No. 3. Gyps Fulvus, Gmel.
(Gyps Himalayensis, nobis.) The GRIFFON.*
The large Himalayan Vulture, which Dr. Jerdon and Mr. Blyth identify with Fulvus of Europe and Africa, and which I provisionally (vide infra) designate as Himalayensis, breeds in January, February and March. The nest, a huge platform of sticks, (at times the property in past years of some eagle or falcon, which the early nesting vultures have seized upon, long before the rightful owners have even begun to think of their annual matrimonial duties,) is placed, I believe invariably, on a rocky ledge of some bold precipice in the Himalayas, at least 3000 feet above the sea. I have never yet heard of their nesting on trees. Though generally gregarious in their breeding habits, large numbers rarely appear to breed together. Six is the greatest number of nests I have yet known of, in one single locality. In this respect, they differ from G. Indicus, of which usually from 10 to 30 pairs breed close alongside each other.
The bird lays a single egg; as indeed all true Vultures here invariably seem to do.
The eggs of this species, are larger than those of any of our other Indian Vultures. The two I have, both of which I owe to Captain Cock are ovals: the one a rather long, and the other a broad oval. The texture of the shell appears coarser than that of the eggs of either Indicus, Fulvescens, Bengalensis, or Calms. The ground colour is the usual greenish or greyish white of all the true vultures. The one egg is unspotted, the other is richly blotched and mottled, chiefly towards the small end, with brownish red. The eggs measure* 3.98 X 2.85, and 3.78 X 2.8. I have always myself been too late to get the eggs, though I have often seen the empty nests, and I therefore give Captain Cock's interesting account of the taking of the two eggs I have above described.
" In April, 1867, 1 was at a pic-nic in the Kumara slate quarries (near Dhurmsala), and there noticed a nest of Gyps Fulvus; the old bird was sitting at the time ; the nest was a mass of sticks and dirt, placed on a shelf of rock under an overhanging precipice. Some idea of the magnitude of the precipice I can give you. When standing at the foot I could not nearly fling a stone up to where the nest was, and yet it was more than half way down from the top. I got long ropes and hill-men, and a venturous plain's-man ! (hill-men would not look at it) went over. After dangling in mid air for some time, he contrived to get hold of a creeper with his toes, and by means of that, pulled himself on to the ledge; then creeping along the ledge, he got to the nest, and went quite close to it; the vulture at last flew off, leaving a young one covered with dingy yellow down, and looking like a huge gosling. I left the young one, and took measures for securing the eggs in 1868. On the 25th February, I went out, and saw that this year there were two nests on the ledge. I then on the 28th February, got long ropes reaching from the top of the precipice to the bottom, and with the aid of a long bamboo with a bag at the end, we fished the eggs out of the nests; a man having been pulled up from below for that purpose. There was only one egg in each nest." Captain Cock found the birds breeding earlier in 1869 than in the previous year. On the 20th February he found 4 nests, one had an egg, in the other three the old birds were sitting close. Next day, taking ropes and men, he visited the nests. In No. 1, the egg had hatched off, No. 2 contained a young one of some 5 or 6 days old, and No. 4 one fully a week old, No. 3 alone contained an egg, and that even would have hatched off, probably in another day, and contained a live fully-formed chick.
It seems, even to myself, a piece of presumption on my part to say so, but it is nevertheless, I believe, an incontestible fact, that both Mr. Blyth and Dr. Jerdon have erred in giving us only 3 Indian species of Gyps instead of 4, as there really are.
It does seem at first sight absurd to assert, that after all these years, during which ornithology has been studied in India, a species of such a genus should have escaped notice, but both Mr. Blyth and Dr. Jerdon give us only 3 species, while clearly, and unmistakably there are 4. Our four vultures of the genus Gyps are these : - :
1st - :The large Pale Himalayan Bird,, which is usually identified with Fulvus, but from which, it seems to me that, (if there be any faith in figures and descriptions) it materially differs. This, however, will be settled when the specimens I am sending home have been compared with European examples. For the moment I provisionally designate it as G. Himalayensis.*
2nd. - : The large fulvous vulture of the plains which, though smaller, approaches V. Monachus or G. Himalayensis in size, and which I need scarcely therefore say, is not the true G. Indicus of Scop, and Lath. (V. Tenuiceps et Tenuirostris, Hodgson.) This is the bird which possibly Dr. Jerdon has measured as " Gyps Indicus, the long-billed brown Vulture," the measurements given by him for that bird, being much too large. The true G. Indicus, is a bird but little exceeding G. Bengalensis in size, though differing from it widely in structure. The large fulvous Vulture of the plains, (which I have shot all over the N. W. Provinces, Punjab and Rajpootana) is, as already remarked, decidedly a somewhat smaller bird than G. Himalayensis, and the plumage differs, toto coelo, as I shall hereafter notice.
The bill of the plains bird is decidedly shorter and stouter than that of its Himalayan congener. As regards the claws, when I had only a few specimens of each before me, I thought that those of the plains bird were decidedly less curved ; but in these, as well as other species, the comparison of large series, shows that the variation, in the comparative thickness, bluntness, sharpness and curvature of the claws, in different examples of the same species, is too great to render any useful generalization in regard to them possible.
