it, however, is not often seen as a caged bird, for its cousin, the shama, having a more beautiful song, is more highly esteemed. The dhyal spends a good deal of its time in trees, as often as not among the bare branches, so that it is always easy to see. From such a position it will pour forth its song in one continuous stream. Its notes are bright and joyous; they exhibit great compass and variety, while the volume of sound emitted is considerable for so small a bird, yet the bird just misses being a really great singer. Its notes are not marked by that absolute purity which constitutes so much of the beauty of the song of the nightingale, nor is its voice so mellow or sympathetic as that of the blackbird.

The magpie robin, like many great human singers, pours forth its song in a blase, unfeeling sort of way, and thus reveals its own character, for it is a solitary bird; the male is but rarely seen about with his wife. As Mr. Hudson has pointed out, the charm of the song of some birds -: as, for instance, that of the willow wren -: consists in the very human character of their notes, a feature which makes their song sink deep into one's heart. There is but little of this in the voice of the magpie robin, but, for all that, he is no mean singer and daily pours forth his beautiful notes, which fall on the dull senses of the stolid native or the unhearing ears of the indifferent European.

No account of the songsters of India would be complete which did not notice the dainty pied wagtail -: the most charming of birds, which nests about our houses and gladdens them with the soft, sweet song, which it pours forth at all seasons of the year.

The Indian robin is another of our singing birds. It is found all over India; but robins south of the Godaveri River differ slightly from those which dwell in Northern India. Hence ornithologists recognize two distinct species of Indian robin. It is not a difficult bird to recognize, being quite a robin in build and habits. It differs from the robin we know in England in wearing, instead of a red waistcoat, a red seat to its trousers. The cock bird is blackish and the hen brownish; both have a narrow white bar in the wing. It hops about the garden in a very familiar way, just as the English robin does. It nests in all manner of queer places, in a hole under the thatch, in the midst of a pile of stones, or in a cranny in a wall. The nest is not easy to find, for the bird absolutely refuses to enter when it knows that any one is watching it.

Some time back, when walking in a suburb of Madras, I was stepping over a low prickly-pear bush, when two young robins fluttered out, almost from under my feet They could scarcely fly, so young were they, consequently I am sure they came out of a nest, and that the nest was somewhere under the prickly-pear. Nevertheless, half an hour's search was not sufficient to reveal the nest, which must have been in the midst of the bush, and prickly-pears demand respectful treatment. All the. while I was poking about for the little nursery the parent birds sat on branches near by and swore at me. But when, eventually, I had to admit defeat and depart without having set eyes on the nest, the notes of anger were speedily replaced by little songs of joy.

The Indian skylark must be recognized as one of the chief of our esteemed singing-birds, since its song is in no way inferior to that of its cousin found in England. We do not hear much of the Indian bird because the crows never give it a chance. Their rowdy noises drown the skylark's song.

A more vociferous singer and one which it would take a whole army of crows to swamp is the white-browed fantail flycatcher (Rhipidura albifrontata). This sprightly bird has a loud and cheerful song of six or seven notes: these, says Mr. Ferguson, remind one of the first bars of the " Guards' Valse."

The golden oriole is one of the few birds which have the twofold gift of a melodious voice and beautiful plumage. Dame Nature is inclined to be parsimonious. If she arrays a bird in very handsome clothes, she is usually content to allow it but a poor song. In the same way, most of the birds which are endowed with sweet voices are plainly attired. She has, however, been very generous to the oriole. She has lavished upon it with no unsparing hand the most brilliant yellow and golden tints to be found in her paint-box, and, in addition, has taught the bird to utter a note very agreeable to human ears. The mellow peeho, peeho, or loriot, loriot, as the French syllabize the note, is perhaps the most pleasing of the sounds which issue from the mango tope.

