19. Erythropus vespertinus

No. 19. Erythropus Vespertinus, LIN.


Of the nidification of this bird in India, which in most parts of the country is rare, or at any rate owing to its crepuscular habits, difficult to procure, (so much so, that I have never yet seen a specimen) nothing is known; nay, up to this time it is uncertain whether the bird that occurs in India, and has hitherto generally been referred to this species, really belongs to it, or to a nearly allied form E. Amurensis, of which more anon.

In regard to the true Vespertinus, Mr. Yarrell tell us, that " M. Viellot in the Faune Francaise, says, that it builds in the hollows of trees, or takes to the nest of the Magpie, sometimes in companies like Books, and that it flies and hawks for its prey only in the evening."

Mr. Hewitson, on Mr. Cochrane's authority, states, that in Hungary, this species " arrives about the middle of April and have laid their eggs early in May. They make no nest for themselves, but after a fight with the lawful owners, take possession of those of the Crow, Rook, or Magpie, altering or repairing them, according to their own taste. The eggs are sometimes six in number, but most commonly four or five; at times as many as six or seven pairs breed in a single tree. " The eggs," Mr. Hewitson remarks, "most nearly resemble those of the Kestrel, being, however, for the most part considerably less; like the eggs of that bird, they are sometimes finely freckled throughout," and sometimes with more or less conspicuous blotches and spots of a darker hue. They are of course of the regular Falcon type, and so far as variation of colour goes, my description of the eggs of F. Jugger (q. v.) will, I fancy, apply more or less to those of the present and other kindred species; according to Mr. Hewitson's figures, the eggs measure 1.48 and 1.59 by 1.2.

Of its breeding about Talien bay, N. China, Mr. Swinhoe had a note in the Ibis for 1861, he said—" This handsome little bird-slayer was not unfrequently met with flying along overhead or hovering, poised in air. Judging from the contents of the stomachs of two I procured, I should say it committed considerable havoc among the Larks and other field birds. It certainly caused considerable consternation whenever it appeared among them. I had an opportunity of observing the nest. of this species twice; one was placed amongst the topmost boughs of a willow, the other in the leafy foliage of some umbrageous tree. The nests are large and round, and built of sticks; resembling somewhat those of the Magpie. When the old birds visited the nest, the young set up a chattering cry." It seems probable, however, that the bird here referred to, is E. Amurensis and not Erythropus (verus).

Mr. Blyth, in commenting on Dr. Jerdon's work remarked " the rufous plumage of the adult female of this species, was unknown to Dr. Jerdon. In confinement, this species and E. Cenchris do not thrive upon meat, but must be fed on a mixed diet, like that commonly given to small insectivorous birds. Dr. Jerdon, it will be observed, agrees with me in referring E. Cenchris and E. Vespertinus to the same minimum division. I cannot help thinking, that all naturalists who are familiar with the living birds, must needs be of the same opinion. These two little white clawed Kestrelets only visit lower Bengal during the rainy season (so far as I have observed), and the same remark applies to Baza Lophotes." The editor of the Ibis in a note to this, pointed out that it would be interesting to ascertain whether the Indian bird was true Vespertinus, the Western form, or Amurensis, the Eastern form, with light coloured under surface to the wings.

The history of this so-called Eastern form is this: Van Rodde, in the 2nd volume of his Reisen in suden von ost Siberien, mentioned that the red-footed Hobbies from Eastern Siberia, had the under surface of the wings either entirely white, or white barred with grey, instead of the uniform deep tint which is found in European examples, and he proposed to distinguish them as var. Amurensis.

This same species, next turned up in South Africa, and the following note by Mr. Gurney (Ibis, 1868) contains much interesting matter in regard to the two species.

" Erythropus Amurensis (Radde,) Falco Vespertinus, var. Amurensis, Radde, Reisen II. p. 102 tab. I. fig. 2 ; Ibis, 1866, p. 119 ; Eastern red-footed Hobby. Iris hazel; eyelids and bare skin, orange; bill, dark orange; black at the tip; tarsi and feet, dark orange.

