25. Accipiter virgatus

No. 25. Accipiter Virgatus, TEM.

THE BESRA.

Of the nidification of this species nothing seems known, Mr. R. Thompson is confident that they breed from March to May, in the Gurhwal forests, he says,—" I have never found the nest of this bird though it breeds in our forests. I have seen, caught, and shot the young birds during the rainy season : conclusive evidence, I should think, of their breeding with us." Dr. Jerdon's descriptions do not fully apply to many specimens I possess, all of which I believe to belong to this species.

First, there is a young female. Length, 13.5. "Wing, 8.1. Tail, 6.5. Tarsus, 0.2. Mid toe to root of claw, 1.4. Circumference of middle of tarsus, 0.5, (the same as in others of this species), Nisus and Melaschistos have it from 0.6 to 0.75. The head, nape, mantle and upper tail coverts are umber brown, very dark on nape and upper back, all the feathers narrowly margined rufous. The tail rather pale brown, narrowly tipped with fulvous white, with six moderately broad transverse dark brown bars, on both webs of the ten central tail feathers, and seven on the interior webs only, of the external laterals one bar in each case hidden under the upper tail coverts. Behind the eye a broad white streak, the feathers centered dark brown, the whole of the chin, throat, cheeks, and ear coverts (except the tips of the hindermost of the latter which are rufous brown) white, each feather with a very narrow central stripe of dark brown, growing slightly broader as the feathers approach the breast, Breast, upper abdomen and sides, white; all the feathers with - transverse, somewhat arrow head bars, rufous in the centre and brown laterally. Lower abdomen and tibial plumes, with narrower, cuspidate, transverse brown bars, and lower tail coverts with similar bars, but fainter, smaller and wider apart. This bird is very like Nisus, but the dimensions, size of bill, very slender tarsus and toes, prevent our referring it to that species. It was a female, ascertained by dissection, killed at Lahore. It cannot be Nisoides, for the throat is conspicuously streaked like Nisus, and has no central stripe. I believe it to be Virgatus. If it be not identical (which I feel sure it is) it might stand as A. Micronisus. I have another young female, from Gurhwal, the skin measures—Wing, 8.05. Tail, 6.42. Tarsus, 2.05. Mid toe to root of claw, 1.5. Circumference of tarsus, 0.5. This bird is a rather darker brown above, the bars below are rather broader and more rufous, and the ten central tail feathers have only five and the external lateral six bars, (one of each as in the former case hidden under the upper tail coverts) but in every other respect, this bird precisely resembles the preceding.

Then I have a very young male from Darjeeling. Length, 11.5. Wing, 6.35. Tail, 5.5. Tarsus, 1.9. Mid toe, 1.35. Circumference of tarsus, 0.42. This above is like the preceding but more rufous, and the ten centre feathers have only four, and the external laterals six bars, extending to both webs on all the feathers, the bars being broader than in the preceding. Below the chin, throat, ear coverts, breast, abdomen and tibial plumes, are white, here and there slightly tinged fulvous, each feather with a broad central stripe of dark, more or less rufous brown, smaller actually of course on the throat where the feathers are smaller, and larger on the breast, &c., where these are larger, but relatively much the same size. On the lower abdomen, and tibial plumes, however, they become very drop-like. The lower tail coverts white, some faintly tinged fulvous towards the tips.

Another male, certainly not adult, but yet not very young from Murree, measured— Length 11.25. Expanse, 0.20. Wing, 6.5. Tail, 5.25. Tarsus, 1.9. Mid toe, 1.3. Circumference of tarsus, 0.5. Wings, when closed, reached to within 1.75 of end of tail. It has the head, nape, back, mantle and upper tail coverts dusky cyaneous, darkest on the head—the kind of colour you may make by mixing indigo and Indian ink—a narrow barely perceptible white streak behind the eye, and the usual white mottling on the nape. Tail slaty grey, brownish on external laterals, with seven narrow transverse bars on the inner webs of these latter, and four broad, blackish bars on both webs of the other ten feathers, ear coverts and sides of the neck, dusky, the former with traces of rufous striae, the latter tinged cyaneous, chin and throat white, tinged fulvous towards the sides, with no striae, but one central well-defined, blackish stripe. The breast quite deep ferruginous at the sides, the central portion, having the feathers a mixture of blackish, deep ferruginous and white, the blackish portion, a stripe more or less wide, lying on the shaft the ferruginous surrounding this and extending quite to the point, and the lateral margins being white, sides, flanks, and upper abdomen ferruginous imperfectly barred with white, the white not quite meeting at the shaft. The lower abdomen white, barred with paler ferruginous and near the vent, with slightly rufous grey. Tibial plumes, white, very closely barred with grey, slightly suffused with rusty. Lower tail coverts pure white.

