53. Circus melanoleucus

No. 53. Circus Melanoleucus* GMEL.


Nothing seems to he known of the nidification of this species, in India or elsewhere. It probably breeds in Bengal and Assam; Col. Tytler tells me that he feels almost certain that he has procured it all the year round at Barrackpoor, and that he believes it to breed somewhere in that neighbourhood. Dr. Jerdon remarks (in his Appendix) : " This Harrier, I have every reason to believe, breeds in Northern India. I saw several in Purneah in July, (some of them in a garb resembling that of the females of the other species) and shot one bird in a state of change from the female garb to the black and white ordinary Plumage. This was apparently not a young bird of the year, for the tail feathers were much worn. Can this bird, then, have a double moult ? It would appear so, unless I was mistaken in considering it not a bird of the year. If so, they have the ordinary female garb of Harriers at first, and shortly afterwards, assume the peculiar pied livery of this species."

The specimen referred to by Dr. Jerdon, he recently showed me, and I have little hesitation in saying that I believe it to be undoubtedly referable to C. Melanoleucus. We both agreed that it exactly resembled the grey-winged and grey-tailed, left hand figure, of Circus Spilonotus (Ibis, 1863, Pl. V,) but while he assigned it to this species, I contend that either it does not belong to it, or that if it does, this so-called species is merely a form of C. Melanoleucus. Of this I shall say more further on. At present I would wish first to notice, that up to the present time, as far as I know, no description of the young of this species has been published. Col. Tytler was, I believe, the first to procure the young, in the 1st year's livery, a stage of plumage in which it much resembles the young of the other, already described, species, - :I have therefore given (see footnote) full descriptions of the young, taken originally from Col. Tytler's specimens, but subsequently compared with others from Tipperah.

In all stages of plumage, the males (for I have as yet seen no authenticated female of Melanoleucus), may be distinguished from those of Cyaneus, Swainsoni and Cineraceus, by the length of the tarsus, which averages over 3 inches, and in no specimen that I have examined, fell short of 2.98 (in a young bird) and in one (a fine adult) measured 3.13.

I am aware that Mr. Gurney (Ibis, 1863, p. 214) gives the average of the tarsus, in three specimens, at 2.87, but possibly, he measures differently to what I do; any how, out of nine Indian specimens, whose tarsi I have recorded, (measuring most accurately with compasses and a decimal rule,) in no single case did I find the tarsus less than I have mentioned, and it certainly averages, in adults, fully 3.06; similarly measured, 2.8 may be taken as a maximum for Swainsoni and Cyaneus, and 2.4 for Cineraceus.

There is one possible flaw: I have never killed this species myself, and am dependant, for the identification of the sex, and many of the measurements (not of course of the tarsus, or other parts, that do not alter in the dried skin,) on Col. Tytler, Mr. Irwin and others, but taking the whole of the evidence collectively, I entertain no doubt that all the specimens that I have examined, all but one (of which the sex was not ascertained) professing to be males, and agreeing closely in all their measurements, were really males.

It still is open to any one to suggest, that as Dr. Jerdon's bird is by him believed to belong to a separate species, Spilonotus (of which more anon,) these young birds that I have described, may belong to this, and not to Melanoleucus. But two at least of these young birds were shot in company with with full-plum aged Melanoleucus, and they are one and all somewhat smaller in their dimensions, than undoubted adult Pied Harriers, whereas the supposed Spilonotus is said by Mr. Gurney, to be a decidedly larger bird, with longer tarsi.

I believe we may rest assured that the birds described by me, are bond fide young males of this species, and it seems not improbable that these may be the birds referred to by Mr. Gurney in the following notice which appeared in the Ibis for 1868.

" A third undescribed Harrier, of the Philippine Island, is of the same size and configuration as the last mentioned, but of very similar colouring to the adult male of C. hudsonius (linn.) which Professor Schlegel (Museum des Pays Bas, Circi, p. 3) mentions as a species inhabiting the Philippine Islands, but which I have never seen thence. It is, however, decidedly a smaller species than C. hudsonius, and may perhaps prove to be a hitherto undescribed state of C. Melanoleucus, a possibility which has hitherto restrained me from describing it as a distinct species." As regards the females, I have no positive information, but, I feel certain myself, that Dr. Jerdon's specimen was Circus Melanoleucus, in plumage intermediate between those stages which I have described, and I cannot doubt, that it exactly corresponded with the figure of the supposed Spilonotus in the Ibis for 1863.

