82. THE NICOBAR MEGAPODE.
Megapodius nicobariensis, Blyth.
The hind toe large and placed on the same level as the front toes.
Vernacular Names :—None known.
The Nicobar Megapode is restricted, so far as we know at present, to the Nicobar Islands. Mr. Hume tells us that his party saw and shot them on every single island except the three northernmost: Chowra, Batty Malve and Car Nicobar. With regard to Mr. Hume's surmise that these Megapodes may occur on Table Island, one of the Andaman Group, I am able to state positively that there is not a trace of them on this island now. Captain Shopland and myself visited this island very frequently, in connection with the lighthouse there; we explored every corner of it and collected every living thing we could find, but there were no Megapodes nor even traces of their mounds.
Mr. Hume, who had splendid opportunities for observing these birds, says :— "The Megapode never wanders far from the sea-shore, and throughout the day it keeps in thickish jungle, a hundred yards or so above high-water mark. It never, so far as I observed, emerged on to the open grass hills that form so conspicuous a feature in so many of the Nicobars, but throughout the day hugged the belt of more or less dense jungle that in most places along the whole coast supervenes abruptly on the white coral beach. At dusk, during moonlight nights, and in the early dawn, glimpses may be caught of them running about on the shore or even at the very water's edge, but during daylight they skulk in the jungle.
"They are to be met with in pairs, coveys and flocks of from thirty to fifty. They run with great rapidity and rise unwillingly, running and flying just like jungle hens. They often call to each other, and when a party has been surprised and dispersed, they keep on talking to each other incessantly, half a dozen cackling at the same time. The note is not unlike the chuckling of a hen that has recently laid an egg. . . . When by any fortunate chance you can get them, they they are very easy to shoot. ... As game they are unsurpassed. The flesh, very white, very sweet and juicy, loaded with fat, is delicious."
Concerning the remarkable nesting habits of these Megapodes I shall quote from the late Mr. Davison's remarks :— " I have seen a great many mounds of this bird. Usually they are placed close to the shore, but on Bampoka and on Katchall I saw two mounds some distance inland in the forest. They were composed of dried leaves, sticks, etc., mixed with earth, and were very small compared with others near the sea-coast, not being above three feet high and about twelve or fourteen feet in circumference; those built near the coast are composed chiefly of sand mixed with rubbish and vary very much in size, but average about five feet high and thirty feet in circumference; but I met with one exceptionally large one on the Island of Trinkut, which must have been at least eight feet high and quite sixty feet in circumference. It was apparently a very old one, for from near its centre grew a tree about six inches in diameter, whose roots penetrated the mound in all directions to within a foot of its summit, some of them being nearly as thick as a man's wrist. I had this mound dug away almost to the level of the surrounding land, but only got three eggs from it, one quite fresh and two in which the chicks were somewhat developed. ... I made careful enquiries among the natives about these birds, and from them I learnt that they usually get four or five eggs from a mound, but sometimes they get as many as ten; they all assert that only one pair of birds are concerned in the making of a mound, and that they only work at night. When newly made, the mounds (as I was informed) are small, but are gradually enlarged by the birds. The natives never dig a mound away, but they probe it with a stick or with the end of their daos, and when they find a spot where the stick sinks in easily, they scoop out the sand with their hands, generally, but not always, filling in the holes again after they have abstracted the' eggs. . . . The eggs are usually buried from 3 1/2 to 4 feet deep, and how the young manage to extricate themselves from the superincumbent mass of soil and rubbish seems a mystery."
The eggs are usually elliptical in shape, sometimes oval, and very large for the size of the bird. The shell is enveloped in a thin chalky flake which is of rather a "bright pink colour and is easily scraped off. Where scraped off, it leaves a pure white chalky shell below. The egg is without gloss and without markings. The eggs vary in length from 3.01 to 3.4 and in breadth from 1.9 to 2.25.
The sexes are alike both in. size and plumage. A band of grey encircles the back of the head. The crown is some¬times denuded of feathers, but when feathered it is, together with the whole upper plumage, olive-brown with a rufous tinge. The wings and tail are dull rufous brown. The lower plumage is grey with a tinge of brown on the breast.
Length up to 17; wing up to 9 1/2 and tail about 3 ; legs greenish horny in front, reddish behind and at the sides; irides light brown; bill yellowish horny ; bare skin of head red. Weight rather more than 2 lb.