39. Spilornis cheela

No. 39. Spilornis Cheela, DAUDIN.


This very handsome bird, which should perhaps more properly stand as the Indian Harrier Eagle, breeds throughout the Sub-Himalayan ranges and regions, as far west at any rate as Kangra, at heights of from 2500 to 5500 above the sea level, laying in March, April and May.

The nest is, I believe, always placed on trees in the immediate vicinity of water, not at the top of the tree, but in some fork, as Capt. Cock says, " like the common Kite."

It is circular, loosely made of thicker or thinner sticks and twigs, and lined with fresh leaves or fine twigs, and roots of grass; it varies in size from 1.5 to 2 feet in diameter and from 4 to 8 inches in thickness.

They lay, I believe, usually only one egg, but in the Dhoon, where they are plentiful, natives assert that they not unfrequently have two young ones, and must therefore, if this be true, occasionally at least lay two eggs.

The only two eggs that I have yet seen of this species, both of which were taken by Capt. Cock near Dhurumsalla, differed much in appearance. The one, though considerably larger than average specimens, and with a closer and less chalky texture, greatly reminded one of a common type of the eggs of Neophron Ginginianus; while the other, though of course smaller, in shape and richness of colouring, resembled some of the more brilliantly coloured eggs of the Golden Eagle, such as Mr. Hewitson's second figure, in his third edition. The first egg had a dingy reddish white ground, with at the large end a ragged cap of dingy brick red, mottled with deep, blackish, blood-red. Beyond the cap, which was of the size of a rupee, streaks, specks and splashes, all having a longitudinal direction and looking much like a dense reddish brown shower falling from the cap, thickly covered the whole of the rest of the egg, growing less and less dense towards the small end.

The other had a pure white ground, and was thickly blotched, mottled and clouded with the richest blood and brick red. The big end for the space of about a rupee exhibited no markings, but a few specks and spots, and though the rest of the egg is every where pretty thickly covered, the markings are most dense at the small end. In shape, the one egg is a nearly perfect ellipse, slightly pointed towards the small end, but the other egg is a very broad oval, very obtuse at the large end and scarcely less so at the smaller extremity.

These two eggs measure 2.8 by 2.25 and 2.79 by 2.15. Capt. Cock, of Dhurumsalla, to whom I owe these eggs and many others, as well as much valuable information, sends me the following note in regard to the nidification of this species.

" I have taken, or rather found, four nests of this species in the neighbourhood of Dhurumsalla, at heights of from 4000 to 4200 feet above the sea. The first, which I found on the 3rd of April, contained one semi-incubated egg, and was placed on a Mangoe tree, one of a clump of four, situated on the banks of a stream in tolerably well-wooded country. The second, found April 8th, contained one hard set egg, and was also in a Mangoe tree, one belonging to a small grove, overhanging a tiny stream, in a dark, well-shaded situation.

" The third, found April 11th, contained a perfectly fresh egg, it was in a thick grove, beside which a stream runs, and in which two old nests of this same species were also found.

" The fourth contained no egg, but on the 19th of April was complete and ready to lay in; this too was in a grove, overhanging a stream.

" The nest is about half way up the tree, not on the top, but placed more like the nest of the common Kite, on some fork.

" It builds a peculiar and not very large nest. The nests are always made of the twigs of the tree on which it is placed, fresh twigs broken off by the bird, and the lining of the nest is of leaves of the same tree. No feathers, mud or other material are used in the construction of the nest, which is about 1.5 feet across; the hollow in which the eggs are laid, is rather deeper than is usual with birds of this class.

Capt. Hutton sends the following note:

" Spilornis Cheela. The nest was found on the 10th of March at 5500 feet of elevation; it was composed of dry sticks and small branches interlaced on a tall tree; on visiting it again, we found that some mischievous urchin had pulled it to pieces, which they are constantly in the habit of doing. This bird is common both in the Dhoon and hills, and where a pair take up their quarters, no Fowl or Pigeon can escape; I have had a Dove cot cleaned out over and over again by them. They are cunning hunters, one sweeping over the hill side at no great elevation, while the other takes a higher line, so that let the Pigeon ascend or descend, he always finds himself between two fires, and unless he can find shelter in a tree, he is sure to be caught, as the pursuers decrease the distance between their lines and meet their victim at the point.,, Mr. Thompson says - :

" This species breeds from April to June, building a coarse circular nest some two feet in diameter, composed of thick roots and stems, and lined with finer twigs and grassroots. The nest is usually placed on lofty trees, in well wooded, shady and watered ravines, or in the low Himalayan rice-lands and warmer valleys.