The streakless white, central striped throat reminds one of " Gularis" but this is unmistakably of the same species as the preceding (though differing toto caelo in plumage) and as the adult female from Simla, which I will next describe.

This measures in the dry skin— Wing, 8.1. Tail, 0.7. Tarsus, 2.05. Mid toe, 1.45. Circumference of tarsus, 0.5. The upper plumage closely resembles the preceding, but is somewhat paler and more slaty. The tail is slightly browner and is narrowly but conspicuously white tipped, with four bars on both webs of the ten central, and five on the inner webs of the two external feathers; the bars faint, and but little darker than the rest of the feather, on both webs of the central and the outer webs of the next three laterals on either side. The chin and throat are streakless white, slightly tinged with rufous, and no trace of any central stripe. The ear coverts, sides of neck, breast, abdomen and sides, bright ferruginous, the breast chiefly the centre, very narrowly and sparsely, and the abdomen and sides, regularly, closely and moderately, broadly barred with white. The vent and lower tail coverts pure white. The tibial plumes barred rufous white, and pale ferruginous.

There is yet another type of female, query, the oldest of all, I have no specimen by me ; but quote my notes made when I had one. "Female. Umballa. Wing, 8.5. Tail, 6.5, Whole upper plumage a delicate, uniform, rather dark, french grey, white half collar (mottled) on nape. No trace of bars, except a dusky subterminal spot, on central, or outer webs of lateral tail feathers. Chin and throat white, no trace of striae or central stripe. Sides of head and ear coverts tinged ferruginous, breast, abdomen and flanks, feathers tipped and barred, rather widely apart with pale rufous." I have been thus minute in these descriptions, in order to show how many usually deemed diagnostic points. Number, size and position of tail bands, character of throat markings and indeed of the plumage generally vary in different individuals of this species.

In all humility, I often wonder how many of the Accipiters of the Malay Archipelago, and is not their name legion ? would lose their present supposed specific character if really large series, such as I am endeavouring to collect of all Indian birds, were available.

The shape of the tail is insisted on! Here before me lie a long row of A. Virgatus; some with slightly rounded, some with absolutely square, some with slightly forked tails.

In the face of the doubts I entertain, as to how far many of these small Accipiters have been rightly identified, I can say little, about the real distribution of A. Virgatus, but I may mention that Mr. Wallace gives it from Malacca, Timor, Java, and Sumatra. Noting, that the bill is black, lead colour at base, iris and cere yellow. Feet pale orange yellow. Birds killed by Mr. C. H. T. Marshall at Lahore and by myself in Kumaon, had the irides deep orange yellow.

There is a nearly allied species, A. Gularis, Schlegel, A. Nisoides, Blyth, that has of late years been the bugbear of all Indian ornithologists. I don't believe that any specimen has been procured in India (if even the species is a good one, and even that may admit of doubts) but every one is always writing that they have got it, and being told by others to whom they send the specimens, that their birds are Virgatus or Nisus. Dr. Jerdon first noticed a little Hawk known to native falconers as the Khandesra, and surmised that it was probably Blyth's A. Nisoides. Now we have all heard of the Khandesra, or as I believe it is more correctly called, the Khand Besra, but no one can ever get it, it is a perfect Mrs. Harris amongst birds, and I myself greatly incline to Betsy Prig's belief that " there never was no sich" bird " at all."— To return, Mr. Blyth commenting on Dr. Jerdon's work remarked, that the Khandesra Hawk was " probably A. Nisoides, nobis (J. A. S. B. 1845, XVI. p. 727, XXI. p. 359; ex Sumatra. A. Fringillarius, var. Vigors, appendix to memoir of Sir T. S. Raffles, p. 549 and A. Gularis, Schlegel, Faun. Japon, Aves. 1850, t. 2.) Professor Schlegel mentions a specimen of N. Gularis from Nepal. Dr. Jerdon writes that A. Nisoides is not rare in the interior of the Himalaya; but two examples received from him possibly intended for this (though I can hardly comprehend his making such a mistake) are decidedly A. Virgatus. In the report on Japanese ornithology accompanying the narrative of Commodore Perry's expedition, it is stated of A. Gularis, that the young bird is darker above than represented in the figure of the adult male, in the plate in 'Fauna Japonica' and has the transverse bars on the under parts, much less regular and lighter coloured than in the figure of the female in the same plate."

