Vernacular Names.— [Ker mor, Guzerat; Tun mor, Deccan and Marathi Districts; Chini mor, Belgaum; Khartitar, Bheels ; Likh, Chota Charat, N. W. Provinces ; Charas, Chulla Charas, Southern India; Kannoul, (Canarese) ; Niala nimili, (Telugu) ; Wurrgu Koli, (Tamil); Bursati, or Kala Tugder, Rohtak, Gurgaon.]
FIND great difficulty in defining the limits within which & the Lesser Florican occurs ; firstly, because it is irregularly migratory, and secondly, because individual birds straggle in the most unaccountable manner hundreds of miles beyond the furthest districts which it at all regularly visits.
Dr. Jerdon tells us that " this species is found throughout India, from near the foot of the Himalayas to the southernmost districts ;" but this conveys, I think, a somewhat erroneous idea of its distribution, which is not nearly so wide as this might seem to imply.Although a certain number are probably permanent residents of Khandeshs Ndsik and Ahmednagar, the real home of the Lesser Florican is in the drier portions of the Peninsula lying east of the Western Ghats, and south and east of the Goda-vari.
It is, of course, confined to plains and open country, and does not ascend any of the hills, though a single specimen was once killed, I hear, on the slopes of the Nilgiris between Neddiwattum and Pykarra, going down to the Wynad.During the rains when it breeds, although many breed in the Deccan, as, for instance, about Sholapur, the majority, I think, move northwards and westwards, extending over the western parts of the Central Provinces, the Central India Agency, the southern and central portions of Rajputana, Khandesh, Guzerat, Cutch, Kathiawar and Southern Sind.
The migration is, however, irregular, as in some years it extends much further than in others. The birds are plentiful in one year, where in the next none or very few are to be met with.In years when the rainfall is plentiful, they are pretty common during the monsoon a little south of Delhi in Rohtak and Gurgaon. Generally, there are a good many about Jhansi and so on, but, except as stragglers, they are not found in those parts of the country that I know further north than a line joining Sirsa and Delhi, nor do they cross the Jumna in any numbers.
Although I have known single specimens killed near Luck-now, Sultanpur, and other places in Oudh; though I have myself shot single birds occasionally in the Meerut and Etawah districts ; though Ball got a specimen in Sirguja, Hodgson others in the valley of Nepal*; though Jerdon says he has known of their occurrence in Purneah, and Parker tells me they have occurred in Nuddea ; though one specimen has been killed on the Mekran coast near Gwader, and another at Sandoway in Arakan, I. do not, as at present informed, consider that either Beluchistan, the Punjab, the North-Western Provinces, north and east of the Jumna, Oudh, Chota Nagpore or any part of Bengal, or the countries eastwards, can be properly included within its normal range.It occurs nowhere out of India.
The black plumage assumed by the male in the breeding season (so different from its brown cold weather suit, which is like the female's,) and its migratory habits (sportsmen in one place never meeting with black males, and in others seeing none but these) led in past times to the belief that there were two distinct species. Jerdon, however, conclusively disposed of this error, and it is needless perhaps to allude further to it here. Slightly undulating plains, covered by patches of grass and low scrub jungle, are the favourite haunts of the Likh, but during the cold season they are often found feeding in millet fields and others in which the crops are not too high or dense.
Owing to the unsportsmanlike manner in which these beautiful birds are massacred during the breeding season, they are everywhere diminishing perceptibly in numbers, and will, in another half century, be, I fear, almost extinct,
Mr. Davidson writes :— " The Lesser Florican is much commoner than the Bustard in the Deccan, but it also is diminishing very fast, and in Sholapur we could notice a diminution yearly." And so write a dozen others, who still stick to the infamous poaching so universally practised. Get them in the cold season in short grass or springing crops, young wheat about a foot high for instance, and they are about the most difficult bird I know to get near. In fact, on several occasions I have found itimpossible to shoot them in any other way than by lying down behind some bush, and having them driven over me. There is some little sport in shooting them thus, but as for the common practice of butchering breeding birds, it is a disgrace to our country, which all true sportsmen should band together to suppress. Captain Butler writes:—" For my part, I have always protested against the wholesale destruction of these fine birds in the breeding season, and tried very hard, when I was in Deesa, to persuade sportsmen (!) to spare the hens. But it was of no use ; they argued that, ' if they didn't shoot them, some one else would; and consequently the Florican were shown no mercy.