Numbers of these pretty Falcons may be seen during the summer months about the open downs in the neighbourhood of Maritzburg; but are not, so far as I know, found there in. winter.

They hunt in company, sometimes as many as twenty together, well scanning the ground for grasshoppers, and other insects, of which their food seems almost entirely to consist; they do not generally remain long on the wing, alighting on any low plant, ant-heap, or on the level ground; in twos and threes. They are not particularly shy; one may get within fifty yards of them without much difficulty. They seem to prefer marshy ground to hunt over.

The very curious circumstance of the occurrence in southeastern Africa of this species, which had previously been known only as an inhabitant of Amuria and of Northern China, has been already mentioned in the Ibis (loc. cit.) where a brief reference to the specimens sent from Natal by Mr. Ayre was made.

These specimens were three in number, two males and one female, all, I believe, adult. I have also received from my friend, Mr. Anderson, an adult male obtained at the Kuysna, on the south-eastern coast of the colony of the Cape of Good Hope ; and I have had the opportunity of examining a female specimen in the British Museum, procured in South Africa by Mr. Charles Livingstone, and believed to have been obtained near the River Shire.

The examples from South-east Africa appear to me to be specifically identical with specimens of both sexes in the Norwich Museum obtained in Northern China, consisting of a male and female from Yoon Ying, near Pekin, and of two males from the neighbourhood of Talien Bay.

The question whether the red-footed Hobby of India, belongs to the present species, or to its Western congener, Erythropus Vespertinus, is one which, in the absence of Indian specimens, I am unable to decide, and to which I would beg the attention of ornithologists resident in that country* (Ibis, 1866, p. 119).

With regard to the distribution of E. Amurensis in south. Africa, I may add that Mr. Anderson informs me, that he has obtained one example in Damara Land; where, however, E. Vespertinus is the common species, and is indeed so numerous, that in a letter, dated 16th February, 1866, Mr. Anderson writes to me, that it appears during the wet season in incredible numbers ; they then come, not by thousands, but literally by tens of thousands.

Of the specific distinction between E. Amurensis and E. Vespertinus 1 cannot entertain the slightest doubt. The adult male of the former differs from that of the latter, in having the under wing coverts of a pure white, instead of a slaty black, as well as in the slightly darker colouring of its upper parts. The female of E. Amurensis differs from the female of the other species, in the absence of rufous colouring on the head, neck and under parts, except the thighs and under tail coverts, which are rufous in it, as in the female of E. Vespertinus, and also excepting a very slight rufous tinge on the sides of the neck and throat, and on the under wing coverts, near the carpal joint. The plumage of all the under parts in the female of E. Amurensis, excepting that of the throat (which is pure white) the thighs and the under tail coverts, is strongly marked with ovate and sagittate spots of dark slaty black on a white ground; which markings assume a transverse form on the under wing-coverts and lower flank feathers, and produce a general appearance of the under parts considerably resembling the front view of the adult common Hobby (Hypotriorchis Subbuteo)."

I have been unable to ascertain to which form our Indian species belongs, perhaps both forms occur. It is to be hoped that some of my numerous coadjutors will make a point of securing good specimens. They seem tolerably common in some localities. Mr. R. Thompson writing from Kumaon, says—

" Whilst up under the snow line in the month of September, I observed large parties of these birds hovering about catching insects, and occasionally alighting on the ledges of rock. Eight to twenty birds have been seen together hovering about like swallows. In October last year, I saw several hovering over the Nynee Tal valley, and remember later, seeing one down in the plains."

Per contra, Dr. Stoliczka writing from the Hills north and east of Simla, tells us, that this species is rarely seen in the interior of the Himalayas, and then only in the lower Hills.

