No. 6. Neophron Ginginianus, (Lath.)
The white Scavenger Vulture,
Breeds from the latter end of February to the end of April, but the majority I think lay towards the end of March. They nest indifferently, it appears to me, on rocky precipices, earthen cliffs, parapets or cornices of buildings and large trees. I have often found the nests in ledges of the clay cliffs of the Jumna, close to nests containing the young of Bonelli's eagle, or the Jugger Falcon. At Etawah, a pair yearly build on the church tower, at the base of the steeple. On the rocky headland known as the Mata Pahar, which juts out from the southern shore of the Sambhur lake, whose blue waters it overlooks, I found a nest in a cleft of the rock from which I was able to take the eggs, without leaving the pathway, and within two feet of the head of the sitting bird, was a nest containing 3 eggs of Ptionoprogne Concolor. They are far from seeking retirement. They build commonly in trees in the suburbs of towns. Neem, Tamarind, Peepul and Burgut, alike furnishing them with homesteads, and for several years I have noticed a pair building, on a comparatively small tree, in the centre of the busy grain market at Etawah.
The nests are clumsy, ragged, stick structures; platforms slightly depressed towards the centre, loosely put together and lined with any soft substance they can most readily meet with. Old rags are a great stand by. In many parts of the country, way-farers as they pass particular trees, have a semi-religious custom of tearing a strip off their clothes to hang thereon. Who puts the first strip, and why they do it, I have never clearly been able to ascertain, but, once a beginning is made, " one fool makes many" and the tree (usually a Babool) soon becomes loaded with rags and tatters. These are a perfect god-send to the Neophrons of the neighbourhood, whom I have more than once watched robbing these rural " shrines" of their trophies by the score. Sometimes the rags of various colours are laid out neatly in the nest, as if an attempt had been made to please the eye, sometimes they are irregularly jumbled up with the materials of the nest. Cotton wool, old and dirty, stolen I suspect from the old " rizais" or padded coverlids, thrown with half burnt dead bodies into the river, occurs occasionally in great lumps in the nest; and I have several times found nests lined entirely with masses of human hair, which in a country where near relatives shave their heads as a part of the funeral ceremonies, often lies thick in the environs of villages and towns. Sometimes the birds line their nests with green leaves, much as Eutolmaetus Bonelli and many other eagles do. In size, the nests vary from 2 to 3 feet in diameter, and from 4 to 10 inches in depth. Normally they lay 2 eggs, but I have repeatedly found birds incubating a single egg, twice I have found 3 eggs in the same nest, but, in each of these latter cases, one of the 3 eggs was much smaller and feebler coloured than the other two.
In shape, size, and colour these eggs vary much. I have one egg an excessively long pear, another for all the world like a goose's egg, while others again are as round as an egg of the Honey Buzzard's, but the normal shape is certainly a rather broad oval, somewhat compressed towards one end. The texture varies a good deal, in some it is coarser than that of any Vulture's egg, and in some there is almost a gloss, but as a rule the eggs are dull, and of a rather coarse somewhat chalky texture, less compact and indurated than in any of the true vultures. They never have any real gloss, but some exhibit a sort of surface glaze which they lose by washing; as indeed they are apt to do much of their richest colouring. I have seen a very handsome, richly coloured, boldly marked, egg, reduced, by the misguided energy of a fair advocate for soap water, and a nail brush, to a uniform, dull dirty brown.
It cannot be too strongly impressed upon egg-collectors that, with the exception of pure white ones, no egg should ever be washed externally, if it can possibly be avoided. Water removes the colour in many eggs, deadens it in most, and in all renders it more liable to fade.
In colour, the eggs of the present species vary from pure greyish or rufous white, with only a few minute reddish brown specks at one end, to a uniform deep but dingy blood-red, recalling some of the deeper coloured falcon eggs. Between these two extremes, every variation in shade, extent and intensity of markings is found. Every possible shade of brownish red and reddish brown is met with, and every degree of markings from a few distinct scattered specks, to streaks and blotches nearly confluent over the greater portion of the egg's surface or forming a conspicuous cap at one (more commonly the larger) extremity.
There is a common type with a pinkish white ground, minutely freckled and speckled all over with dull brownish red, and then richly blotched and clouded towards one end, (at which the markings are often almost or quite confluent,) with a deep brownish red. Other eggs are uniform pale brownish pink, almost salmon colour, without any deeper coloured markings, while others of the same type have the colour deepening towards one end, or are richly and boldly, or in others feebly and faintly blotched, streaked or clouded with a deeper shade. Some eggs when fresh are excessively handsome and are coloured quite like a honey Buzzard's egg: one I have which might pass, so far as colouring goes, for the Osprey's egg figured by Hewitson, Pl. VI. 1.