The following were Mr. Swinhoe's remarks in regard to this plate - :

" I observed a pair of Harriers beating over the rush-grown delta of the Tamsay river, about the gorge, in March. I watched them for some time, but was unable to get within shot of them. The male appeared of a pied plumage; but the female was brown. I concluded, therefore, that it must have been the species that prevails in the neighbourhood of Amoy, rather than the true C. Melanoleucus, Gmel., which ranges in Asia, from India to Peking, and which I have also seen from the Philippines ; for Mr. Gurney tells me, that he is informed by Mr. Blyth that this latter species has, in the adult form, both sexes coloured alike. In the broad, flat, open country of the south west, near Taiwanfoo, I observed another Harrier, which I took to be C. Cyaneus, L.; but of the species I cannot be sure, as it might have been one of two cognate forms which are hard to distinguish from it at a distance, except by a most experienced eye. These are the Pale Harrier {Circus Swainsoni, Smith) and the American Harrier (C hudsonius, L.) The former of these has lately been procured by Captain Blakiston on the Yangtsze river; and of the latter, specimens may be seen in the Leyden Museum, from the Philippines and Kamtschatka.

" I procured no specimens of Harriers in Formosa; but, as Mr. Gurney was anxious to have the Circus spilonotus figured, I have supplied a male and female from the neighbourhood of Amoy for that purpose. With reference to this species, Mr. Gurney writes, ' I have just compared three male specimens of C, Spilonotus, with three males of C, Melanoleucus, and enclose you the measurements, by which you will see that C. Spilonotus considerably exceeds C. Melanoleucus in all its measurements; in addition to which it has a much larger bill and stronger tarsi. In all these respects (as also in some degree in colouring) it approaches to an allied but still larger species, C. Assimilis, Gould, of Australia. I do not think that C. Spilonotus ever assumes the black plumage which characterizes the head, neck, back, and a portion of the wings of the adult male of C. Melanoleucus. I have not been able to compare your female of C Spilonotus with a female of C Melanoleucus, the only (supposed) female which I have of the latter, being an individual of the sex of which I do not feel sure.

" I have unfortunately no measurements of G. Spilonotus taken from birds in a fresh state. The only note I can find in my Journals is the following, made on a male, shot at Amoy, the 27th December, 1859 : - :' Bill, bluish black, paler on the base; cere, light greenish yellow; eyes, fine waxen or primrose, yellow ; inside of mouth, leaden blue; legs, yellow ochre, with black claws.' The females of this species have yellowish brown irides, and so much resemble those of the Marsh Harrier (C. Oeruginosus) that Mr. Blyth identified an example I sent him, as of that species; but as I had frequently seen individual, brown birds, in company with the pied ones, I was led to doubt the assertion. On the rush-grown sand flats, at the mouth of the Changchow river, near Amoy, these birds are particularly common during winter, but they are nearly always females. I do not know for what reason; but in this locality, the adult male is peculiarly rare until the spring, when a few may occasionally be met with. In many points of habit, this bird seems to connect the Harriers with the Govinda Kites, feeding largely on offal and carrion, as well as on Batrachians and small mammals. All these objects I have found in the stomachs of those I have dissected; but remains of birds never. In its heavy sailing flight, this species also more resembles Kites than a Harrier. They are such offensive birds, that I did not care to preserve more than a few for identification.

" Mr. Gurney writes me, that he has seen specimens of C. Spilonotus from Singapore, as well as from the Philippines."

Now, in the first place, I must remark that I do not think that it has as yet been satisfactorily determined by dissection, that the adult females of Melanoleucus are identical in plumage, with the males. - : If any one has done so, I wish they would let me know. Every black and white bird examined by Tytler at a time when he shot many, was a male. Both specimens in the Asiatic Society's Museum were males. The adult female may be like the male, but it has not I conceive been as yet proved.