This plains bird more resembles the descriptions of the true Fulvus, than does Himalayensis, especially in the much greater quantity of down on the head, face and neck, but it almost entirely wants the white down ruff running round the back of the neck, the lanceolate fulvous feathers springing almost directly out of the bare back of the neck. This, however, may have little significance, because, figures are generally taken from individuals in confinement; and birds of this family, well fed in confinement, on good food, notoriously throw out finer ruffs, and assume in many cases a finer plumage than those in a wild state. But altogether the bird strikes me as far more rufous and less stoutly built, than the true Griffon, and until, by the identification of the specimens which I send home, the matter can be settled, I provisionally designate our bird as G. Fulvescens. This may be the bird (I have never seen the figure) figured by Temminck (Pl. Col. 26) as G. Indicus ; but if so, the name having been, previously, I believe, appropriated to the species, which I shall next notice, (Gyps Indicus, Scop.) it cannot stand. Perhaps our Bird is identical with G. Rueppelli from Abyssinia, or G. Vulgaris of Savigny (if these be, as I believe, synonymous); or with G. Kolbii, which, however,both Mr. Gurney and Mr. Blyth, I believe, unite with true Fulvus ; or it may be some other already known African species. In the absence of European and African specimens to compare it with, I am unable to decide, but so far as I can make out, it has not hitherto been discriminated in India, as a separate species*, and therefore, for the moment, I designate it G. Fulvescens.
3rd. - :Gyps Indicus (Verus) Scop. The real slender-billed, or long-billed, brown Vulture, a bird with 14 rectrices it is true, like the preceding, but little larger than, and only about the same weight as G. Bengalensis. I cannot help thinking that Dr. Jerdon has described the immature bird of this species, as the young of Bengalensis. He says, p. 10, vol. I. " The young is lightish brown above, the feathers centred paler, quills, tail, and scapulars blackish brown, beneath light brown, the feathers broadly centred with whitish." Now this is an exact description of the immature (I do not mean quite young, but not adult) Gyps Indicus. The young of Bengalensis, is really always a more or less dark brown above and below, and the feathers of the lower parts, are narrowly, and never broadly centred with whitish.
4th. - : Gyps Bengalensis, of which no more need here be said.
I now proceed to furnish exact measurements and a detailed description of G. Himalayensis, which, if really distinct from Fulvus, well deserves the specific name I have proposed, I having observed it myself in, or received specimens of it from, all parts of the Himalayas, from Cabool to Bhootan.
Length, 46 to 49 inches. Expanse, 106 to 110 inches. Wing, 38 to 31. Tail, 15 to 17. Tarsus, 4.25 to 4.8. Mid toe, 4.3, its claw, along curve, 1.5 to 1.9. Inner toe, 2.4 ; its claw, 1.51 to 1.9. Hind toe, 1.75, its claw, 1.5 to 1.9. Bill, from gape, 3.1 to 3.44; straight, from edge of cere to point, 2.15 to 2.25; along curve, from edge of cere to point, 2.56 to 2.7; height at edge of cere, .98 to 1.1; width at gape, 1.8 to 2. Length of cere, 1.13 to 1.2 ; Length of Gonys, 1.25. Weight, 18 to 20 lbs.
The legs and feet are a dingy greenish grey or white. The claws, pale brown. The bill very pale horny green ; dusky just at tip. Cere, rather pale brown. Skin of cheeks and chin pale brownish grey, or dove colour, with a pure blue tinge round the lower half of the eye. The closed wings fall short of the end of the tail, by from 3.5 to 5 inches. The lower tail coverts fall short of ditto by about 2.8 to 4.0 inches.
The 4th primary is the longest. The first falls short of it by from 4 to 5 inches, and the 2nd by from 1 to 2 inches. The shortest tail feathers, (the external ones) fall short of the longest, (the central ones) by from 1.5 to 3 inches. The adult bird has the whole head, cheeks, chin and throat rather closely covered with yellowish white hair-like feathers. The nape, and upper two-thirds of the back, and sides, of the neck, are somewhat thickly covered with yellowish white down. The basal one-third of the back and sides of the neck were bare in all the specimens I have examined, and the front of the neck sparsely studded with star-like tufts of down. The large crop patch, some 8 inches long by 6 in breadth, is densely clothed with small close-sitting pale wood brown feathers. At the base of the back of the neck, rising in all the instances I have seen out of the bare skin, is a ruff of linear lanceolate feathers, about 3 inches in length with very loose, separated, filamentous webs, of dingy buffy white. Upper back, shorter scapulars and wing coverts, (except the larger row), a nearly unichromous pale brown, or whitey brown, many of the feathers inconspicuously paler centred. Mid back pure white, but some of the feathers with a fawn-coloured tinge. Rump and upper tail coverts, more or less fulvous, buffy, or fawny white, (the hue seems to vary in different individuals) some of the longer feathers, much tinged towards the tips, with brownish fawn colour. Longer scapulars and largest wing coverts, deep umber brown, tipped (in the scapulars broadly) with fulvous fawn, and more or less centred towards the tips with the same colour. Quills and tail feathers (the secondaries a shade less deep) deep umber brown ; freshly moulted ones having a purplish gloss, and being perhaps best described as of a deep chocolate brown. The whole of the lower parts, including wing lining, and lower tail coverts, a very pale dingy brown, or fulvous white, some of the feathers especially on the sides, with ill-defined, moderately broad, somewhat paler centres, passing imperceptibly into the tint of the rest of the web.
