(495) Saxicola torquata indica Blyth.
THE INDIAN BUSH-CHAT.
Saxicola torquata indica, Fauna B. I., Birds, 2nd ed. vol. ii, p. 28.
At the present time this Bush-Chat has been divided into many races, three of which visit India or breed within our limits, though even in this latter case the birds are migratory. Whether all the birds included under the name indica really belong to that race is very doubtful and Stevens has, I think, no doubt in his own mind that the birds breeding at the base of the Himalayas, say at 4,000 to 5,000 feet, or even less, should be separated from those birds breeding in Western Siberia, Turkestan, Transcaspia and Persia. The birds breeding in the Himalayas at the greater elevations, say 10,000 to 12,000 feet, may belong to the latter race, and it would certainly tax the eyesight of the most inveterate splitter to find any difference. I cannot, myself, find sufficient difference even to separate the low-hills breeding birds, though more breeding material might possibly enable one to do this. The birds actually shot off, or trapped on, their nests are certainly small, very white below and very vividly coloured, but they are almost exactly matched by individuals from the highest ranges. So, for the time being, I unite all our Indian breeding birds under the one name. On the other hand, the fact that these birds breed at the same elevations and same places as the White-tailed Bush-Chat shows that this latter must be given the status of a species and not retained as a race of torquata.
The Indian Bush-Chat breeds throughout the Himalayas at practically all elevations from the lowest foot-hills to 10,000 and even 12,000 feet. Davidson found it common over the greater part of Kashmir but rare above Sonamurg, 8,600 feet. On the West Haring¬ton and Whitehead took nests and eggs at heights between 10,000 and 12,000 feet at Bulta Kundi, in the Kurram Valley, in 1912 and 1914, whilst previously Whitehead had noted them as breeding freely between 5,000 and 7,000 feet and had seen young birds at 9,000 feet.
Its Eastern breeding limits are probably somewhere about Bhutan, as the Indian form certainly occurs regularly and numerously in Dhubri and Gowhati in Western Assam, but not in Eastern Assam, where it is only a casual straggler, as it also appears to be in North¬-West Burma. In Western India they breed in the Salt Range and in the Sulieman Hills and it has been recorded, possibly by mistake, as having nested in the Saharanpur district.
J. P. Mills obtained a Chat breeding in the Naga Hills at 7,000 feet upwards which, at the time, we put down to this race but, in the light of what we know now, I should think was probably P. t. przewalskii, Stevens in many years’ work in Eastern Assam never came across the Western race of this Chat, nor did Coltart' and I in Lakhimpur, though it certainly occurred, even if but rarely, in Cachar and Sylhet.
It is essentially a bird of the open and never breeds in forest of any kind but, very often, it may be found nesting in comparatively thick scrub and bush-jungle on open hill-sides. It breeds freely in cultivated tracts, whether these have a few odd bushes or brambles or only patches of thick grass, and it is common in the wide stretches of long grass so frequently to be seen on many parts of the Hima¬layas. In many places stone walls, standing or broken down, take the place of bushes as breeding places. In reference to these Brooks gives the following interesting account:—
“At Almorah the young of the first broods were fully fledged by the middle of April. On the hills the cultivated land on the hill¬sides is all terraced, and to keep up the earth low retaining walls of dry rubble-stone are built. In course of time these low walls, generally only 3 or 4 feet high, become rather broken and overgrown with grass and plants of different sorts. Sometimes even small thorny shrubs grow from the face of the wall. It is in holes and hollows in these walls that this Stone-Chat delights to build, the situation of the nest being generally near the top of the wall. The nest is always more or less hidden by grass and other plants which grow in the crevices of these walls. It is generally composed of moss, grass, fibres and fine roots, and lined with hair or sometimes feathers, in fact just the nest of the English Stone-Chat. In addition to the terraces on the hill-sides the bird breeds on open uncultivated hill-sides, where the ground is pretty well overgrown with stunted bushes which resemble the English blackthorn.”
Probably the favourite site for the nest is either at the foot of some bush, or a few inches off the ground in its thickest growth, wedged in among the twigs. Very often, too, it is placed in hollows, or even holes, in grassy banks and, wherever placed, is nearly always very well concealed.
Among other unusual places Hume took nests from walls of broken-down cattle-byres and once from the debris of an old and forgotten culvert.
The nest is cup-shaped, fairly compact and well put together when built in grass or bushes, more loosely and shapelessly put together when placed in holes in walls or banks. The chief material used is grass, generally coarse, but sometimes mixed with finer and often with a little moss, a few leaves, odd fibres and roots. The lining is nearly always of hair but sometimes of fur, or fur and hair mixed, whilst there are generally a few feathers mixed in as well. Occasionally the whole lining is of feathers and, in such instances, many more are used and only soft ones selected for the purpose.
The breeding season is very extended. Hume says “April and May seem to be the months in which they mostly lay ; but they have certainly two and, possibly, three broods, and I have had eggs sent me in from Koteghur as early as the first week in March and as late as the middle of July.”
In Murree Rattray took more eggs in May and June than earlier in the year, most of his nests being found round about 6,000 feet. From the Woolar Lake in Kashmir I have had eggs sent me which had been laid in each month from early April to late July.
The number of eggs laid in India is four or five, more often the latter than the former, whilst farther North the usual number seems to be six.
The ground-colour is a light, rather greyish-green blue, some¬times very dull and grey, occasionally fairly bright and more blue. They are freckled faintly but rather profusely with pale reddish, these marks practically coalescing in a well-marked ring round the larger end in four eggs out of five. In some clutches the markings are obsolete except for the rings and a few freckles inside the rings, the ground-colour showing up well and giving a much brighter tone to the egg. One clutch of four eggs in my series has no markings, and the ground-colour is a comparatively clear blue- green.
In shape the eggs are broad blunt ovals ; the texture is fine but the surface is glossless, except in the lightest-marked eggs, which have a faint gloss.
One hundred eggs average 16.9 x 13.5 mm. : maxima 18.5 x 14.0 and 16.2 x 14.5 mm. ; minima 15.4 x 13.0 and 15.8 x 12.6 mm.
So far as has been recorded the male bird takes no part in incuba¬tion, whilst I can find nothing in regard to which sex is responsible for the construction of the nest.
Incubation takes thirteen days.
The display of the male is very like that of the Bush-Chat. consisting of love-flights with distended plumage, which strengthens the contrast in colours and shows off the white to a greater extent.
495. SaxiCola torquata indica
(495) Saxicola torquata indica Blyth.