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The Common Birds of The Western Himalayas


This family, which is well represented in the Himalayas, includes the true crows, with their allies, the choughs, pies, jays, and tits.

The common Indian house-crow (Corvus splendens), with which every Anglo-Indian is only too familiar, loveth not great altitudes, hence does not occur in any of the higher hill stations. Almora is the one place in the hills where he appears to be common. There he displays all the shameless impudence of his brethren in the plains.

The common crow of the Himalayas is the large all-black species which is known as the Indian corby or jungle crow (C. macrorhynchus). Unlike its grey-necked cousin, this bird is not a public nuisance; nevertheless it occasionally renders itself objectionable by carrying off a chicken or a tame pigeon. In May or June it constructs, high up in a tree, a rough nest, which is usually well concealed by the thick foliage. The nest is a shallow cup or platform in the midst of which is a depression, lined with grass and hair. Horse-hair is used in preference to other kinds of hair; if this be not available crows will use human hair, or hair plucked from off the backs of cattle. Those who put out skins to dry are warned that nesting crows are apt to damage them seriously. Three or four eggs are laid. These are dull green, speckled with brown. Crows affect great secrecy regarding their nests. If a pair think that their nursery is being looked at by a human being, they show their displeasure by swearing as only crows can, and by tearing pieces of moss off the branch of some tree and dropping these on the offender's head!

Two species of chough, the red-billed (Graculus eremita), which is identical with the European form, and the yellow-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax alpinus), are found in the Himalayas; but he who would see them must either ascend nearly to the snow-line or remain on in the hills during the winter.

Blue-magpies are truly magnificent birds, being in appearance not unlike small pheasants. Two species grace the Himalayas: the red-billed (Urocissa occipitalis) and the yellow-billed blue-magpie (U. flavirostris). These are distinguishable one from the other mainly by the colour of the beak. A blue-magpie is a bird over 2 feet in length, of which the fine tail accounts for three-fourths. The head, neck, and breast are black, and the remainder of the plumage is a beautiful blue with handsome white markings. It is quite unnecessary to describe the blue-magpie in detail. It is impossible to mistake it. Even a blind man cannot fail to notice it because of its loud ringing call. East of Simla the red-billed species is by far the commoner, while to the west the yellow-billed form rules the roost. The vernacular names for the blue-magpie are Nilkhant at Mussoorie and Dig-dall at Simla.

The Himalayan tree-pie (Dendrocitta himalayensis), although a fine bird, looks mean in comparison with his blue cousins. This species is like a dull edition of the tree-pie of the plains. It is dressed like a quaker. It is easily recognised when on the wing. Its flight is very characteristic, consisting of a few rapid flaps of the pinions followed by a sail on outstretched wings. The median pair of tail feathers is much longer than the others, the pair next to the middle one is the second longest, and the outer one shortest of all. Thus the tail, when expanded during flight, has a curious appearance.

We now come to the jays. That brilliant study in light and dark blue, so common in the plains, which we call the blue-jay, does not occur in the Himalayas; nor is it a jay at all: its proper name is the Indian roller (Coracias indica). It is in no way connected with the jay tribe, being not even a passerine bird. We know this because of the arrangement of its deep plantar tendons, because its palate is desmognathous instead of ægithognathous, because--but I think I will not proceed further with these reasons; if I do, this article will resemble a letter written by the conscientious undergraduate who used to copy into each of his epistles to his mother, a page of A Complete Guide to the Town of Cambridge. The fond mother doubtless found her son's letters very instructive, but they were not exactly what she wanted. Let it suffice that the familiar bird with wings of two shades of blue is not a jay, nor even one of the Corviniæ, but a blood relation of the kingfishers and bee-eaters.

Two true jays, however, are common in the Western Himalayas. These are known to science as the Himalayan jay (Garrulus bispecularis) and the black-throated jay (G. lanceolatus). The former is a fawn-coloured bird, with a black moustachial streak. As birds do not usually indulge in moustaches, this streak renders the bird an easy one to identify. The tail is black, and the wing has the characteristic blue band with narrow black cross-bars. This species goes about in large noisy flocks. Once at Naini Tal I came upon a flock which cannot have numbered fewer than forty individuals.

