(501) Rhodophila melanoleuca Jerdon.
THE BLACK-AND-WHITE CHAT.
Oreicola jerdoni, Fauna B. I., Birds, 2nd ed. vol. ii, p. 35.
Rhodophila melanoleuca, ibid. vol. viii, p. 620.
This little Chat is found all along the Himalayan Terai and adjoining plains from Behar and Eastern Bengal, through Assam, parts of the Chin and Kachin Hills and along the lower hills of Central Burma to Prome.
This is a bird of the vast stretches of thatching-grass, elephant- grass and “kine’’-grass growing in the plains all along the bases of the Himalayas and also extending into the upland grass-plains and rolling hills intersecting the foot-hills in many places and, in others, running up to an elevation of nearly 2,500 feet. Assam seems to be its home, par excellence, and it is very common in many places in Sibsagar and North Lakhimpur.
The first nests taken were those obtained by myself in North Lak¬himpur. “In April 1904, when touring in the North of Lakhimpur, I found these birds extremely numerous in the wide grass-plains running along the foot of the hills ; they were present literally in hundreds and soon showed by their actions that they were breeding. A Miri, who was with me, told me that be Knew of a patch of grass where they nested, and we accordingly went to a wide grass-plain, about two miles across, covered with sun-grass about four feet high, and situated, in a bee-line, some eight miles from the nearest hills. Here four of us hunted for four hours but, though there were many birds, undoubtedly engaged in nesting, we could find no nest. At last, as work called me back to camp, I ordered a halt and we all returned to the road. As we reached it, my foot struck a tuft of grass and out flew a female 0. jerdoni (=R. melanoleuca) and on looking down and parting the grass we found the much-sought for prize, a nest with four eggs. It should be explained that the- so-called road was nothing but a track through the grass-plain, covered with short grass and with tufts of stubbly sun-grass dotted about its surface. In one of these tufts at the edge of the road the nest was placed, right in among the roots, which appeared to have been worked out by the birds to form a hole in which it could be placed. Until the roots were torn on one side nothing could be seen except the outer edge of the nest. This was a compact little cup, made entirely of black roots and coarse black fibres and lined with fine grasses and grass-roots. It was so well put together that, though the outer material was all interlaced with, the grass-roots growing round, it still retained its shape and con¬sistency when torn out.
“The inner cup was very tiny, only 1-8 in. in diameter and about 1 in. deep, but the outer diameter and depth were, roughly speaking, about 6 and 4 inches respectively.
“The nest contained four eggs, rather hard set. This was on the 20th April.
“In 1904 we found only one more nest, although men were specially set to work for them for days together ; they were most terribly hard to find.
“In 1905 we procured six more nests, two of which were taken by Mr. H. Stevens in ekra fields at the foot of the Dafla Hills. These were built in among the roots of the ekra.
“The four other nests were taken by myself and my men. Two were found in places just like that first described, except that they were situated in the grass-plains themselves and not in open places. The remaining two were taken from holes in banks. One was taken from a hole in a sandy bank, forming the side of a rough pit from which soil had been taken to make the road. The bank was covered with very coarse short grass but, except for a few scattered bushes, the surrounding country was quite open—in fact, grazed down to within a few inches by numerous cattle. The pit itself was more or less overgrown with coarse grass, as the cattle could not con-veniently graze there.
“The last nest was taken from a hole in the bank of a village track. All over this part of the road the grass was some inches high, and extremely dense ; on one side the ground sloped upwards and formed a shelving bank where the grass was longer and there were many weeds and small bushes. Among the grass-roots was a small natural hollow in which the nest had been placed and was dis¬covered by the bird flying out as we passed.
“Other nests found later were much the same as that first described, it being very noticeable that in the majority of instances very dark material was used. In a few, however, the nest was composed chiefly of stuff that looked like cocoa-nut fibre and was, I believe, the fibrous outer parts of ekra-roots ; this was light yellow in colour. In shape the nest externally merely fits into the place in which it is built, but the inner cup seems to be always very neat and very well finished, averaging some two inches in diameter, and being a very regular hemisphere.
“When trying to find the nest by watching the birds I was doomed to many disappointments, as they kept dodging into holes and crannies among the roots, apparently in search of food, con-stant inspections of these places resulting in nothing.”
My nests were found in April and May and, undoubtedly, most birds had then finished breeding for, later, Stevens found that many bred in February and March in grass-lands that were flooded in April and May, when the first snows melted in the hills above them. Some birds he actually found breeding in grass-covered sandbanks in the centres of rivers, and completely flooded when these rose.
In 1905 Harington found it breeding at Bhamo, at 2,000 feet, “in a swamp of kine-grass or Briar Jungle at the bottom of the Polo-ground.” He encountered the same difficulties that we did in finding the nest but, at last, succeeded in taking a hen unawares and, starting her off her nest, “wo found the nest on the ground and completely hidden in the long dhoob grass which was growing under the brambles. The nest was composed of fine grass and roots, lined with a few feathers, and contained four eggs which were, unfortunately, on the point of hatching” (Journ. Bomb. Nat. Hist. Soc. vol. xvi, p. 741, 1905).
The breeding season is February to early April in Assam, though it is true that my own nests were taken in April and May. Breeding on the ground, as the birds do, in areas liable to be flooded with the first melting of the snows, it is obvious that laying must take place in time for the birds to be on the wing by mid-April. A few birds breeding on slightly higher ground may breed later, but it is more likely that my nests were second nests of birds whose first attempts at breeding had been failures.
Harington’s nest was taken on the 21st May, at Bhamo.
The full complement of eggs seems to be four or, less often, three. In colour they are a beautiful deep turquoise-blue, almost the colour of Hedge-Sparrows’ eggs. The texture is very fine and close, finer and closer than in the eggs of the Indian Bush-Chat, some eggs having quite a strong gloss.
In shape they are broad, short ovals, very little compressed at the smaller end.
Thirty eggs average 16.2 x 13.3 mm. : maxima 18.0 x 13.6 mm. ; minima 15.2 x 12.4 mm.
The cock bird takes no part in incubation, unless by night, but he keeps an extraordinarily sharp look-out upon intruders. Perched on the summit of a bush, or on some reed or grass-stem higher than those surrounding it, he utters a low “chirm” whenever anyone approaches, and the hen slips sway off her nest through the long grass without showing herself even for a moment.
501. Rhodophila melanoleuca
(501) Rhodophila melanoleuca Jerdon.