No. 59. Elanus Melanopterus.* DAUD.
THE BLACK WINGED KITE.
It is somewhat surprising, that up to the present time, neither I nor any of my numerous correspondents, have succeeded in obtaining the eggs of this species. I have three several records of the birds having been noticed building nests, in different parts of the plains, in the early part of the hot weather, but in every case, they abandoned the nests without laying. My present impression is that they entirely leave the dry plains of upper India during the hot season, and resort to well-wooded and watered localities to breed in.
Mr. E. Thompson tells me, that in lower Gurhwal and Dehra Dhoon " they breed from April to June, choosing low trees, usually one standing by itself, in (for those localities) sparsely wooded spots, to build on. The nest is circular, not unlike that of Corvus Culmenatus, composed of small sticks and twigs, and lined with fine grass roots and fibres. This species is sparingly found along the foot of the Himalayahs. It does not enter valleys, unless, as in the case of the Patlee and Dehra Dhoons, they happen to be pretty open."
The eggs are figured by Bree from specimens which Mr. Tristram obtained in Algeria, where the bird itself appears to be rare. In Europe, it would not seem to breed, though it is said to be a regular visitant to Greece, and to occur as a straggler throughout the south of Europe.
According to the figure, the eggs measure 1.75 by 1.38 and 1.66 by 1.39. The one has a bluish, the other a dull creamy, white ground, both are somewhat sparingly streaked and blotched with pale yellowish brown, and one exhibits besides, a few deep brownish red blotches.
Mr. Tristram remarks that" these eggs are interesting, as corroborating by their character, the position of the species between Astur and Buteo."
Mr. Allen, who says he found this species common throughout Egypt, at least as far up as Thebes, remarks that " it is said to breed in the Mokattam hills, behind Cairo, but I have never yet been able to meet with the nest."
Mr. Allen had some further interesting remarks, in regard to this species, amongst others (a point not noticed by Dr. Jerdon) referring to the different colours of the iris in the young, which, in a specimen which I shot, at Fazilka, on the Sutledge, on the 15th November, was quite yellow. Mr. Allen says, " The iris in the immature specimen is of a bright salmon colour, in the adult of a brilliant carmine red; and this bird, when recently shot, with its pure white breast, delicate dove-coloured back, and black shoulders, is an exquisitely beautiful object, though the soft, owl-like feathers of the face and throat and breast, invariably lose their delicate gloss when the skin has been prepared some days. This species is crepuscular in its habits, feeding largely on mice and beetles, as well as on small birds. It has the sclerotic ring of the eye very deep, and altogether shows strong Strigine affinities."
Of the nidification of the allied Elanus Scriptus in Australia, Mr. Gould gives the following account: - :" It nests in companies, as near each other as possible. The nest is composed of sticks, lined with the pellets ejected from their stomachs, which are principally composed of the fur of the rats upon which they chiefly subsist. The eggs, which are four or five in number, have a white ground, blotched and marked with reddish brown, darkest at the smaller end; they are one inch and three quarters long, by one inch and three-eighths broad. The markings are easily removed by wetting."
I have often watched these birds hunting over the dry bed of a jheel, catching now and then a mouse, but most generally large grasshoppers.
They hover over the grass, in the fashion of a Kestrel, or perhaps more like a Circaetus Gallicus, but in a clumsier and heavier manner. The wings point upwards, so that the tips are within 3" or 4" of each other, instead of being retained nearly horizontal as in the Kestrel, and the legs and tail hang down unlike those of any other bird, that I have yet noticed. Thus hovering, they, after a time, slowly descend, and when within a few feet of the ground, generally drop suddenly. They are very tame, bold birds, passing unconcernedly within a few yards of a sports- man, when busy hunting, over fields or grass, and sitting composedly on the bare end of a bough, whilst gun in hand one walks up to within a few paces of their perch,
Mr. H. R. P. Carter, writing from Conoor (Southern India) remarks that "this species frequently perches on telegraph wires, flies quietly off on the approach of an engine, and perches again, a hundred yards or so ahead. With a slow train, I have seen this kept up for two or three miles.
" Sometimes I have seen them remain on the wire within a few yards of the train and let the train pass without moving."
This bird, which is recorded from all parts of India, from Ceylon to the base of the Himalayahs, and from various localities in British Burmah, is seldom seen in any numbers, but I once saw more than a dozen pairs hunting together over the dry reedy bed of a jheel. This was on Christmas Day, near Badlee, (Z. Rohtuk, Punjaub) and in these very reeds, on this same day, I procured the first specimens of Emberiza Schoenicolus recorded from India.
As regards the general distribution of this genus and species, I cannot do better than quote some remarks of Mr. Gould, which appeared in the Birds of Asia.
" There is not a more distinct and better defined group of Hawks, than those forming the genus Elanus, the members of which are widely spread over both the old and the new world. In America, the Elanus leucurus has a wide range, from Mexico to Brazil; Africa, India, and the Indian Islands are inhabited by three others; one, the E. Melanopterus, ranges over southern Europe, the whole of Africa, and India; Australia, however, appears to be the head-quarters of the genus, two species at least, the E. Axillaris and E. Scriptus inhabiting that country. The present bird" (E. Hypoleucus from Macassar, north Celebes, Borneo and Java) " differs from all the other members of the genus; it is most nearly allied to E. Axillaris, but exceeds that bird in size, and is destitute of the black spot on the under surface of the wing. It is true, some small tippings of black are seen ; but they occur on a different part to the spot in E. Axillaris; the character, by which it may at all times be distinguished, is the silvery white hue of the under surface of the primaries, throughout their whole length."