(330) Staphida castaneiceps (Moore).
THE CHESTNUT-HEADED STAPHIDA.
Staphidia castaneiceps, Fauna B. I., Birds, 2nd ed. vol. i, p. 310.
The Chestnut-headed Staphida is found throughout the hill- ranges South of the Brahmapootra from Cachar to the Patkoi Hills, where Coltart and I found it breeding. According to Godwin- Austen it was seen by him in the Dafla Hills but Stevens did not get it in the Abor-Miri Hills adjoining them. It is common in Manipur and the Chin Hills, where Mackenzie and Hopwood found it “breeding in numbers in the cuttings of every forest road above 3,000 ft.”
It is a common little breeding bird between 3,000 and 5,000 feet in the Khasia Hills and even more common in the North Cachar Hills wherever there are bridle tracks and paths through the forests which have cuttings or straight banks on one side of them. What this little Babbler did before man started making roads for him is a moot question but, nowadays, it practically never places its nest anywhere else. The quickness with which it finds out that roads are available is really interesting, and in North Cachar a suitable pathway, with a bank, made one year was almost certainly to be found out and occupied the succeeding year. Mackenzie tells me that his experience is exactly the same in the Chin Hills.
The description given by me in ‘ The Ibis,’ 1895, is very full and I can add little to it, and what I said then about forty nests is equally true to-day about four hundred :—
“At least nine-tenths of the nests which I have taken of this little Staphida, and by this time the number must be over forty, have been found in holes in road-side cuttings. Nearly every track in North Cachar has a straight bank of earth on one side from which the soil has been cut away, either to form the road or to lower the level, and in these banks the Chestnut-headed Staphida makes its nest. I have taken them from natural hollows, such as are caused by the falling out of a stone or by the decay of a large root, or from near the entrances of deserted rat-, Kingfisher- or Bee-eater-burrows. Sometimes they will be found just inside rather large holes, part of the material of the nest hanging out and proclaiming its presence to anyone who may approach within a few yards ; at other times it is placed in some hole, the entrance to which is completely screened from view by over¬hanging ferns, moss or weeds. Once I have found the nest among the roots of a laurel-like shrub, and further protected by a large clod of earth which lay above it ; another nest was taken from a hole in a mud wall and two were found in holes in the steep banks of ravines.
“The nest is almost invariably made entirely of the very softest shreds of grass and a material which looks like very silky jute, and is probably the inner bark of some tree ; the lining is of this latter material only. In a few nests I have seen some dead leaves, a few dead brown plant-stems, fern-roots etc., used generally only for the purpose of filling up the gap between the nest itself and the entrance to, or sides of, the hole but, occasionally, for the groundwork of the nest itself, being particularly numerous in the one found in the roots of the laurel.”
The nest is a very compact, well-built little structure with thick closely-woven walls. Outwardly there is practically no shape, this conforming to the hole in which it lies, but the receptacle for the eggs may be said to average some two inches in diameter by rather less than one in depth. I have taken nests measuring as much as 9.3 inches across the external diameter and others well under 2.5 inches, while some are not more than .5 inch deep in the centre of the depression.
The breeding season is from about the middle of April to the end of June, but about two-thirds of the eggs laid are deposited in May. In the Chin Hills Mackenzie found them breeding principally in the end of April and early May.
The number of eggs laid is four, occasionally three, and I have once seen five. The ground-colour of the eggs is almost white but, if the eggs are placed against really white eggs, such as those of King¬fishers, House-Martins, etc., most are then seen to have a very faint greenish tinge and a few a very faint pink tinge. The markings consist of small blotches of vandyke brown or reddish-brown generally scattered fairly freely over the whole surface but more numerous at the larger end, where they sometimes form a very irregular cap or ring. If examined with a glass, the majority of eggs will be found to have a number of small secondary spots of livid grey or lavender but, in some, these are absent, and in no egg at all pronounced. One clutch obtained by me in North Cachar is marked with light reddish and one taken by Mackenzie in the Chin Hills is truly erythristic, the ground being a pale pink and the markings light red. Two other very beautiful clutches have all the blotches gathered in a dense cap at the large end.
In shape the eggs are broad, obtuse ovals. The texture of the egg is fine and close and the surface very faintly glossy.
One hundred eggs average 16.6 x 13.5 mm. : maxima 18.4 x 14.0 and 18.2 x 14.2 mm. ; minima 15.0 x 13.0 and 15.0 x 12.2 mm.
The birds do not sit very close and it is exceptional to get within two or three yards of the nest. As a rule, as one walks along the narrow tracks through the forest, dignified by the name of roads, one sees, some ten yards away, a little bird slip out of the bank, flit along the road for a few yards and then disappear into the forest again. Nor do they return very quickly to the nest when disturbed.
Both birds take part in incubation, which, I think, takes eleven or twelve days. Eggs found and evidently absolutely fresh on the 4th June hatched on the 15th. Another set, with three eggs only, found on the 11th May, when inspected on the 25th had four young looking about 24 to 36 hours old.
330. Staphida castaneiceps Moore
(330) Staphida castaneiceps (Moore).