I have found the nests of these birds in the lower valleys. They contained one young, usually. I have never got the eggs; the young I have reared and kept tame about me. The parent birds often succeed in destroying Pheasants and bringing them to the nest. Snakes, Lizards and Frogs they are very fond of. A young tame one, kept along with two Athena Brahman, one Carrion Crow, and three of the large green Woodpeckers (Gecinus Squamatus) killed and eat every one of the latter, although well supplied with other fresh meat."

Mr. Blyth remarks, that this species will probably be found to extend to all suitable localities, throughout the Indo-Chinese sub-region.

" The true Circaeti frequent dry open country, where they prey chiefly on Snakes and Lizards. The species of Spilornis are found more about wet places, where they Subsist mainly on large Frogs (which they clutch in the mud) and on the more or less aquatic Snakes fas the Tropidonoti and Homolopsides) ; hence their feet are almost always more or less clotted with sediment, which may render them frequent agents for transporting to a distance the germs of aquatic organisms."

He adds, that it abounds in Lower Bengal and along the Terai at the foot of the Himalayas, and that Professor Schlegel notes it from China. " Mr. Gurney observes that S. Orientalis, obtained by Mr. Swinhoe in Formosa, appears to be identical with & Cheela, and that specimens from that. island and from Northern India, are rather larger than those from Southern India, Siam, and the Malay peninsula."

With reference to this latter remark, I note, that Wallace, who gives this species as from Borneo, records the whole length at twenty-three inches; the wing at fourteen, and the tail at nine. Can this be the same species as ours with: a length of 29; wing 21; tail 14 inches ? I have recently killed and most carefully measured several of these birds, and shall, to facilitate comparison, give the results further on.

These specimens I obtained in the Saharunpoor district, along the Western Jumna Canal, where they are excessively common, and where in a morning's walk three or four might be seen, sitting slouchingly, and kite-like, on branches about half way up the tree, not quite at the end of the branch, but about half way between the end and the trunk of the tree.

All the specimens I obtained had eaten small Snakes ; there were fully fifty little Serpents in the stomach of one, things scarcely bigger than large worms, and a gentleman who used to collect for me, sent me a specimen, that he had killed near Syree (below Simlah), along with the skin of a Cobra some two and a half feet long, which Cobra, he wrote to me, he had himself taken out of the bird's stomach, dead, but without marks of injury.

Those interested in Indian Oology are familiar with that remarkable passage in Gould's century of Himalayan birds which runs: " The Hon'ble F. J. Shore gives the following notes, (on Ascalaphia Bengalensis). 'Builds in trees, the nest being composed of large and small sticks, the female laying two large eggs mottled with black, reddish brown and white. Its native name in the Dhoon is Hokra Cheel, the natives considering it among the Cheel or Kite genus, and affirming that it is strong enough, and does, in fact, attack and kill wild Cats.' " Now as A. Bengalensis invariably, like every respectable Owl, lays white eggs, and, to the best of my belief, always on ledges of cliffs or banks, I mentally classed the Honourable author with Le Vaillant and one or two other well known writers of fiction. The other day in the Saharunpoor district, on the borders of the Dhoon, I heard Spilornis Cheela called a Dogra Cheel, and so was able to absolve Mr. Shore of every thing, except writing about what he did not understand..

The following are the dimensions of four of the Sharunpoor specimens: - :

Female.No. 1. Male.No. 2. Male.No.3 Male.No. 4.
Length,................ 29.0 27.5 28.2 26.5
Expanse,.............. 67.5 62.0 63.5 58.7
Wing,................ 21.0 19.5 20.25 19.245
Which primary longest,., 4&5 3&4 4&5
Amount by which other primaries fall short of longest 1st 4.8 1st 4.0 1st 4.4 1st 3.5
Amount by which other primaries fall short of longest 2nd 1.8 2nd 1.3 2nd 1.25 2nd 3
Amount by which other primaries fall short of longest 3rd 0.8 3rd 0.3 3rd 0.3
Length of tail from vent,.. 14.25 12.8 13.2 12.3

But how are we to explain that other stupendous Munchhausenism, which Gould in the same work inserts on this same Mr. Shore's authority, viz. that Ceryle Guttata " constructs its nest among large stones, composed of mud, lined with grasses, adhering to the sides of a stone, similar to the nest of the Swallow, and lays four eggs coloured, like itself;" i. e,, an it please you, black and white ? I should like to see C. Guttata do it! The fact is, this much maligned bird, an orthodox Kingfisher of good connections, lays pure white eggs in a hole in a hank. But how are we to explain this story P what Indian bird P what bird in the whole world I might probably say, lays jet black and satin white eggs P It requires no little charity not to set this down as fiction, pur et simple !