Dr. Jerdon had clearly got hold of A. Virgatus. I much suspect the expedition had got hold of another form of this protean species, similar to the nearly adult male that I have above described.

My friend, Mr. R. Thompson, sent me an interesting note about this supposed species, which I reproduce as showing that possibly, the same birds in different stages of plumage and at different ages may affect different localities, and even appear to fly more or less briskly.

" I have observed what I believe to be another species or variety of the Accipiter Virgatus. I have had the dark plumaged one and trained it: but the light plumaged one is a larger bird with the tarsi less smooth, more robust, and toes shorter than the true Besra. I have got some specimens and would like you to look them up. I believe it is the Khandbesra mentioned in Jerdon, page 54, Vol. I. I have met the dark plumaged ones, male and female, usually on the skirts of dense forests, and observed their flight which is more feeble, with a broader and more ample expanse of wing, than the lighter coloured variety, which is met with in lofty dense forests and has a flight similar to the Shikra. That is, with sudden and rapid stoops, with an active manner of sitting suddenly in a tree when you expected the bird to shoot past it. Its motions in the tree are restless, jerking from branch to branch. Sometimes I have found them very timid, at others quite bold, and will let you approach within a few paces."

The Khand Besras, duly arrived. - : They turned out to be female Virgatus, one in the stage I first described and the other similar, but the whole plumage, very much paler, faded and abraded, with the throat rusty white without a central stripe, and only a very few of the feathers with dark shafts, the barring of the under parts, feebler, wider apart, much less regular, paler and yellower, often incomplete, and in the breast, especially at the tips, having a cordate tendency.

No one who knows Mr. Thompson, will doubt that he has accurately described a real difference in the haunts and habits of the birds in their two stages, measurements show that structu¬ral differences do not exist; but no one I think, after looking through the series now before me, can doubt that these are true Virgatus.

Mr. Blyth in commenting upon Dr. Jerdon, added in a note, " My original description of A. Nisoides may here be quoted. ' Presumed female in mature plumage, differing only from that of Nisus in its much inferior size, being smaller, than the male of that species, and in having the throat streak-less white, except a narrow median dark line. The usual lateral lines occur, but not conspicuously, which are observable in various species of Hawks, Eagles, &c. Length of wing, 7.25. Tail, 5.5. Tarsus, 1.75. Mid toe and claw, 1.5.' "

Now I note here that in the specimens that I have of Virgatus, the wing varies from 6.35 to 8.1. The tail from 5.5 to 6.7 ; the tarsus from 1.85 to 2.1, and the mid toe and claw from 1.6 to 1.85. There is nothing here very irreconcilable. Mr. Blyth goes on : "I have seen three nearly similar specimens of this Sparrow Hawk, all received from Malacca, and it is much more closely akin to Nisus than Virgatus. No trace of ferruginous colouring underneath was observable in any of the three. They were of the size of the male of A. Nisus or somewhat smaller with the plumage of the non-rufous adult female of that species, combined with the trilineated throat of Virgatus; the affinity I repeat being much closer to the former species than to the latter." Now the whole of this is verbatim applicable to a female before me, closely resembling the first described by me, having lost the rufous edgings to the feathers, except that it has not the central stripe, but each feather of the whole throat has a dark shaft, or very narrow dark shaft stripe. As for the "trilineated throat" of Virgatus, the adults have not a trace of it, and out of nineteen specimens of all ages, only three show it distinctly.

