No. 4. Gyps Indicus, (Scop.)
The long billed Vulture.
This bird breeds in the latter part of December, January, and possibly the early part of February ; by the end of March every egg has been hatched off. It always selects, as far as bird that I had robbed one year, occupied the next by the Grey eagle owl, (Ascalaphia Commando), and once I found a lordly king Vulture in possession of its plebeian brother's former residence.
The nest is a large irregular platform of sticks, sometimes quite at the top of the tree, often wedged in a fork, averaging probably nearly 3 feet in diameter and 6 inches in thickness, but often far exceeding this latter dimension, especially where a deep fork has to be filled in. Not far from Puhpoondh, I made a man measure one in my presence, which was an irregular cone, (the apex downwards) by pushing an iron ramrod through it, and found the depth to be 22 inches ! The materials of the nest appear to be heaped on at random, but in reality they are so carefully overlaid, that it is very difficult to pull out one of the sticks that compose the nest, without pulling the whole fabric to pieces. The shape of the nest depends upon the locality, and is more generally oblong or oval, than truly circular. There is only a slight depression, as a rule, towards the centre of the nest, but I found one nest near Hodul which was a regular deep cup, in which I really think a moderate-sized sheep might have been stowed away. They always line the centre of the nest more or less with leaves, and the peepul seems their favourite. These leaves are green and fresh when the egg is first laid, and before you blow it, you can pretty well guess how long the egg has lain in the nest, by the condition of the lining leaves.
They lay normally a single egg. That 2 eggs may have been found in one nest I will not take upon myself to deny, but I have before me now, notes of eighty odd nests, and besides these, I have had many others examined of which I took no note at the time, and yet I never met with more than a single egg or a single young one in any nest. In colour, the eggs when fresh are dull white, with an excessively pale bluish green tinge. As a rule they are unmarked, but at times they are a good deal tinged and speckled, or even blotched, with darker or lighter shades of reddish brown, most usually I think chiefly towards the large end. The eggs of this species vary to an amazing extent; whether in reality these eggs vary more than those of the other Vultures, or whether it is, that the enormous series of over a a hundred eggs, which I have myself collected, makes the variations more conspicuous, I cannot say, but the fact remains that I have the eggs, of my own taking, of almost (for such a bird) every conceivable size and shape. The cubic contents of one egg (the largest) is certainly 2 1/2 times that of the smallest. One is a perfect pear, another so long an oval, as to be almost cylindrical, and one or two are almost spherical; the normal type, however, appears to be a somewhat broad oval, slightly compressed or pointed towards one end. As a body, they are more oval and less round than those of Calvus, while they are rounder and less oval than those of Indicus. As above remarked, the majority, though often much soiled and discoloured, as incubation proceeds,are of the usual pale greyish or greenish white colour, and unspotted ; but a certain number, perhaps about 1 in 5, are more or less speckled, spotted and blotched, always chiefly towards one end, with pale reddish brown. One egg only, out of more than a hundred that I have, is richly and extensively blotched and clouded, in fact almost capped at the large end with reddish and purplish brown. So discoloured do the eggs sometimes become before they are hatched, that I have one egg, an addled one, stained throughout an almost uniform earth-brown. The texture varies a good deal, but is generally moderately fine, a few exhibit a slight gloss, but mostly they are glossless.
The shell is very thick and strong, and, like that of most other large bird's eggs, (especially those of Cranes and game birds) often has pimply lumps and crease-like folds at the small end. The lining is a rich green. The eggs measure from 3.05 to 3.85 inches in Length, and from 2.25 to 2.8 in breadth, but of 68 eggs measured, 3.26 by 2.42 inches are the average dimensions.
Though the birds are plentiful all over the N. W. P. Rajpootana, and the major portion of the Punjab, they only affect particular localities for breeding. Where large trees abound, and where either cattle are numerous, or a large village ensures a continual supply of offal, their nests will generally be found, but in treeless tracts, like much of the upper Punjab, where cattle are few, and population scant, although the birds (whose powers of flight are, like those of all their kindred, very great), may themselves often be seen, you may search many hundred square miles without meeting with a single nest.
Mr. W. Theobald makes the following note of this bird's breeding in the neighbourhood of Pind Dadan Khan and Katas in the Salt Range. " Lay in the 1st and 2nd weeks of March, eggs, one only, shape, ovate pyriform, size, 3.36 inches by 2.62 inches; colour, dull white. Nest, of sticks and twigs; in large trees."
I give exact measurements taken from several birds and description of a fine male, which I shot on a nest on the 8th March, thus proving that the males participate in the labour of incubation. The female in this case did not return for some hours and when she did, she was apparently so enraged, at finding her egg (which was much incubated) gone, and her husband missing, that she tore the upper part of the nest to pieces, scattering the sticks and leaf lining, here and there, and making a wonderful snorting and hissing all the while. This is not the only instance I have witnessed, of birds tearing their own nests to pieces, in anger at the loss of their eggs, (vide Grus Antigone, No. 833, and for a somewhat similar incident, Falco Jugger, No. 11.)
