(1713) Pseudogyps bengalensis.
THE INDIAN WHITE-BACKED VULTURE.
Vultur bengalensis Gmelin, Syst. Nat., i, p. 245 (1788) (Bengal). Pseudogyps bengalensis. Blanf. & Oates, iii, p. 324.
Vernacular names. Gidh (Hin. & Mahr.); Stigun, Changoon (Beng.); Guli-gadu, Mati-pudum-gudu (Tel.); Walhorya (Yerkli); Karru (Tarn.); Lin-tah (Burma).
Description. Head and fore-neck almost nude, only sparsely speckled with fine yellowish hairs; hind neck with tufts of dirty white downy feathers; interscapulars, scapulars, wings and tail dull blackish, the secondaries and inner primaries generally browner and paler; ruff of short downy feathers, usually lanceolate and less downy on the back of the neck, pale fulvous to pure white, extending round the deep chocolate-brown shirt-front; feathers of the latter indistinctly streaked paler; lower back, rump, upper part of flanks, inner wing-coverts, axillaries and thigh-coverts white; breast, abdomen and under tail-coverts dark brown with pale shaft-streaks.
Colours of soft parts. Iris yellowish-brown or pale brown; bill dark plumbeous or greenish-plumbeous, the culmen greyish or yellowish-white; cere shining horny-black; legs and feet greenish-plumbeous or greyish-plumbeous to almost black; the naked skin of the head and neck is dusky plumbeous.
Measurements. Wing 535 to 578 mm.; tail 217 to 232 mm. tarsus 108 to 124 mm.; culmen 71 to 81 mm.; mid-toe and claw 121 to 136 mm.
Young birds have the head and neck much more covered with hairs and down ; the ruff has the feathers less downy, more lanceolate and much longer and of a darker brown with broader whitish streaks; the lower back and rump, etc., dark brown instead of white and the plumage generally much paler, more brown and not blackish.
Distribution. Common throughout nearly the whole of India and Burma but comparatively rare in the Punjab, Sind and in the desert portions of Rajputana. It also occurs in Siam, the Northern parts of the Malay Peninsula and French Indo-China.
Nidification. This Vulture breeds throughout its habitat from October to February but the great majority of eggs are laid in December and January. The nests are built on high trees round about villages and towns, less often in the open cultivated tracts at some distance from dwelling-places. Favourite trees are Pepul, Banian and Mango trees but all others are used from time to time. Sometimes the nests are solitary but more often several pairs breed near one another and sometimes there are regular colonies. Hume found fifteen nests on one tree, Dodsworth about thirty on a small clump of trees near Kanchrapara, and Scrope Doig forty on some large babool trees on an island in a swamp. These colonies are occupied for many years in succession and the trees get ruined and the surroundings made filthy with droppings, etc. One egg only is laid. Anderson took " three eggs from one nest and two from another, but of course not the produce of the same bird." Most eggs are white, sometimes with a faint grey-green tinge, but a fair number are lightly spotted or blotched with varying shades of red and reddish-brown. Occasionally one obtains a really handsome egg richly marked with blotches and smears of dark reddish and with others underlying of lavender and neutral tint. One hundred eggs measured by myself average 85.8 x 64.2 mm., but sixty-eight measured by Hume average only 82.8 x 61.5 mm.: maxima 107.0 x 66.0 and 90.0 x 69.0 mm.; minima 80-5 x 64.0 and 83.0 x 61.0 mm. Abnormally small but fertile eggs, not included in the above, measure as little as 64.5 x 51.0 mm.
Incubation, I think, takes 45 days, and the chicks grunt and mew in the eggs at least two days before they are hatched.
Habits. This loathsome but very useful bird lives by scavenging only and therefore is most common in the immediate vicinity of towns and villages in the plains of India. It finds its food only by sight and it is extraordinary how quickly kills are found and how, when found, they are devoured. A huge bull Gaur killed by me at 1 P.M., when not a Vulture was within sight of human eye, had nothing left but skin and bones at 4 P.M., when I returned to get the head. All round were Vultures gorged with meat, many on the ground almost unable to fly, others with wings semi-spread perched on the branches of adjacent trees. Possibly 200 birds were present. The majority of these had been led to the kill simply by seeing the first-comers cease their soaring and drop down to feed. They are not guided by the sense of smell, for a dead animal, well concealed by branches, may lie undiscovered until its decay can be smelt by man nearly half a mile away. Like all its kind, in flight this Vulture is majestic and the acme of graceful power but once on the ground lurching about in ungainly hops and runs, squabbling noisily with its mates, playing at tug-of-war with the entrails of some carcase, there are few more repulsive sights. It is an utter coward and beyond caterwauls, squeals and half-hearted pecks at its own fellow Vultures, it utters no protest against any marauding jackal or pariah who drives it away from its meal. It never assaults any living creature for food unless in extremis, when it will attack the eyes and the softer parts of the stomach. When hard pressed it will eat worms, frogs and small lizards and the bigger beetles, locusts, etc. The stench emitted by these birds, even individuals, is very sickening and is very strong also in the nests and eggs.
It does not ascend the hills to any height, though it may make casual visits up to 5,000 feet for the purpose of feeding on car¬cases lying exposed in open land.