(763) Artamus fuscus Vieill.
THE ASHY SWALLOW-SHRIKE.
Artamus fuscus Fauna B. I., Birds, 2nd ed. vol. ii, p. 348.
The Ashy Swallow-Shrike is found over nearly the whole of the Indian Empire from Ceylon to the Himalayas, East of a line drawn roughly from Godra in the Panch Mahals to Naini Tal in Kuman. It is resident throughout the plains and the foot-hills up to 2,000 feet, but ascends considerably higher in the Summer, breeding up to at least 5,000 feet, whilst Stevens has recorded them up to 5,700 feet at Seerjok and Turzam in Sikkim.
They are birds of well-wooded country and, I believe, are never found in dry, more or less treeless areas or in country where trees are represented by Acacias and similar vegetation alone. Above all other sorts of country they seem to love best small areas of cultivation surrounded by forest, but they may be found anywhere almost where there are trees suitable for building purposes.
In Eastern Bengal they may be seen wherever there are Date- palms (Phoenix sylvestris), either singly or in clumps, these being their favourite nesting-trees in this province, as, indeed, in most places elsewhere.
In some districts they will breed in gardens and in clumps of palms growing in villages. Davidson mentions three nests—two old and one new one with one egg—found by him in a ragged old Cocoanut palm in a garden in the Tamkur district of Mysore on the 9th May.
In the Himalayas their favourite resorts are ridges or the rounded tops of grass-covered hills, at one time all forest which had been destroyed for cultivation, leaving many dead trees standing dotted about. These giants, too big to fell and, therefore, only ringed, stand, ghosts of the past, their great limbs stretching out gaunt and bare, often with holes and hollows, both in the greater boughs and in the trunks, which invite the attention of many birds.
In such places I have known some colonies, or sometimes single pairs, take up their Summer residence, build their nests and bring up their young. The nests in these cases are built wedged in between one of the great limbs and the trunk itself, or in one of the larger natural hollows. At other times, also, the birds make use of holes in trees. Thus Miss Cockburn in the Nilgiris found a nest “in a perpen¬dicular hole of a dried stump of a tree about 15 feet in height.”
Palms are, however, undoubtedly the trees most favoured in the plains. Date-palms, Cocoanut-palms and Palmyra-trees are constantly referred to by Jerdon, Cripps, Davidson and others as being used for nesting purposes, sometimes by a single pair only but, more often, by small colonies. The largest colony I have personally seen consisted of about twenty pairs, the individuals of which seemed to keep together all day, yet I never succeeded in tracing anything like twenty nests. Six, I think, is the largest number I have found in one tree or in one group of trees, but the others may have escaped my search or have been situated at a little distance from the feeding-ground.
Nests built in palms are generally placed at the junction of one of the leaf-stems with the head of the tree and are hard to see, and at the same time well protected from rain and wind. Jerdon found one nest on the stem of a leaf of a Palmyra-tree, and Cripps gives the following description of a nest built on a Date-palm “The date-trees in this, district are tapped annually for the juice, from which sugar is manufactured. The leaves and the bark for a depth of three inches are sliced away from one half of the trunk, the leaves on the other half remaining, and at the root of one of these the nest was built, wedged in between the trunk and the leaves ; the external diameter was 4.1/2 inches, depth 3 inches, thickness of sides of nest J inch.”
Gammie found the birds breeding in Sikkim at 3,500 feet on “dry ridges, on which there are a few scattered tall trees, from the tops of which it can make short flights after insects.
"It builds in holes of trees, on surfaces of large horizontal branches 30 or 40 feet up, or in depressions in ends of lofty stumps.”
In the hills where there are no true palms I have occasionally taken the nests from the heads of palm-ferns standing near the edge of evergreen forest.
The nest is a rather crude affair made of coarse roots and, some¬times, grass, roughly put together and with a shallow cavity for the eggs, seldom an inch, and often less than half an inch, deep. When placed in palms, the bottom of the hollow between the leaf and the trunk is filled in with roots and rubbish, such as dead leaves, bits of creeper and grass, the true nest then being placed on the top of the pad so formed. In diameter the nests may be anything from 4 to 8 inches, and are often oval rather than round and, some¬times, of no particular shape at all, just wedged in and fitting the gap in which they are built.
The breeding season varies considerably. Hodgson says that in Nepal “this species begins to lay in March, the young being fledged in June.” In Eastern Bengal they lay from April to the end of June. In Mysore Bourdillon found females in breeding condition in March, but took a fresh egg in May. In the hills from Sikkim to Assam they breed principally in April and May but, probably, have an extended breeding season, for even the birds of the same colony do not lay at the same time. Thus in one colony I have found chicks in May ready to fly and new nests not yet laid in. In Siam Hartert found them laying from April to June, using Betel-palms exclusively for nesting purposes. In the Chin Hills Mackenzie took nests in April and May while, finally, Coltart took eggs as late as the 28th August near Margherita.
The full complement of eggs is two to four, the latter number rather exceptional, the first often the full number laid. In Siam Herbert and Williamson never found more than two eggs in a nest.
The eggs have a ground-colour ranging from the palest creamy white to a fairly warm cream. The markings consist of blotches of pale reddish to deep rich brown, scarce over the greater part of the egg but numerous in an irregular ring round the larger end. Secondary markings of grey or pale neutral tint are interspersed with the primary and, in the palest eggs, give a very grey tint to the general colour. In most eggs the markings are small blotches, in a few they are but specks and spots, while in a few others a certain number of very large blotches are scattered here and there among the smaller. A very handsome pair taken by Primrose near Kurseong has bold purple-brown blotches in the usual ring and no marks on the smaller half.
In shape the eggs are generally a rather long, pointed oval—short, broad ovals being rare. The texture is fine, close and strong, but glossless or nearly so. The shell is stout in comparison with the size of the egg.
Fifty eggs average 23.4 x 17.1 mm. : maxima 25.3 x 17.2 and 25.1 x 18.1 mm. ; minima 22.0 x 16.6 and 23.0 x 16.3.
Both sexes incubate, but probably the male only for an hour or two in the early mornings and evenings, as we never snared them on the nest at any other time. Both sexes also take an equal part in nest-building, both bringing and arranging the materials.
763. Artamus fuscus
(763) Artamus fuscus Vieill.