Length, 33 to 37 inches. Expanse 83 to 88. Wing, 22 to 24; the 3rd primary the longest, the 1st about 2.5 inches, the 2nd about 0.5, and the 4th about 0.13 shorter than the 3rd. Tail of 12 feathers; length from vent, 9 to 11; Tarsus, (in some feathered in front for about half its Length, in some for less than 1/5th), 3.5 to nearly 4 inches. Foot, greatest Length, 7.5 to 8.5; greatest width, 5 to 5.5 ; mid toe, 3.6 to 4.2 ; its claw, straight, 1 to 1.09, along the curve, 1.13 to 1.31; inner toe, 1.69 to 1.9; its claw, straight 1.13, along the curve, 1.44; outer-toe, 1.88, its claw, straight 0.81, along the curve, 1.06; hind toe, 1.38 to 1.7, its claw, straight 1.09 along the curve, 1.3 to 1.5. Bill, straight, from edge of cere to point, 1.8 to 1.9; along curve, 2.19 to 2.31; from gape, 2.65 to 2.9; width at gape, 1.44; height, at margin of cere, 0.87 to 0.97 ; length of cere, 0.75 to 0.81; gonys, 0.97. Weight 9 to 13 lbs. Wings, when closed, reach just to the end of the tail, and the lower tail-coverts reach to within from 1.5 to 2.25 of end of ditto.
The legs and feet are nearly black, but in the live bird are always more or less incrusted with dirt, so as to appear of a dry mud colour, except where on the smooth surfaces of the scales, the horny black shows through. Claws, massive and very blunt, that of mid toe little, of hind toe well curved, in colour blackish horny. Scutellation, reticulate except on ridges of toes, that of mid toe nearly all, and of other toes the terminal half or more, with transverse scales, larger and more strongy marked as they approach the claws. The lateral toes are. nearly equal, the outer being only a little longer, and both are conspicuously short as compared with the central one, outer toe claw as usual very feeble. Irides, brown, eyelids, very pale plumbeous or greyish white, each with a row of short black lashes. Bill, with a trace of two festoons in edge of upper mandible ; cere, short and prominent, horny black, hard, and polished like the bill itself. Greater part of upper mandible, greyish white, with bluish grey tips, and edges dusky. Lower mandible, dingy plumbeous at base, dusky at tip.
The whole head, face, chin, throat and front and sides of the upper two-thirds of the neck, dusky plumbeous with sparse inconspicuous, brownish hairs, which, however, are longer, denser and more conspicuous on the occiput. The upper half of the back of the neck densely clad with soft, velvetty, white feathers. Below this, a prominent white ruff on the back of the neck, extending rather further forward towards the front of the neck than the above mentioned white, velvetty feathers do. The base of the neck, where it joins the back, shoulders, scapulars, tail and upper tail coverts, primaries, and wing coverts, a dull blackish brown. The secondaries, and tertiaries, paler and much tinged, especially on the outer webs, with brownish grey, a trace of which is also visible on the later primaries. The 2nd to the 7th primary, emarginate on the outer web, and the 1st to the 6th, conspicuously notched on the inner web. The rump, and lower back, pure white. The centre of the upper breast, and the lower part of the front of the neck, in fact what is commonly known in vultures as the crop patch, clad with very close, blackish brown, furlike feathers, with a white border of long down on either side, which extends into a sort of triangular patch at each side, at the base of the neck, nearly in the centre of which is a small, round, and quite bare spot, of a dull pinkish hue ; sides, lower breast, and abdomen, and longer axillaries, dark brown, or blackish brown, each feather with a linear or narrow central white stripe, most conspicuous towards the tips. The shorter axillaries, and a patch in the axilla, pure white; edge of the wing, and all the smallest of the lower wing coverts blackish brown; the rest of the wing lining, pure white. Thigh coverts and lower tail coverts, very dark brown ; feathers of interior of thigh, pure white. In a younger bird, the corneous portion of the bill was horny black, paler on the culmen, and towards the edge of the cere. The lores and cheeks were bluish, a patch over the eye, the chin and skin on sides of lower mandible, a sad dove colour, or plumbeous brown. The rest of the bare skin, dingy greenish white, here and there spotted with leaden brown.
The Ibis (1865) notices a paper of Dr. Salvadori, the object of which was to prove the specific distinctness of the white backed Vultures of India and Africa. " The chief differences are thus summarised."
(ex Asia). Gyps, sp.
Beak, thick, yellowish, at the thickest part, at the tip. Beak, compressed, elongated, quite black.
General oolour, black cinereous. General colour, greyish cream.
The name Gyps Africanus, is accordingly bestowed upon the latter by the author, but it appears probable that this application must give way to that of Moschatas, which, according to Von Heuglin (Sitzungsb. A Kad Wien, 1856, p. 256) had been previously bestowed upon it by Duke Paul of Wurtemberg.,, It appears to me that the so-called G. Africanus must closely resemble, if it be not identical with, our G. Indicus.
Dr. Jerdon informs me, that he noticed our bird pairing, in December in the Bijnour district. These birds, he tells me, pair on trees and utter a hoarse roar at the time, which, had he not himself watched them, he could never have believed to have been uttered by a bird; a sound of great volume and sui generis.
There is one point about all these vultures in regard to which I should be glad of information, as although I have closely examined some hundreds of birds, I have not yet been able to satisfy myself thoroughly on the subject. Some specimens of vultures have ruffs of long, very narrow, pointed feathers springing out of the base of the back of the neck, others of the same species, have ruffs of comparatively short thick down, without a trace of a single long pointed feather. I used to think, that these latter were signs of nonage, but I have seen quite young birds, on two occasions, with full down ruffs, and I have several birds manifestly adults, with the long pointed ruff feathers. I cannot make out that it depends on sex, nor that the change is seasonal; but doubtless the real explanation is well known to naturalists, although I have failed to find any mention of it.
* Mr. Marshall I should note, gives the length of the old female shot on the nest as 51 inches, and the weight 19.5 lbs. I have never met with any specimen so heavy or large as this ; hut he may he right.