(1813) Accipiter virgatus besra.
THE SOUTHERN BESRA SPARROW-HAWK.
Accipiter besra Jerdon, Mad. Journ. L. S., x, p. 84 (1839) (Soonda Jungles, South India).
Accipiter virgatus. Blanf. & Oates, iii, p. 404.
Vernacular names. Besra , Dhoti , Khand Besra, Khandesra (Hind.); Vaishtapa dega (Tel.); Urchitlu (Can.); Ukissa (Cing.).
Description. — Male. Above slaty-grey, the head, back and least wing-coverts generally darker and blackish; tail grey with four blackish bands, the basal often concealed by the coverts, the tip pale; outermost pair with five or six fainter dark bands; lores and feathers above eye in front whitish; sides of head and neck grey; on the nape the white bases of the feathers often show through; scapulars with large white drops; quills barred with black, faintly on the first primary, more strongly on the others and obsolete on the secondaries; the bases of the quills white on the inner basal halves, banded with black; chin and throat white with broad mesial streak and less definite lateral ones; upper breast and flanks rufescent; the centre sometimes white boldly streaked with rufous-brown; abdomen, posterior flanks and sometimes lower breast white barred with rufous or rufous-brown; under tail-coverts white; axillaries and under wing-coverts white with blackish spots and bars.
The under plumage varies greatly ; some specimens, probably very old birds, have the whole breast and flanks rufous, this colour encroaching on to the abdomen and thigh-coverts as bars. Other specimens have only the sides of the breast marked with rufous and have these parts more or less white, the centres of the feathers rufous-brown.
Colours of soft parts. Iris golden-yellow or orange-yellow ; in younger birds grey or greyish-white and, later, pale yellow: bill slate-grey with black tip ; cere lemon-yellow ; legs and feet bright yellow, claws horny-brown or blackish.
Measurements. wing 145 to 166 mm.; tail 114 to 118 mm.; tarsus 44 to 47 mm.; culmen 15 to 16 mm. wing 182 to 189 mm.; tail 136 to 145 mm.; tarsus 46 to 53 mm.; culmen 18 to 20 mm.
Female. Above dark brown, the crown still darker; the scapulars, wings and tail barred with blackish and marked with white as in the male; sides of head and neck brown ; chin and throat white with broad mesial and lateral streaks of dark brown ; upper breast and flanks rufous-brown, the feathers edged with white, making these parts look streaky ; lower breast to vent and thigh-coverts white barred with rufous-brown, the edges of these bars darker; under tail-coverts white ; axillaries and under wing-coverts white barred with black.
Young birds are like the female but have the edges of the feathers of the upper parts rufous, the head like the back lower parts white to rufous-white; a broad blackish mesial stripe on the chin and throat and large rufous or rufous-brown marks forming bars on the flanks, broad streaks on the breast and heart-shaped drops on the abdomen, vent and thigh-coverts. There are sometimes five bars on the tail-feathers.
Distribution. Ceylon and South India. Common in Travancore and the Malabar Coast, apparently rare elsewhere; there are typical specimens in the British Museum from Mhow and two specimens labelled as from North Bengal from the Pinwill Coll. These may be wrongly marked. There is also n specimen from Madras.
Nidification. The Southern Indian Besra breeds from January to April in Travancore and Phillips took three hard-set eggs on the 14th of the latter month at an elevation of 3,500 feet in Ceylon. They generally, if not always, use old nests of other birds, repairing, building them up and adding good linings of green leaves and smaller twigs. The tree selected for the nest is nearly always a high tree in dense forest but occasionally Stewart has taken nests on trees in rubber-clearings. The normal clutch, is three or four and very rarely five, whilst, on the other hand, two only are sometimes incubated. The eggs are like those of other Sparrow-Hawks but are on an average very lightly marked and are very bright, clean-looking eggs, the blue tint in the ground-colour absent or very faint, whilst the blotches are very bold and dark and often with, underlying clouds of grey. Forty eggs average 36.5 x 29.8 mm.: maxima 41.1 x 31.3 and 38.6 x 31.9 mm.; minima 34.4 x 28.2 and 34.7 x 27.8 mm.
Habits. This little Sparrow-Hawk is a bird of dense forests and but little was known about it until Stewart was so wonderfully successful in observing it. It is a very noisy little bird and constantly calls in a loud squealing tone to its mate who is never far away and promptly answers with another loud squeal. This cry seems to be common to all Sparrow-Hawks but varies greatly under different circumstances, rising to a chattering scream when the birds are angry or excited. They feed in Ceylon much on a species of small lizard but also eat locusts, grasshoppers, Coleoptera and small birds and mammals. They are bold speedy fliers, very active in forest and are, more especially the female, favourites for hawking small birds, especially quail and doves, whilst it is said to be so speedy in the open that it can even kill snipe.