" The usual method of shooting them is to walk them up in line, when they rise usually within easy shot. They are easily killed, and I have seen longer shots made at Florican than any other bird I know. In fact they drop if you fire at them at almost any possible distance (provided, of course, you hold the gun straight). At times, however, after being marked down, they are very difficult to find, as they commence running the moment they alight, and often get 200 or 300 yards away before you reach the spot where you have marked them down. But for this, scarcely a bird would escape.
" In the breeding season the cock birds, for some conjugal reason, indulge in an amusement called ' jumping; and it is in this way that their whereabouts are usually discovered.
" Shikaris go out and watch the grass preserves in the early mornings from some elevated spot, and can tell almost to a single bird how many Florican there are on the ground.
"The operation of' jumping' is as follows: About every quarter of an hour, sometimes oftener, the cock birds suddenly rise up out of the grass to a height of six or seven feet, utter a peculiar croak, and descend into the grass again with outspread wings, making a drumming sound as they descend. Unless disturbed, they always remain about the same spot, so that, by sending a ' shikari to mark them down in the early morning when they are 'jumping; you know exactly where to find them in the day time, " About Deesa eight to nine brace in a day was, I think, the largest bag that was made during the three years I was there, but in Kathiawar, about Rajkot, bags of as many as eighteen and twenty brace are occasionally still made in a day."
Mr. James says :—" The ordinary way in which a single gun pursues Florican is to walk through the grass, with a few beaters, listening for the cry of the bird and following it ; in this way the bird can be tracked for a considerable distance. Before very long the bird will be seen jumping up above the long grass, as some think to pick grasshoppers off the stems. The best way then is to run as hard as possible up to the place when the bird will rise. They drop very easily to shot, but when once flushed are difficult to flush again.
" The largest bag I ever knew of was one of ten couple shot by four guns in the Eklagan Kuran, near Dharangaon, in Khandesh.
" Pardis, the professional poachers* of the Deccan, snare them along with Partridges and Quail, simply by setting a rope of snares down the grassy bank of a dry nalla and then beating the bushes.
" It is perfectly true that sometimes the effects caused by eating Florican's flesh after they have been feeding on blisterflies are most painful and disagreeable. I myself have suffered from this cause."
As a bird for the table (setting aside exceptional cases like this), they vary very much; they are never to be compared, I think, to a fine Bengal Florican, and I have often found them dry and hard, much like a Blue Pigeon.
" Mr. Davidson says :—Florican are found sparingly in Mysore, but I only saw one on two occasions in the Tumkur district, during last year. It is a migrant during the rains to Western Guzerat, where it is remorselessly shot down while breeding, but apparently avoids the Panch Mahals almost entirely ; at least only one specimen has been secured there during the last few years.
" They are ordinarily shot in the Deccan in the long grass bhirs, being flushed by a line of beaters, the guns walking along with the beaters. In the breeding season the cocks are sometimes shot in the following way:—In the early morning the gunner, for one can hardly call him a sportsman, goes to a bhir, where he knows there are birds, and waits tell he sees one jump up in the grass and cry. He then stalks within 50 or 60 yards, and again waits till the bird jumps and then runs as fast as he can towards the spot. The bird generally rises 30 or 40 yards off, and there is a fair amount of excitement, if not of sport, in shooting them this way."
Dr. Jerdon says:—" I have found the cock bird commencing to assume the black plumage at the end of April, and have killed them with the black ear-tuft just beginning to sprout, hardly any other black feathers having appeared. In other instances, I have noticed that these ear-tufts did not make their appearance till the bird was quite mottled with black. The full and perfect breeding plumage is generally completed during July and August. At this season the male bird generally takes up a position on some rising ground (from ,which it wanders but little for many days even), and during the morning specially, but in cloudy weather at all times of the day, every now and then rises a few feet perpendicularly into the air, uttering at the same time a peculiar croaking call, more like that of a frog or cricket than that of a bird, and then drops down again. This is probably intended to attract the females, who, before their eggs are laid, wander greatly, or perhaps to summon a rival cock ; for I have seen two in such desperate fight as to allow me to approach within thirty yards before they ceased their battle."