The handsome black-throated jay is a bird that must be familiar to every one who visits a Himalayan hill station with his eyes open. Nevertheless no one seems to have taken the trouble to write about it. Those who have compiled lists of birds usually dismiss it in their notes with such adjectives as "abundant," and "very common." It is remarkable that many popular writers should have discoursed upon the feathered folk of the plains, while few have devoted themselves to the interesting birds of the hills. There seem to be two reasons for this neglect of the latter. Firstly, it is only the favoured few to whom it is given to spend more than ten days at a time in the cool heights; most of us have to toil in the hot plains. Secondly, the thick foliage of the mountain-side makes bird-watching a somewhat difficult operation. The observer frequently catches sight of an interesting-looking bird, only to see it disappear among the foliage before he has had time even to identify it.

The black-throated jay is a handsome bird, more striking in appearance even than the jay of England (G. glandarius). Its crested head is black. Its back is a beautiful French grey, its wings are black and white with a bar of the peculiar shade of blue which is characteristic of the jay family and so rarely seen in nature or art. Across this blue bar run thin black transverse lines. The tail is of the same blue with similar black cross-bars, and each feather is tipped with white. The throat is black, with short white lines on it. The legs are pinkish slaty, and the bill is slate coloured in some individuals, and almost white in others. The size of this jay is the same as that of our familiar English one. Black-throated jays go about in flocks. This is a characteristic of a great many Himalayan birds. Probably the majority of the common birds of these mountains lead a sociable existence, like that of the "seven sisters" of the plains. A man may walk for half-an-hour through a Himalayan wood without seeing a bird or hearing any bird-sound save the distant scream of a kite or the raucous voice of the black crow; then suddenly he comes upon quite a congregation of birds, a flock of a hundred or more noisy laughing-thrushes, or numbers of cheeping white-eyes and tits, or it may be a flock of rowdy black bulbuls. All the birds of the wood seem to be collected in one place. This flocking of the birds in the hills must, I think, be accounted for by the fact that birds are by nature sociable creatures, and that food is particularly abundant. In a dense wood every tree offers either insect or vegetable food, so that a large number of birds can live in company without fear of starving each other out. In the plains food is less abundant, hence most birds that dwell there are able to gratify their fondness for each other's society only at roosting time; during the day they are obliged to separate, in order to find the wherewithal to feed upon.

Like all sociable birds, the black-throated jay is very noisy. Birds have a language of a kind, a language composed entirely of interjections, a language in which only the simplest emotions--fear, joy, hunger, and maternal care--can be expressed. Now, when a considerable flock of birds is wandering through a dense forest, it is obvious that the individuals which compose it would be very liable to lose touch with one another had they no means of informing one another of their whereabouts. The result is that such a means has been developed. Every bird, whose habit it is to go about in company, has the habit of continually uttering some kind of call or cry. It probably does this unconsciously, without being aware that it is making any sound.

In Madras a white-headed babbler nestling was once brought to me. I took charge of it and fed it, and noticed that when it was not asleep it kept up a continuous cheeping all day long, even when it was eating, although it had no companion. The habit of continually uttering its note was inherited. When the flock is stationary the note is a comparatively low one; but when an individual makes up its mind to fly any distance, say ten or a dozen yards, it gives vent to a louder call, so as to inform its companions that it is moving. This sound seems to induce others to follow its lead. This is especially noticeable in the case of the white-throated laughing-thrush. I have seen one of these birds fly to a branch in a tree, uttering its curious call, and then hop on to another branch in the same tree. Scarcely has it left the first branch when a second laughing-thrush flies to it; then a fourth, a fifth, and so on; so that the birds look as though they might be playing "Follow the man from Cook's." The black-throated jay is noisy even for a sociable bird. The sound which it seems to produce more often than any other is very like the harsh anger-cry of the common myna. Many Himalayan birds have rather discordant notes, and in this respect these mountains do not compare favourably with the Nilgiris, where the blithe notes of the bulbuls are very pleasing to the ear.