Longest tail feathers exceed No. 1. No. 2. No.3

shortest, ............ 1.85 2.5 0.2 0.8
Tarsus,................ 4.15 3.9 4.3 4.0
Foot, greatest Length, .... 5.6 5.5 5.0 5.0
Foot, greatest width, ............ 4.3 4.0 4.0 4.1
Mid toe, .............. 2.5 2.0 2.25 2.0
Its claw, along curve.... 1.37 1.06 1.25 1.25
Hind toe,.............. 1.0 1.25 0.87 0.87
Its claw, along curve 1.15 1.25 1.5 1.25
Inner toe, 1.45 1.13 1.06 1.25
Its claw, along curve 1.31 1.31 1.37 1.25
Bill, straight from edge of cere to point 1.35 1.32 1.4 1.82
Bill, along curve, ditto, ... 1.56 1.51 1.68 1.5
Bill, from gape, ........ 2.12 1.9 1.95 1.9
Bill, width at gape,...... 1.32 1.2 1.3 1.18
Bill, height at margin of cere, .......... 0.7 0.62 0.7 0.65
Length of cere, ........ 0.4 0.32 0.55 0.32
Closed wings fall short of end of tail,........... 2.3 2.5 3.3 2.5
Lower tail coverts fall short of tail 6.2 5.75 6.4 5.4

The colouring of the soft parts was as follows : Irides, intense yellow; cere, skin of lores and gape, bright, or in some, dingy lemon yellow; legs and feet, pale dingy yellow. Claws, black. Bill, slaty, or pale plumbeous at base, bluish black at tips and on culmen.

Though common near the foot of the hills, this species is rare in the plains of India; Mr Brooks mentions haying shot it in the Baidar jungles and near the Sirsa station, of the East Indian Railway. He shot one too in the Etawah district, near the canal; and Mr. Carleylle, the curator of the Biddell Museum, Agra, shot one at a small tank below the museum; but in the course of twenty years, I have myself never met with one in the plains of India, a hundred miles distant from the foot of the hills.

Of the specimen referred to, Mr. Carleylle sent me the following very full* description. " Male, shot March 1st, 1868, Greatest length of feathers of crest, 3 1/4 inches. The wings reach to within two inches of the end of the tail. Upper surface of the feathers of the head and crest, jet black. Base of the feathers of the head and crest for about two-thirds of their length white. Feathers of occiput, also tipped narrowly with white. Chin, black. Feathers of ears and lores, smoky black; the tips very narrowly mottled lighter.

" There are bristles at the sides of the base of the upper mandible, and in front of the eyes ; and there are still more numerous bristles at the base of lower mandible, at its sides and underneath.

" There is bare yellow skin, above and in front of the eyes, which is of a nearly golden yellow colour, with a very slight greenish tinge, in front of the eyes, and orange yellow above the eyes. Skin at base of lower mandible also bare for a short distance towards the chin, and of a dull yellowish tinge. Eye-lids deep yellow. Irides, bright golden yellow. Upper mandible, dark horn-colour, with a bluish ash-coloured patch at the sides of its base. Cere, yellow. Lower mandible, bluish ash-coloured, with a darker tip. Base of lower mandible, of a dirty yellow colour.

" Feathers of the nape and upper part of the back, hair brown, or, umber brown, mottled towards their extremities, with a narrow edging of a dirty, fulvous ashy-white, or earthy-white colour. Sides of neck, of a dark, or blackish chocolate brown colour. Medial part of back and scapulars, dark blackish brown, very narrowly tipped with fulvous earthy whitish colour. Upper tail coverts, the same colour as the medial portion of the back; but the shorter anterior feathers are tipped with a terminal edging of small white spots, and the longer, posterior feathers are tipped with a narrow white edging. Tail, for about nearly half its length from the base, black, but becoming a little lighter, or of a brownish colour, towards the base; a few of the feathers, near their base, having solitary, exceptional blotches of a light fulvous, or dirty ash colour, mostly on the inner webs. Then follows, towards the centre of the tail, a broad transverse bar, with rather jagged, or undulating edges, which is white, mottled and marbled with ash colour, on the upper side of the tail, and white, marbled white, or watered pearl ash white, on the under side of the tail. Breadth of this bar about two and a half inches. Rest of tail, towards the tip, for about two and three quarter inches, black. The tail is then tipped with ash colour, and finally, (very narrowly), with white.

