No. 18. Erythropus Cenchris, NAUMANN.
THE LESSER KESTREL.
Dr. Jerdon tells us that he found this Falcon breeding on cliffs of the Neilgherries in May and June, and I regret to say that this is the extent of my information as to its breeding in India.
In Greece, Sicily, Palestine, &c, it breeds gregariously, laying three, four, or occasionally five eggs, in clefts of rocks or ruins, or even under the tiles of houses. It makes, it would seem, but little or no nest. Degland, quoted by Bree, says that " the eggs are three or four in number; very short, smaller than those of the Kestrel: of a reddish white, with a great number of little points and fly spots of a brick red mingled together and mixed with small brown spots." The egg figured by Bree measures, according to the drawing, 1.42 by 1.17, and is like a light-coloured variety of common Kestrel eggs. I am rather suspicious of Dr. Bree's eggs generally, the simple faith with which he accepts, as authentic, Continental eggs with positively no pedigree, being more remarkable than reassuring; but this egg is so common now in Europe, that I suppose he may here be trusted.
Mr. Tristram in the Ibis for 1859 told us, that this species was " gregarious about the ruins in the plain districts. About fifteen or twenty pairs were building their nests in and about the beautiful tower of Ramleh (Arimathea) in company with a still larger number of the common Kestrel, and flew screaming round me, as I climbed the still perfect staircase of the tower."
In the Ibis for 1865, he gives a full account of its nidification in Palestine. He says, " It breeds, so far as we have observed, invariably in communities, usually in narrow fissures of the rocks or in the crevices of ruins, not generally in very inaccessible situations, but always in so narrow a cleft, and at such a depth in, that the eggs are hard to extract. I never found a colony without many of the common Kestrel breeding in the same place. The largest rookeries of this bird we met with, were in the towns of Lydda and Ramleh, and in the top of an old quarried cave (perfectly protected by prickly fern) in the town of Nazareth. Although the two species are so closely allied, there can be no difficulty in discriminating the eggs ; and we found that the Arab boys knew the difference between the two species at once, calling one the black nailed and the other the white nailed ' bashik.' "
Mr. Simpson in his notes on the birds of western Greece has the following interesting remarks on this species. " Towards the middle of March, the little Kestrel (Falco Cenchris) begins to arrive, and presently takes up its abode, often in considerable numbers, in the villages and ruins upon the plains.
" Whilst the common Kestrel, which occurs all the year round, dwells in the rocks and remote ruins, breeding generally in single pairs, this species prefers more inhabited places and, like the Swallow, trusts to mankind. In eastern Greece, one of its favorite localities is the renowned ruin, which crowns the Acropolis Rock at Athens. Most of the villages in the marshy plain near Mesolonghi have their colony of F. Cenchris and notably those in the neighbourhood of the Phidaris, where the insects abound on which they feed. Each of the favoured villages will have from half a dozen to a dozen pairs. They breed generally, under the tiles of a house sometimes in a position where it is no easy matter to introduce the hand. There is no regular nest, but the eggs (four and rarely five, is the complement) are placed in a depression upon the bare wall amongst bits of lime mixed with the hard parts of coleopterous insects. Incubation commences about the middle of May, and if the eggs are removed, they speedily lay again ; the second time mostly three eggs. In size, the egg is considerably smaller than that of the common Kestrel; but it appears subject to pretty much the same varieties of colour, being on the whole perhaps somewhat lighter."
This species seems to have a very wide range; it is found throughout the south and south-east of Europe, the north of Africa, Egypt and Abyssinia, and probably all over Africa, as Layard notes it from the Cape. I have seen a specimen shot near Umballa; and Col. Tytler tells me, he killed one near Delhi. It is not uncommon in the rainy season in Bengal, and seems to reside permanently in the hilly tracts of Southern India. It does not appear to go much further east, as Wallace does not include it in the 'birds of the Malay Archipelago, nor do I find it noticed from Japan or China. In Australia, it seems to be represented by E. Cenchroides, (Vig. et Horsf.)
My friend Mr. Carter of Coimbatoor, sends me the following detailed measurements of an adult female, shot near Conoor.
Dimensions— Length, 13. Expanse, 28.5. Weight, 6.44 ozs. Wing, 9.75; the 2nd and 3rd primaries sub-equal; 2nd the longest. Tail from vent, 6.75. Tarsus, 1.81. Foot, greatest length, 2.5 ; greatest width, 2.38; mid toe, 1.13; its claw, straight, 0.44; hind toe, 0.5 ; its claw, straight, 0.5. Bill, straight, 0.69 ; along curve, 0.75; from gape, 0.88; width at gape, 0.88 ; height at front, 0.5.
He notes that the bill is plumbeous, black at the tips, and that the specimen measured had eaten nothing but locusts.
Dr. Jerdon's description of the male is not quite satisfactory; he tells us, that the wing coverts are a fine blue grey, and immediately afterwards that they are vinaceous red; quite true so far as it goes, but without explanation, not unlikely to perplex a tyro. An adult male before me has the lores, forehead, crown, occiput, nape, cheeks, ear coverts and generally the sides of the head and neck, a pure bluish ashy. Back, scapulars and lesser and median wing coverts, a deep red. Primaries and secondaries blackish brown, some of the hinder ones tinged ashy and more or less paler tipped. Tertiaries more or less ashy, margined rufous. Larger wing coverts tinged ashy. Rump and upper tail coverts, ashy blue; tail feathers tipped white, with a black subterminal band, broadest on the median, and narrowest on the external feathers; the rest of the tail nearly concolorous with the rump, but slightly darker. Chin and throat white faintly tinged with rufous. Lower tail coverts nearly pure white, rest of lower parts of body a delicate vinaceous red, the feathers with small brownish black spots and central streaks, smallest on the breast, most conspicuous on the sides and flanks. The beak, pale plumbeous, darker at the tips, and the claws, apparently yellow. From the ticket on the specimen, it appears that the wings, when closed, reached quite to the end of the tail and that cere, orbits, legs and feet were bright yellow.