I note that at all times, when alarmed, they seem to utter this croak, which somewhat reminds one of that of the corn crake, but not in so deep a tone as when nautching. Some sportsmen have fancied that the upward spring of male birds (and though I have seen females jump, the spring has not the same character as when the males do it) is made in pursuit of flies, but (as was remarked by Mr. Davidson, C.S.) I have no doubt that it is part of the regular nuptial performance. . He says:—" The Florican breeds all round Sholapur, in considerable numbers, wherever there are grass preserves with long grass. During the breeding season they seem chiefly to haunt the thinnest patches of long grass, rather than those full of small bushes ; they are at this period exceedingly difficult to flush, particularly the hens, which, even if you succeed in forcing them to rise, get up only at your very feet and make but very short flights. The cocks are not quite so difficult to flush, but you are obliged to run towards them, to get even them up: if you simply walk after them, they will rarely rise. Their whereabouts are, however, generally easily discovered by their frog-like call, and their occasional sudden jumps up into the" air. They do not seem to call much when the sun is bright, but chiefly in the morning and during cloudy days. I have often watched them flying or jumping up, but I am still uncertain why they do it. My original impression was, that they sprung up to seize insects from the grass stalks, but I have long abandoned this idea, as they rise much above the grass. Moreover, I have only seen one bird thus rise that could have been a female, and this was dark-coloured, and probably a male that had not assumed breeding plumage, and I am inclined to consider these sudden flights as simply one of those bridal displays so common in the males, especially of gallinaceous birds, such as the flapping of the wings in Pheasants, the nautch of the Peacock, the lek of the Capercailzie, and the pouch-inflated strut of the big Bustard, and if it can be certainly established that this habit is confined to the males, no alternative solution seems open to us."
The Lesser Florican, according to my experience, feeds largely on vegetable substances, berries, green shoots of grain, grasses, and all kinds of herbs, but it also eats insects in abundance, especially grasshoppers and the glittering cantharides, and, Jerdon says,- beetles, centipedes and even small lizards. It more habitually erects its tail than any other species of Bustard that I know, and Jerdon is quite correct in saying that, as a rule, "walking or running it raises its tail, the lateral feathers diverging downwards, while those of the centre are the most elevated, as is seen in domestic fowls, &c." Its flight much resembles that of the larger Bengal species, but it is, I think, rather more rapid and not so strong.
I have never myself seen it hawked, but should fancy it would fall an easy prey to a good Shaheen or Peregrine. Jerdon says he has hawked it both with F. jugger and the Shaheen, and that on one occasion he had slipped a Falcon at one, when the Falcon, though in hot pursuit, being a little behind, a pair of the Common Eagle (A. vindhiana) came down from a vast height and joined in the pursuit. One of them made a headlong sweep at it, which the Florican skilfully avoided, but only to fall a victim to the other which stooped almost immediately after its confederate, and dashed the quarry lifeless to the ground with its back laid open for its whole length. One of the very few specimens I obtained in the Etawah district was killed in a similar manner by a Bonelli's Eagle (which I shot) within 30 yards of me, and before I had had time to fire at the Florican, which rose quite unexpectedly out of a small patch of grass into which I had fired after a scuttling hare.
THE MAJORITY of the birds lay in September and October, and in the regions into which I have already stated that they migrate during the rains, but some still remain to breed in all parts of Southern India, and a considerable number in the Deccan, and Jerdon says: " I have put the hen bird off her nest in August in the Deccan, and in October near Trichinopoly, and have heard of the hen having been found incubating still later, up to January indeed. As to the nests, they are mere depressions, often mere spaces, between tufts of grass.