Secondly, even if this be conceded, this is no reason why the supposed Spilonotus (I refer here not to Kaup's bird, but to the figure in the Ibis) should not be a female, in the transitional stage, between the young and old. Mr. Gurney sets them down as males; but the context leaves it doubtful, whether Mr. Swinhoe himself ascertained the sexes; and supposing them to be females, the dimensions given by Mr. Gurney are not very unlike what we might have expected, with reference to the size of the males, while the bill and tarsus would of course be stronger. Dr. Jerdon's bird though larger than a very fine male Melanoleucus in my Museum, with which I compared it, was rather smaller than those described by Mr. Gurney. As matters now stand, either we must accept the mottled grey bird, as a stage of Melanoleucus, or we must include Spilonotus, as figured in the Ibis, as an Indian species. It is just possible that Dr. Jerdon's bird may be Melanoleucus, and although in plumage exactly similar to Mr. Swinhoe's bird, nevertheless structurally and specially distinct. This, however, is not likely. If some of my correspondents would kindly procure two or three undoubted females of Melanoleucus, the matter might probably be set at rest at once.

It remains to be noticed that all this time, the bird figured in the Ibis may be a state of Melanoleucus, and not Spilonotus of Kaup at all. He describes his species thus, " Head, black; wings and tail, without bars; beneath white, with black oblong spots on the crop." He gives this species as from Asia, and places it in the same subgroup as Ranivorus and Aeruginosus, which he classes as Buteonine types while he keeps Cyaneus and Melanoleucus as Falconine, and Cineraceus and Swainsoni, as Mil vine types.

Col. Tytler tells me that" this species," (Melanoleucus) about Barrackpore (where he says they are quite as common, as C. Swainsoni is in the Upper Provinces) " was always found in open ground, small brushwood and fields, not near jheels and swamps as in the case of Aeruginosus ; also, that they are never solitary, and that where one is shot, several others are sure to be seen in the immediate neighbourhood."

The Pied Harrier is a truly Asiatic species; Pallas, or rather Sokoloff, who accompanied him, observed it in Argunj, Radde in the middle Amoor, at Mogotui, Akschinsk, and other places in south east Siberia. In China, it is common in many localities; it has been sent from the Philippine islands. It occurs in Ceylon, Burmah, Assam and Eastern Bengal generally (extending westwards at least as far as Mirzapore*) and although Radde rightly says, that like all the species of this genus, it loves widely extended plains and the neighbourhood of water, it has been found almost throughout the Himalayahs, from the valley of the Burhampooter, right up to Afghanistan, where Griffiths procured a specimen. In the dry plains of Central and Upper India, it seems to be unknown, and it neither extends, as far as I yet know, to Japan on the one hand, or the Malayan Archipelago on the other.

Circus Melanoleucus

Dimensions Male
From Male
Length 16.00 17.15
Expanse. 39.00 43.00
Wing. 13.70 14.63
Tail from vent 8.00 9.20
Tarsus 2.98 3.13
Mid Toe to root of Claw. 1.25 1.4
Its Claw . 0.55 0.58
Hind toe to root of claw. 0.62 0.73
Its claw. 0.57 0.61
Inner toe. 0.62 0.74
Its claw. 0.56 0.61
Bill straight. 0.65 0.75
Bill a long Curve. 0.68 0.77
Bill from gape. 1.05 1.25
Bill width at gape. 0.82 0.95
Bill height. 0.36 0.41
Distance by which lower Tail Coverts fall short of end of Tail. 3.00 4.50
Length of cere on culmen 0.3 0.4

Total Length (inches.) Wing from Carpus. Tarsus. Middle toe and claw.
Circus Spilonotus Male(3 specimens.) 22 - 23.75 17.25- 17.75 3.37 2.75
Circus Melanoleucus Male (3 specimens 18 14.5 -15.00 2.87 2.00

(Five males, 2 adults and 3 young, measured.)

The 3rd primary the longest. The 1st is 3.1 to 3.6 shorter, the 2nd 0.7 to 0.8, and the 4th 0.08 to 0.25 shorter. Exterior tail feathers 0.2 to 0.7 shorter than central ones.

DESCRIPTION. - : In all, the legs and feet were yellow, the bill, black, and the cere, blackish horny. The irides in the adults were yellow, in the young yellowish white.