The Malabar whistling thrush (Myiophonus horsfieldii), commonly known as "the idle schoolboy," is one of the most characteristic song-birds of Southern India. But he does not visit Madras ; his haunts are " far from the madding crowd." He is abundant on the West Coast. I do not know what constitutes his eastern boundary, but probably he does not occur east of the Shevaroy Hills. He is seldom found far from water. He loves to whistle his merry tune to the accompaniment of running streams. " Few birds," writes Eha, " have been endowed with so rich a voice, and it would be world-famous as a songster if it could only learn a tune. It is always practising, but makes no progress." It commences to whistle a cheery lay and then suddenly stops short; it is this habit which has earned for it the name of " the idle schoolboy."

The Bhimraj or larger racket-tailed drongo {Dissemurus paradiseus) deserves a place of honour among the song-birds of India. According to Mr. Oates, this drongo " has a really fine song, and is perhaps the best singing-bird of the East." This statement should, however, be accepted with reserve, for, in my opinion, Mr. Oates is not a first-class judge of the quality of a bird's song. He speaks of the magpie robin as only " a fairly good songster." After this one is surprised at no opinion of his regarding the vocal powers of a bird. The truth of the matter is that the Bhimraj, which is just a glorified king-crow -: one having a crest and a tail twenty inches long -: is a perfect mimic. According to Jerdon, it will " imitate all sorts of sounds, as of dogs, sheep, cats, goats, poultry, and the notes of many birds; hence it used to be called by some Hazardastan, or the bird with a thousand tales (not tails). Blythe had one that imitated the fine song of the shama to perfection." The Bhimraj makes an excellent pet.

There are in India, as in every country, a whole host of birds which perhaps scarcely merit the name of song-birds, but which, nevertheless, emit very pleasant sounds; such are the bulbuls, mynas, bee-eaters, and king-crows. None of these are very great musicians, but we should be sorry to lose their voices. Were there no bulbuls our hill stations would lose half their charm, and were the mynas and the king-crows to disappear the plains of India would become very dreary.

It is probably quite incorrect to include the cuckoo among the song-birds. Nevertheless I am going to do so, for the simple reason that there are few birds of which the note is more pleasing to my ear. I have no sympathy with the cross-grained old poet who spoke of the " leud Cuckoo " and said," I pray to God will fire her bren." Rather would I cry with Wordsworth -:

" O Cuckoo ! shall I call thee bird ? Or but a wandering voice ?
Darling of the spring.
No bird : but an invisible thing -:
A voice or mystery."

The European cuckoo visits India. I have never heard it in the south of the peninsula, but others have been more fortunate. From April to June the Himalayas resound with its familiar call. The bird is there, as in England, the harbinger of spring. A Himalayan station in springtime is a sight for the gods. It is a parti-coloured island cast in a magenta sea, for the rhododendrons are in bloom. The spiraea hedgerows have felt the touch of spring; their snowy flowers have come forth in such abundance as to obliterate the foliage. The horse-chestnut trees have awakened from their long winter sleep; they have opened out their emerald fans, and over these profuse Nature has showered "ten thousand waxen pyramidal flowers." Here and there a mass of the pale yellow blossom of the mimosa trees forms a pleasant contrast to the deeper tints of the horse-chestnut inflorescences.

The little hill gardens are gay with English flowers : roses, carnations, honeysuckle, geraniums, phlox, portulacas, nasturtiums, and sweet peas vie with one another for supremacy, and turn the flower-beds into patches of brilliant colour. In the far distance the great snow-clad mountains watch over all. When the cuckoo pours forth his " sovereign cry " amid such surroundings, one feels that it is good to live and that there is no song equal to that of the cuckoo ; but perhaps the truth of the matter is contained in the lines -:

" Not in thy double note the magic lies, But in the fields and woods, the streams and skies."

BookTitle: 
Bombay Ducks; An Account Of Some Of The Every-day Birds And Beasts Found In A Naturalist's Eldorado
Reference: 
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: 
Indian song birds
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Year: 
1906
Page No: 
289
Common name: 
Indian Song Birds
id: 
12607

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