" The throat and breast have a very finely barred and mottled appearance ; the base colour of the feathers appears to be pale fulvous, which is closely and narrowly barred with dark blackish brown on the throat, and barred with paler brown on the breast. I can best describe the colouring of the throat and breast of my specimen, by saying that it most nearly resembles the style of the colouring of the breast feathers of Syrnium Newarense.

" Feathers of the whole abdomen, sides and thighs, of a bright fulvous colour with a rufescent tinge, paler on the thighs ; each feather with two longitudinal rows of beautiful large oval white ocelli; each ocellus surrounded by an edging of dark, brown; these ocelli very much resembling those which mark the plumage of the Argus Pheasant. The plumage of the abdomen and thighs, is very considerably unwebbed and setaceous, or rather crinose ; the feathers having the appearance of being composed of long, limp, setaceous hairs, (such as the bleached hempen-looking hairs one sees on the sides of the Mongoose and young Porcupine,) and are of an earthy fulvous colour towards the thighs, somewhat tinged with rufescent on the sides of the belly. Under-tail coverts, of a most beautiful bright rufous fulvous-colour ; each feather with two rows of transversely oblong-shaped, jagged-edged, large white ocelli, each ocellus surrounded with an edging of dark blackish brown, shaded off lighter, which gives to these beautiful large ocelli, the appearance of the spots on a Leopard's skin. Some of the central pairs of ocelli are transversely confluent, forming a bar across the feathers.

" Lesser upper wing coverts, blackish brown, sprinkled, here and there sparsely, with rather smallish, clear white spots. Greater upper wing coverts, brown tipped, here and there, with a few white specks. Winglet, (or little false wing) ashy black, marbled with white at the base of the feathers on their outer webs, and with ashy-white on the inner webs. The feathers are plain black towards their termination; the points slightly tipped with pure white.

" The primary feathers have their quills of an umber brown colour. Outer webs of the primaries, for half their Length, brown. Inner webs ashy brown, marbled with white and ash colour ; the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth quill feathers having, on their inner webs, on the upper side, only at half Length, a large conspicuous light spot, half white towards the edge, and half ash colour towards the quill. Then there follows next below this, a broad nebulous fulvescent, or fulvous ashy coloured bar, about three inches in breadth, which crosses the whole seven primary feathers ; on the under side of the wing, this bar is of a whitish ashy colour. The remainder of the primary feathers, for about four to four and a half inches to their tips, are black or dark blackish brown ; the first primary, which is much shorter than the rest, is very slightly tipped at the very apex with white; the fourth, fifth, and sixth primaries, narrowly tipped with white; the second and third not tipped, but ending black.

" The same description will almost answer for the secondaries. With regard to the tertiaries, I mentioned before a fulvous ashy bar as crossing the whole of the primaries: this bar continues across the secondaries also; but when it reaches the tertiaries, only the outer webs receive the termination of the bar, which is here much darker, with a rufescent tinge, while the inner webs (in the same line) are very conspicuously marbled and mottled with white. Under side of the wings, at about one quarter of their length from the tips, crossed entirely from side to side, with a broad pearl-ashy white bar, which becomes somewhat mottled on the under side of the secondaries and tertiaries. Above this, or higher up the under side of the wing, along its centre, a sort of irregular double or treble row of rather smallish white spots traverses, in broken order, the whole wing from side to side.

" Lesser under wing coverts, of a beautiful rufous tawny colour; each feather with two longitudinal rows of clear white ocelli: each ocellus surrounded with an edging of blackish brown. Larger under wing coverts, of a beautiful pearly grey colour, each feather with two longitudinal rows of large oval, and oblong, clear white ocelli; each ocellus surrounded with an edging of crown; some of the central pairs of ocelli, more transversely extended towards each other, than others, so as almost to have the appearance of a sort of broken bar on some of the feathers. These ocelli, on the under wing coverts, are even still more like those on the plumage of the Argus Pheasant. Tarsi naked, with large hexagonal scales and of a dirty earthy yellowish, or pale horn colour, tinged blotchily, towards the lower parts, with a sort of aureous or saffron colour.

"Feet, with smaller scales, and of a dirty yellow colour. Upper scales of toes, very large, and of an aureous yellow colour. Claws, black."

* This may be useful for comparison with the alleged Borneo specimens.

My Scrap Book
Hume, Allan Octavian, ed. My Scrap Book: Or, Rough Notes on Indian Oology and Ornithology. Vol. 1. 1869.
Title in Book: 
39. Spilornis cheela
Book Author: 
Allan Octavian Hume
Page No: 
Common name: 
Crested Serpent Eagle
Crested Serpent Eagle
Spilornis cheela
Vol. 1
Term name: 

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