Mr. Wenden, writing to me of two nests that he took, says : " One nest was placed between the roots of several tufts of tussock grass growing in black soil, and in the intermediate space, the soil not being held up and protected by roots had been washed out or had sunk from the effects of rain, and thus a natural basin had been formed. In this the bird had excavated a saucer-shaped hole, perhaps four inches deep and nine inches in diameter, the bottom of which was bare. Round the edges was a slight fringe of grass, which had not so much the appearance of having been placed there by the bird for any purpose, as it had of being simply scraped away from the actual sitting place. The nest contained three eggs.
On the 18th another egg was laid, but on the 19th, finding still only three, Wenden shot both parents and took the eggs. Three or four is the usual complement, but Lieut. F. Alexander says that they sometimes lay five, and Mr. James writes that he " once shot a hen Florican and picked up from where she rose five young ones just able to run, two of which were carried home, one soon died, but the other was successfully brought up on grasshoppers till it was fully fledged. It was very tame, and ran about the poultry yard fearlessly. Unfortunately it was accidentally killed just after attaining maturity."
The shell, everywhere closely pitted with minute pores, is stout, but smooth, and has always a slight, and at times a brilliant, gloss.
The ground colour varies from a clear, almost sap green, through various shades of olive green, drab and stone colours, to a darkish olive brown. I have seen no specimens exhibiting the blue and bluish grounds occasionally met with in the eggs of the Great Indian Bustard.
The markings are brown, reddish or olive brown, occasionally with a purplish tinge, in some very faint and feeble, obsolete, or nearly so, a mere mottling ; in others conspicuous and strongly marked ; but in the majority neither very faint nor very conspicuous. In character they are generally cloudy streaks, more or less confluent at the broader end (from which they run down parallel to the major axis), and more or less obsolete towards the smaller end. Occasionally, however, they are pretty uniformly scattered over the whole surface of the egg. In size, the eggs vary from 1.77 to 206 in length, and from 1.5 to 1.7 in breadth ; but the average of twenty-three eggs is 1.88 nearly, by rather more than 1.59.
In both sexes, but it is more marked in the male, the earlier primaries are very sharply pointed, and have the terminal one-third greatly narrowed by a sudden emargination.
THE PLATE, but for chromo-lithography, which brings out the markings of the female too coarse and blotchy, would be all that could be desired. The male in breeding plumage is very good. In winter the plumage of the male resembles that of the female. Note, that in the fullest breeding plumage, the males generally have the ear tufts longer, and have the whole upper surface, and especially the tail, darker and less rufescent than in the specimen figured. Also, that in the females the upper surface is often much darker, the buffy margins of the feathers being reduced to mere lines.
That the Bustards are originally an African family is patent, since at least 20 (and possibly 22) species, other than those with which we have dealt, are already known from that Continent. Still, as will have been seen, both tarda and tetrax might be classed rather as Palaearctic than African ; three species are peculiar to India, of which one extends to the very easternmost limits of Assam, and, strange to say, one species, very closely allied to our Great Indian Bustard, occurred, some fifty years ago, almost throughout Australia, though now extinct,. or nearly so, in the more densely inhabited portions of the country.
We have now to deal with the Sand-Grouse, and in the first instance, with the feathered-footed section of these, which constitutes the genus Syrrhaptes. Only two species of this genus are know — the Thibetan bird, which we shall discuss immediately, and S. paradoxus. This latter species " ranges from the plains of Pekin and Tientsin, through Mongolia and the Great Gobi Desert into the Kirgiz Steppes, occasionally wandering into parts of Western Europe in more or less considerable numbers. The year 1863 was notable for a great western migration of this species, flocks of considerable size having been observed even in Ireland."
* Even in the winter, however, stragglers will be found far outside the limits thus indicated, e.g., below the ghats in S. Canara, (Jerdon) and in Ratnagiri and Dapoli, Southern Konkan (G. Vidal), in Sambalpur (one shot at Sohela. nth January), in the Meerut district (two shot at Ghazi-ud-din-Nagar, in December) &c., &c. A few couple are annually shot in August, on the Moach plain, near Kurrachee, and other similar localities within a circle of 20 or 30 miles of that station.