They measure from 2.28 to 2.82 in length and from 1.8 to 2.1 in breadth, but the average of 45 eggs measured was 2.6 X 1.98.
I have seen this species fully 8,500 feet high in the Himalayahs. Mr. R. Thompson says : " The Neophrons are to be found breeding in numbers along the precipices which crown the river Kosilla from Khyrna upwards. On the sandstone precipices of the Sewaliks, and those of the Kamaon and Ghurwal outer ranges, numberless nests may be found. One pair breeds yearly on a precipice south-east of Nynee Tal."
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 3rd week of March, eggs two only, shape long oval, size 2.53 to 2.75 inches in length and from 1.84 to 1.90 in breadth. Colour, pale brownish red, thickly blotched with dark brownish red; nest, a few twigs placed in holes of cliffs and difficult to approach." Mr. W. Blewitt records taking some 20 nests of this species in the neighbourhood of Hansee between the 20th of March and the end of April 1868. The nests were all on trees, Peepul, Sheeshum, Bur-got, Neem and Keekur, none were more than 21 feet from the ground and one was at a height of only 12 feet. They varied from 12 to 18 inches in diameter, and from 3 to 7 inches in thickness; some were slightly, some densely, put together, and were composed in almost every instance of small branches and twigs of the Ber and Keekur, both thorny trees. One nest had no lining, the others were more or less lined with straw, feathers, leaves, and rags, one or all, while in many instanoes rags were plentifully incorporated in the body of the structure. Two was the number of eggs in each nest, some of those taken at the end of April were still quite fresh.
There can be little doubt, I think, that the egg figured by Dr. Bree as belonging to Bonelli's eagle, was really a Neophron's.
Dr. Jerdon says that this vulture is common in Egypt, but Mons. Jules Yerreaux long ago wrote out to Colonel Tytler, that the Egyptian species (N. Percnopterus) was distinct from our Indian bird, which therefore stands as N. Ginginianus; and Mr. Blyth remarks (Ibis, 1866), "In the gardens of the Zoological Society there were lately four white Rachamas or Neophrons, one from Africa, and three from India. They were evidently of two distinct specific races. The African (Lev. Ois d'afr. t. 14; Viellot gal. des ois. t. 2 ; Jard, and Selb. Ill. orn. pl. 23; Gould's B. Eur. pi. 3) is larger and more robust, the tarsi and toes conspicuously so. The corneous portion of the bill is black, and the ceral portion is of a reddish yellow, different from the purer yellow of the cheeks ; the talons also are black, and the cuneate tail passes the tips of the closed wings by an inch or more.
In the three Indian birds, the corneous portion of the bill is a pure yellowish flesh colour, as are also the talons; the ceral portion of the bill is of the same yellow as the cheeks, the points of the closed wings just reach to the tail tip ; and a conspicuous fold of skin is continued from beneath the ear to the throat underneath, which is little more than indicated in the African example; moreover the throat is quite bare in the Indian species, thinly clad with short white feathers in N. Percnopterus and with short black feathers in N. Pileatus.
The last appertains properly to the Ethiopian region (south of the Great Desert) the second to the southern half of the Eastern Atlantic region and the first to the Indian region ; other African white Kachamahs I find to have black bills and claws, but not any Indian ; and referring to Vultur Meleagris of Pallas, I remark, that he describes the black billed race as a scarce bird in the Tauric Chersonesus (Crimea) ; while the Indian race is that figured in the collection of drawings presented by Mr. Hodgson to the British Museum. This bird appears to be the Vultur Ginginianus of Latham (Ind. orni. I. p. 7, and Gen. Hist. B. I. p. 27, pl. 5), founded on the " Vautour de Gingi" of Sonnerat (Voy. Ind. II. p. 187)."
I think this matter requires looking into more closely. Since I first saw Mr. Blyth's remarks, I have procured one adult Indian bird with the claws horny black (a peculiarity which he describes as characteristic of N. Percnopterus) and not at all pale yellowish flesh colour ; also a young bird with the corneous portion of the bill almost black, horny black in fact. In Colonel Tytler's Museum, there are two birds, one adult, the other young, also with black claws, and the young with a black bill. True, these latter are dried specimens, and the colours of these parts, may have faded and darkened, but I hardly can believe that the claws have ever been " pale yellowish flesh colour," since the colours of these only change to a certain extent, and not from pale yellow to black. Observers should look closely into this matter, and besides noting these points of colour, &c, record exact and detailed measurements, weight, &c, of every specimen they shoot.
Mr. Tristram, when speaking of birds mentioned in the Bible, remarks " The Hebrew " racham" (Arabic " rakhma") is translated ' Gier-eagle,' but is the universal and exclusive name of the Egyptian Vulture (Neophron Percnopterus) throughout Africa and Western Asia."