Jays are by nature bold birds. They are inclined to be timid in England, because they are so much persecuted by the game-keeper. In the Himalayas they are as bold as the crow. It is not uncommon to see two or three jays hopping about outside a kitchen picking up the scraps pitched out by the cook. Sometimes two jays make a dash at the same morsel. Then a tiff ensues, but it is mostly made up of menacing screeches. One bird bears away the coveted morsel, swearing lustily, and the unsuccessful claimant lets him go in peace. When a jay comes upon a morsel of food too large to be swallowed whole, it flies with it to a tree and holds it under one foot and tears it up with its beak. This is a characteristically corvine habit. The black-throated jay is an exceedingly restless bird; it is always on the move. Like its English cousin, it is not a bird of very powerful flight. As Gilbert White says: "Magpies and jays flutter with powerless wings, and make no despatch." In the Himalayas there is no necessity for it to make much despatch; it rarely has to cover any distance on the wing. When it does fly a dozen yards or so, its passage is marked by much noisy flapping of the pinions.

The nutcrackers can scarcely be numbered among the common birds, but are sometimes seen in our hill stations, and, such is the "cussedness" of birds that if I omit to notice the nutcrackers several are certain to show themselves to many of those who read these lines. A chocolate-brown bird, bigger than a crow, and spotted and barred with white all over, can be nothing other than one of the Himalayan nutcrackers. It may be the Himalayan species (Nucifraga hemispila), or the larger spotted nutcracker (N. multipunctata).

The members of the crow family which I have attempted to describe above are all large birds, birds bigger than a crow. It now behoves us to consider the smaller members of the corvine clan.

The tits form a sub-family of the crows. Now at first sight the crow and the tit seem to have but little in common. However, close inspection, whether by the anatomist or the naturalist, reveals the mark of the corvidæ in the tits. First, there is the habit of holding food under the foot while it is being devoured. Then there is the aggressiveness of the tits. This is Lloyd-Georgian or even Winstonian in its magnitude. "Tits," writes Jerdon, "are excessively bold and even ferocious, the larger ones occasionally destroying young and sickly birds, both in a wild state and in confinement."

Many species of tit dwell in the Himalayas. To describe them all would bewilder the reader; I will, therefore, content myself with brief descriptions of four species, each of which is to be seen daily in every hill station of the Western Himalayas.

The green-backed tit (Parus monticola) is a glorified edition of our English great tit. It is a bird considerably smaller than a sparrow.

The cheeks are white, the rest of the head is black, as are the breast and a characteristic line running along the abdomen. The back is greenish yellow, the lower parts are deep yellow. The wings are black with two white bars, the tail is black tipped with white. This is one of the commonest birds in most hill stations.

Like the sparrow, it is ever ready to rear up its brood in a hole in the wall of a house. Any kind of a hole will do, provided the aperture is too small to admit of the entrance of birds larger than itself.

The nesting operations of a pair of green-backed tits form the subject of a separate essay.

Another tit much in evidence is the yellow-cheeked tit, Machlolophus xanthogenys. I apologise for its scientific name. Take a green-backed tit, paint its cheeks bright yellow, and give it a black crest tipped with yellow, and you will have transformed him into a yellow-cheeked tit.

There remain to be described two pigmy tits. The first of these is that feathered exquisite, the red-headed tit (Ægithaliscus erythrocephalus). I will not again apologise for the name; it must suffice that the average ornithologist is never happy unless he be either saddling a small bird with a big name or altering the denomination of some unfortunate fowl. This fussy little mite is not so long as a man's thumb. It is crestless; the spot where the crest ought to be is chestnut red. The remainder of the upper plumage is bluish grey, while the lower plumage is the colour of rust. The black face is set off by a white eyebrow. Last, but not least, of our common tits is the crested black tit (Lophophanes melanopterus). The crested head and breast of this midget are black. The cheeks and nape are white, while the rest of the upper plumage is iron grey.

There is yet another tit of which mention must be made, because he is the common tit of Almora. The climate of Almora is so much milder than that of other hill stations that its birds are intermediate between those of the hills and the plains. The Indian grey tit (Parus atriceps) is a bird of wide distribution. It is the common tit of the Nilgiris, is found in many of the better-wooded parts of the plains, and ascends the Himalayas up to 6000 feet. It is a grey bird with the head, neck, breast, and abdominal line black. The cheeks are white. It is less gregarious than the other tits. Its notes are harsh and varied, being usually a ti-ti-chee or pretty-pretty.

I have not noticed this species at either Mussoorie or Naini Tal, but, as I have stated, it is common at Almora.

As has been mentioned above, tits usually go about in flocks. It is no uncommon thing for a flock to contain all of the four species of tit just described, a number of white-eyes, some nuthatches, warblers, tree-creepers, a woodpecker or two, and possibly some sibias and laughing-thrushes.