Dr. Stoliczka next thought that he had obtained a specimen of A. Gularis, which he described at length. I shall not quote his description, for it refers very obviously to a young male Nuns, pur et simple. It appears to be the dimensions which misled him ; these he gives, as wing, 8. Tail, 5.75. Tarsus, 2.13. Mid toe, 1.63; and he adds that these dimensions are evidently intermediate between those of Nisus and Nisoides. This however is a mistake. The wings of a number of male Nisus, European specimens, varied from 8.13 to 8.38. An Indian specimen has the wing, 7.6, and he himself sent home a specimen (according to Von. Pelzeln. Ibis, 1868) with the wing 7.25. The tails of the European birds varied from 6.55 to 6.88, that of the Indian bird is 6.4 ; the tarsus of this latter is 2.2, and its mid toe to root of claw, 1.45 ; so that his dimensions, though small, are not sufficiently so to induce doubts of the specimen being a Nisus, while the plumage he has so accurately described, is unmistakably that of a young, but not very young, bird of that species. Von Pelzeln came to the same conclusion; he says " One individual, evidently a male, is ticketed Accipiter Nisoides, Blyth (A. Gularis, Schlegel;) but in my opinion all the examples belong to the true A. Nisus."

In the same paper in the Asiatic Society's Journal, in which he described the young Nisus, he added the following valuable remarks about the type specimens of A. Nisoides.

" On comparing Mr. Blyth's originals in the Indian Museum, I found that one of the three originals is lost, the other two very much resemble in the upper dark brown colouring our specimen, and one of them has some of the tips of the scapulars and tertiaries distinctly tipped with rufous brown. The cross bars below are, however, ochreous yellow, only with a slight ferruginous tint on the sides of the breast, but not nearly to the extent described in our specimen. This cannot be, however, of very great importance, lor the same colour is very variable in A. Nisus. The throat is white, and so far as the feathers are preserved, they present a few dark streaks about the middle, though on this point neither of the specimens is quite perfect, and it is only to be regretted that such valuable originals were not better cared for. The measurements given by Mr. Blyth are, wing 7 1/4 inches; tail 5 1/2 inches. The two respective specimens in the Indian Museum have the wings 7 1/2 and 7 3/4; and the tail 5 1/2 and 5 5/8 inches. Mr. Blyth supposed the specimens to be females, but they could with as much reason be regarded as males. Still it cannot be questioned that the typical specimens referred to, are remarkably small as compared with usual specimens of A. Nisus. I found this difference especially apparent after having a short time previously procured in the lower hills several specimens of the last species. The claws appear remarkably strong, compared with the size of the bird, and the general deep brown colour is always very conspicuous, when compared with the ashy hue of A. Nisus; still I think it wants further proof, until the species is firmly established.

Mr. Blyth in his commentary (Ibis, 1866, p. 239) says, " Dr. Jerdon writes word, that A. Nisoides is not rare in the interior of the Himalaya," and it is not unlikely that Dr. Jerdon observed it in the same portion of the hills, where my specimen was procured, for he visited the Sutlej valley in 1864. The species cannot be easily mistaken for A. Virgatus, which is comparatively very common and much larger."

The passages italicized, seem to me to point to these specimens being Virgatus after all, and in regard to Dr. Stoliczka's concluding sentence, I can only say that I have above given maxima and minima dimensions, derived from a large series, and that these sufficiently prove that Virgatus is not only, not much larger, but often not at all larger.

I hope having said this much, that our numerous observers will thoroughly work the question out. N. Gularis, Schlegel, Japan, may be a good species, but Schlegeli Nipal specimen renders this dubious. In the distinctness of A. Virgatus and A. Nisoides, Blyth, I confess that I have at present no great belief.

BookTitle: 
My Scrap Book
Reference: 
Hume, Allan Octavian, ed. My Scrap Book: Or, Rough Notes on Indian Oology and Ornithology. Vol. 1. 1869.
Title in Book: 
25. Accipiter virgatus
Book Author: 
Allan Octavian Hume
CatNo: 
25
Year: 
1869
Page No: 
132
Common name: 
Besra
M_ID: 
2946
M_CN: 
Besra
M_SN: 
Accipiter virgatus
Volume: 
Vol. 1
Term name: 
id: 
12449

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