PLUMAGE Adult male. The whole head, chin, throat, neck all round, upper breast, upper half, or in some two-thirds, of the back, the scapulars, (all but the undermost one or two) the first 6 primaries and a broad band across the wing (commencing on the carpal joint and involving some of the small coverts, and most of the median and larger coverts of the secondaries and tertiaries) black, (or blackish brown in a somewhat earlier stage of plumage). Lower portion of the back, (except a broad central line, usually black), rump and upper tail coverts, pure white, the latter with large, subterminal, grey spots, or broad imperfect bars, in some specimens, almost obsolete. Winglet, primary greater coverts, last 4 primaries and secondaries silver grey, often broadly tipped with brown, and with a considerable portion of the inner webs white. Tertiaries and some of their greater coverts, dark brown. Undermost scapulars a mixture of dark brown and grey. Shoulder of wing and all the lesser coverts (except those involved near the carpal joint in the black bar), pure white, in some specimens fulvous white, in others tinged grey. Tail feathers pale, greyish, dove colour, or very pale, silvery brown, narrowly tipped white, and all but the central feathers, broadly margined interiorly with white. Lower breast, abdomen, sides, flanks, lower tail coverts, wing lining, and axillaries pure white. Lower surface of tail and quills, except the first six primaries (which are black) albescent or white.

A somewhat younger specimen, had the black everywhere more or less intermingled with dusky brown. This stage is correctly figured by Le Vaillant, (Birds of Africa, p. 32) and Badde mentions a similar specimen, in the Vienna Museum.

Young Male. The whole head, nape and back of neck, clove brown, each feather broadly margined with pale rufous. Upper back and scapulars, uniform, clove brown. Lower back and wings, a slightly lighter shade of the same colour. Some of the longest feathers of the back, with two obscure, terminal, rufous spots, (one on each web); the edge of the wing rufous white and many of the lesser coverts faintly or boldly (it varies in different specimens) margined, with fulvous or rufous white. Upper tail coverts pure white,(in one fulvous white) dark shafted, and with a conspicuous, oval, rufous brown, subterminal spot. The tail feathers a somewhat greyish, pale brown, narrowly tipped with fulvous white, and with broad, rather darker brown, transverse bars. The exterior lateral feathers have the ground colour much paler and tinged rufous, and the transverse bars narrower and less perfect. The whole of the lower parts, are buffy or rufous white, with central, rufous brown stripes, broad on the lower breast and upper abdomen, almost obsolete on the chin and thigh coverts. The cheeks and ear coverts are dull, rather sandy rufous, some of the longer feathers centered darker towards the tips, and (in some specimens) all darker shafted. The primaries have the greater portion of the inner webs, pale rufous white; they are barred with darker brown, the bars being wide apart and most conspicuous on the lower surface of the wing. The lower surface of the quills is grey brown on the terminal halves, with darker brown tips and bars, while the basal halves are a somewhat rufous buff, with traces of a few transverse brown bars. The wing lining, is rufous buff, many of the feathers with rufous brown centerings ; the axillaries are rufous buff, the shafts darker, and two or more very broad, irregular, transverse, red brown bars, which, in some specimens, run into one another, and occupy nearly the whole surface of the feather. The winglet, greater primary coverts, and the exterior webs towards their bases of some of the later primaries, grey, all with broad, transverse, brown bars.

Other young males are altogether less rufous below, the ground colour being almost white, and the central stripes narrower. In these the tail is greyer, and the bands narrower, and the winglet, primary greater coverts and exterior webs of primaries, are more decidedly grey, (quite silver grey on the two former) and the brown transverse bars more conspicuous. Most of the axillaries are pure white, with large brown spots, or imperfect, transverse bars.

These descriptions of the young males were originally taken from specimens in " Tytler's Museum, " but have subsequently been compared with others.

As regards the quills, Radde remarks, that the second and fifth are almost equal, the second only exceeding the 6th by about 0.08, but in a very fine specimen now before me, the second exceeds the 5th by 0.9. The sixth he says exceeds the first by 0.6, but in a specimen now before me, it only exceeds it by 0.3. The proportions of the quills therefore, vary considerably, even in the adults. The second to the fifth, as he points out, are conspicuously emarginate on the outer web, and the first four are notched, but somewhat feebly, on the inner webs. The tail he gives as even, only the external lateral feather being slightly shorter than the others, but in some specimens, as my measurements shew, the tail is perceptibly rounded. These, however, were young birds.

* Mr. Brooks says - :" I have seen it once on the Kurnouta, which runs into the Ganges near Mirzapore, and several times on the Balen river 30 to 40 miles south of Mirzapore: I never saw it away from water."

My Scrap Book
Hume, Allan Octavian, ed. My Scrap Book: Or, Rough Notes on Indian Oology and Ornithology. Vol. 1. 1869.
Title in Book: 
53. Circus melanoleucus
Book Author: 
Allan Octavian Hume
Page No: 
Common name: 
Pied Harrier
Pied Harrier
Circus melanoleucos
Vol. 1

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