The tarsus is clad in front, for nearly, or in some cases fully, the upper half, with slightly fulvous white down. The whole of the rest of the tarsus, and the hack of the joint are quite bare.
In the distribution of the down on the neck, in the somewhat elongated bill, in the paler under-parts, with (in the adult) inconspicuous broad paler centerings to the feathers, and in the more pointed character of the feathers of the back, this species approaches the true G. Indicus. As compared with the next species, (Fulvescens apud nos) the somewhat greater size, the sparseness and star-like character of the down tufts about the throat and neck, the paler under surface devoid in the adult of conspicuous narrow pale centerings to the feathers, the looser ruff, longer upper tail coverts, more pointed back feathers, more powerful feet, with more prominent scutae and reticulations, serve amongst other differences to distinguish it.
The young bird differs much in its plumage from the adult. Seen flying at a little distance, it appears of a pale bronze colour, and on the wing, might possibly be mistaken for the young of Monachus. When in the hand, however, there is no mistaking it. In the arrangement of down about the neck and throat, in the colour of the bill, bare skin and feet, and quill and tail feathers, it exactly resembles the adult, but the prevailing hue of all the rest of the plumage is a rich brown, very deep above, somewhat paler below ; every feather, except the greater wing-coverts and larger scapulars, with a broad, central, yellowish brown or fulvous stripe. As in the adult, there is a pure white patch on the upper back extending to the sides of the middle back, but this is usually hidden by the scapulars. The crop patch is a warm brown, much deeper and darker than in the adult. The down-patch on either side of the crop-patch, and the downy covering of the upper half of the tarsus, and the tibia, pure white. The striped appearance above described, extends to the wing-lining, and ruff of linear lanceolate feathers, at the base of the neck behind.
The later secondaries are at all ages very long, and the wings very broad. When the wings are closed in the fresh bird, the longest primaries are surpassed by the longest secondaries.
As far as my experience goes, the feet are always dingy pearly white or dingy greenish white, in this particular, although in none other, approximating to V. Monachus, and differing, apparently, from the G. Fulvus of Europe, the legs and feet of which are given by Yarrell as lead-coloured.
Whether our Himalayan bird be really identical with the G. Fulvus of Europe, Africa and Palestine or not, some notes on the nidification of this latter, which is at any rate a very nearly allied species, will be interesting. Mr. O. Salvin in his 5 months' bird-nesting in the eastern Atlas, has the following remarks on the Griffon Vulture.
" In one instance only did we find an egg and a young one in the same nest; in all other cases, one egg, or one young one, was the invariable number. The eggs appear to be laid in the month of February, as most of the nests contained young in the beginning of April. During the time of incubation, one of the parent birds sits constantly, and if frightened off, returns im¬mediately. The nest is composed almost entirely of sticks, which are used in greater or less abundance, as the situation requires. The eggs obtained from wild birds, generally show indications of natural colouring, in addition to the blood and dirt with which they are usually stained. This colouring is dispersed in faint spots of a reddish hue sometimes all over the egg, but generally at the larger or smaller end. Of the four eggs in my collection, three exhibit traces of this marking. The eggs usually placed in collections are laid by birds kept in confinement, and this colouring is not observable."
The Rev. H. B. Tristram tells us that " The numbers of the Griffon Vultures in every part of Palestine are amazing ; they are found at all seasons of the year. I do not think that I ever surveyed a landscape without its being enlivened by the circling of a party of Griffons. Many colonies of eyries came under our observation in the gorge of the wady Kelt, (the supposed Cherith) near Jericho ; in the cliffs near Heshbon, under Mount Nebo, in the ravine of the Jabbok, in a gorge near Ammam, the ancient Rabbah ; two large colonies inhabit wadys on the north and east sides of Mount Carmel, whence we procured several eggs, but the most populous of all, were the ' Griffonries' in the stupendous cliffs of the wady Hamam, ' the Robber's Caves' to the south-west and in the deep glen of the wady Leimem at the north-west of the plain of Gennesaret. We collected about twenty eggs. In no nest did we ever find more than a single egg, or young bird."
Mr. Tristram further points out the interesting fact, that the Hebrew word " nesher" rendered in our version of the Scriptures " eagles," really, like the Arabic " nissr," refers to the Griffon Vulture, " the most majestic of birds" he remarks " in action and appearance, and the type of the Assyrian deity Nisroch. The expression " who enlargeth thy baldness as an eagle's" (nesher) evidently applies only to the Griffon."
* Should the Himalayan species prove distinct, it should be called the " Himalayan Griffon."
* A third egg since obtained in Kotegurh measured 3.83 x 2.85.