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Black Bulbuls

All passerine birds which have hairs springing from the back of the head, and of which the tarsus--the lower half of the leg--is shorter than the middle toe, plus its claw, are classified by scientific men as members of the sub-family Brachypodinæ, or Bulbuls. This classification, although doubtless unassailable from the standpoint of the anatomist, has the effect of bringing together some creatures which can scarcely be described as "birds of a feather." The typical bulbul, as exemplified by the common species of the plains--Molpastes and Otocompsa--is a dear, meek, unsophisticated little bird, the kind of creature held up in copy-books as an example to youth, a veritable "Captain Desmond, V.C." Bulbuls of the nobler sort pair for life, and the harmony of their conjugal existence is rarely marred by quarrels; they behave after marriage as they did in the days of courtship: they love to sit on a leafy bough, close up against one another, and express their mutual admiration and affection by means of a cheery, if rather feeble, lay. They build a model nest in which prettily-coloured eggs are deposited. These they make but little attempt to conceal, for they are birds without guile. But, alas, their artlessness often results in a rascally lizard or squirrel eating the eggs for his breakfast. When their eggs are put to this base use, the bulbuls, to quote "Eha," are "sorry," but their grief is short-lived. Within a few hours of the tragedy they are twittering gaily to one another, and in a wonderfully short space of time a new clutch of eggs replaces the old one. If this shares the fate of the first set, some more are laid, so that eventually a family of bulbuls hatches out.

Such is, in brief, the character of the great majority of bulbuls; they present a fine example of rewarded virtue, for these amiable little birds are very abundant; they flourish like the green bay tree. As at least one pair is to be found in every Indian garden, they exemplify the truth of the saying, the meek "shall inherit the earth," and give a new meaning to the expression, "the survival of the fittest." There are, however, some bulbuls which are so unlike the birds described above that the latter might reasonably deny relationship to them as indignantly as some human beings decline to acknowledge apes and monkeys as poor relations. As we have seen, most bulbuls are inoffensive, respectable birds, that lead a quiet, domesticated life. The cock and hen are so wrapped up in one another as to pay little heed to the outer world. Not so the black bulbuls. These are the antithesis of everything bulbuline. They are aggressive, disreputable-looking creatures, who go about in disorderly, rowdy gangs. The song of most bulbuls consists of many pleasant, blithe tinkling notes; that of the black bulbul, or at any rate of the Himalayan black bulbul, is scarcely as musical as the bray of the ass. Most bulbuls are pretty birds and are most particular about their personal appearance. Black bulbuls are as untidy as it is possible for a bird to be. The two types of bulbul stand to one another in much the same relationship as does the honest Breton peasant to the inhabitant of the Quartier Latin in Paris.

Black bulbuls belong to the genus Hypsipetes. Three species occur in India--the Himalayan (H. psaroides), the Burmese (H. concolor), and the South Indian (H. ganeesa). All three species resemble one another closely in appearance. Take a king-crow (Dicrurus ater), dip his bill and legs in red ink, cut down his tail a little, dust him all over so as to make his glossy black plumage look grey and shabby, ruffle his feathers, apply a little pomade hongroise to the feathers on the back of his head, and make some of them stick out to look like a dilapidated crest, and you may flatter yourself that you have produced a very fair imitation of a black bulbul as it appears when flitting about from one tree summit to another. Closer inspection of the bird reveals the fact that "black" is scarcely the right adjective to apply to it. Dark grey is the prevailing hue of its plumage, with some black on the head and a quantity of brown on the wings and tail.

The Himalayan species has a black cheek stripe, which the other forms lack; but it is quite unnecessary to dilate upon these minute differences. I trust I have said sufficient to enable any man, woman, or suffragette to recognise a noisy black bulbul, and, as the distribution of each species is well defined and does not overlap that of the other species, the fact that a bird is found in any particular place at once settles the question of its species. The South Indian bird occurs only in Ceylon and the hills of South-west India; hence Jerdon called this species the Nilgiri or Ghaut black bulbul. Men of science in their wisdom have given the Himalayan bird the sibilant name of Hypsipetes psaroides. The inelegance of the appellation perhaps explains why the bird has been permitted to retain it for quite a long while unchanged.

I have been charged with unnecessarily making fun of ornithological nomenclature. As a matter of fact, I have dealt far too leniently with the peccadillos of the ornithological systematist. Recently a book was published in the United States entitled The Birds of Illinois and Wisconsin. Needless to state that while the author was writing the book, ornithological terminology underwent many changes; but the author was able to keep pace with these and with those that occurred while the various proofs were passing through the press. It was after this that his real troubles began. Several changes took place between the interval of the passing of the final proof and the appearance of the book, so that the unfortunate author in his desire to be up to date had to insert in each volume a slip to the effect that the American Ornithologists' Union had in the course of the past few days changed the name of no fewer than three genera; consequently the genus Glaux had again become Cryptoglaux, and the genera Trochilus and Coturniculus had become, respectively, Archilochus and Ammodramus! But we are wandering away from our black bulbuls. The hillmen call the Himalayan species the Ban Bakra, which means the jungle goat. Why it should be so named I have not an idea, unless it be because the bird habitually "plays the goat!"

Black bulbuls seem never to descend to the ground; they keep almost entirely to the tops of lofty trees and so occur only in well-wooded parts of the hills. When the rhododendrons are in flower, these birds partake very freely of the nectar enclosed within their crimson calyces. Now, I am fully persuaded that the nectar of flowers is an intoxicant to birds, and of course this will account, not only in part for the rowdiness of the black bulbuls, but for the pugnacity of those creatures, such as sunbirds, which habitually feed upon this stimulating diet. Black bulbuls, like sunbirds, get well dusted with pollen while diving into flowers after nectar, and so probably act the part of insects as regards the cross-fertilisation of large flowers. In respect of nesting habits, black bulbuls conform more closely to the ways of their tribe than they do in other matters. The nesting season is early spring. The nursery, which is built in a tree, not in a bush, is a small cup composed largely of moss, dried grass, and leaves, held together by being well smeared with cobweb. The eggs have a pink background, much spotted with reddish purple. They display a great lack of uniformity as regards both shape and colouring.