There is this, however, to be said; Yarrell informs us, that this species " is a native of Russia, Poland, and Austria from whence it passes southward" and westward to the shores and islands of the Mediterranean. It undoubtedly occurs in Turkey in Asia, Palestine and northern Africa, and at least as far south on that continent as Damara Land. But I can hear nothing of its having been found in Mesopotamia, Persia, Cabool, or Kashmir and even westward of the Granges, it seems very rare. At Darjeeling, at certain seasons, I am assured that it is common ; Mr. Thompson tells us the same from Kumaon; in lower Bengal too it is reported plentiful during the rains. The bird is strictly migratory with us, coming in during and after the rains, when insect-life most abounds, and I apprehend, that it is chiefly eastward of the Granges where vegetation is more luxuriant, and where the plains below the Hills afford a better supply of insect food than the comparatively arid tracts of the North West Presidencies, and the Punjaub, that the great mass of the birds cross the Snowy Range. Should such be the case, there is an additional probability in favour of our bird proving to be Amurensis.

Dr. Jerdon's descriptions of this bird are rather meagre, and I therefore proceed to quote Mr. Yarrell's, which appear unusually full and satisfactory.

" After their first change, the plumage of the males is much more uniform than that of the females. In the adult male, the base of the beak is yellowish white, the other part, dark horn colour; the cere and eyelids, reddish orange; the irides, dark brown; the head, neck, beak, upper surface of the wings and tail, the throat, breast, and belly, of a uniform dark lead colour; the thighs, vent, and under tail coverts, deep ferruginous; the legs and toes, reddish flesh colour ; the claw, yellowish white, with dusky tips. The whole length of the bird eleven inches.

" The plumage of the young males, before their first change, is similar to that of young females, which will hereafter be described. At their first change, they become of a uniform pearl grey; the thighs and flanks, ferruginous ; beak, cere, eyes, legs, toes, and claws, as in the old male. The vignette is taken from a young male bird, that has nearly completed his first change, but still retains a portion of the barred appearance of his first livery on the outer or distal part of the wing, on the lower part of the beak and the tail feathers, the central pair only of which are as yet mottled.

" The adult female has the beak, cere, irides, legs, &c., as in the male ; the head and back of the neck reddish brown ; the eye surrounded with dusky feathers almost black; the whole of the back, wing coverts, and tail feathers, blackish grey, barred transversely with bluish black; upper surface of the wing-primaries, uniform dusky black. The chin and throat nearly white; breast and all the under surface of the body, pale rufous, with dark reddish brown longitudinal streaks; the thighs and their long feathers plain rufous; under wing coverts rufous, with transverse bars of dark brown ; under surface of the wing primaries, blackish grey, with numerous transverse bars of bluish grey; under surface of the tail feathers bluish grey, with nine or ten transverse bars of bluish black ; the bars increasing a little in breadth as they approach the tip.

" Young females have the top of the head reddish brown with dusky streaks; the eyes encircled with black, with a small black pointed moustache descending from the anterior part of the eye; ear coverts white; upper surface of the body, dark brown, the feathers ending with reddish brown ; wing primaries, dusky black ; the inner edges and tips, buffy white ; the tail feathers, dark brown with numerous transverse bars of reddish brown; throat, white: sides of the neck, the breast, and all the under surface of the body, pale, reddish white, with brown longitudinal streaks and patches on the breast; the thighs and their long feathers, uniform pale ferruginous ; beak, cere, irides, &c, as in the adult female."

* Since the above was written, Mr. G. R. Gray has been good enough to tell me of a specimen in the British Museum brought from Nepal, which I agree with him in considering an immature female of E. Amurensis.

My Scrap Book
Hume, Allan Octavian, ed. My Scrap Book: Or, Rough Notes on Indian Oology and Ornithology. Vol. 1. 1869.
Title in Book: 
19. Erythropus vespertinus
Book Author: 
Allan Octavian Hume
Page No: 
Common name: 
Ingrian Falcon Lath
Red-footed Falcon
Falco vespertinus
Vol. 1
Term name: 

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