The Crateropodidæ form a most heterogeneous collection of birds, including, as they do, such divers fowls as babblers, whistling-thrushes, bulbuls, and white-eyes. Whenever a systematist comes across an Asiatic bird of which he can make nothing, he classes it among the Crateropodidæ. This is convenient for the systematist, but embarrassing for the naturalist.
The most characteristic members of the family are those ugly, untidy, noisy earth-coloured birds which occur everywhere in the plains, and always go about in little companies, whence their popular name "seven sisters."
To men of science these birds are known as babblers. Babblers proper are essentially birds of the plains. In the hills they are replaced by their cousins, the laughing-thrushes. Laughing-thrushes are merely glorified babblers. The Himalayan streaked laughing-thrush (Trochalopterum lineatum) is one of the commonest of the birds of our hill stations. It is a reddish brown fowl, about eight inches long. Each of its feathers has a black shaft; it is these dark shafts that give the bird its streaked appearance. Its chin, throat, and breast are chestnut-red, and on each cheek there is a patch of similar hue. The general appearance of the streaked laughing-thrush is that of one of the seven sisters who is wearing her best frock. Like their sisters of the plains, Himalayan streaked laughing-thrushes go about in small flocks and are exceedingly noisy. Sometimes a number of them assemble, apparently for the sole purpose of holding a speaking competition. They are never so happy as when thus engaged.
Streaked laughing-thrushes frequent gardens, and, as they are inordinately fond of hearing their own voices, it is certainly not their fault if they escape observation. By way of a nest they build a rough-and-ready cup-shaped structure in a low bush or on the ground; but, as Hume remarked, "the bird, as a rule, conceals the nest so well that, though a loose, and for the size of the architect, a large structure, it is difficult to find, even when one closely examines the bush in which it is."
Three other species of laughing-thrush must be numbered among common birds of the Himalayas, although they, like the heroine of A Bad Girl's Diary, are often heard and not seen. The white-throated laughing-thrush (Garrulax albigularis) is a handsome bird larger than a myna. Its general colour is rich olive brown. It has a black eyebrow and shows a fine expanse of white shirt front. It goes about in large flocks and continually utters a cry, loud and plaintive and not in the least like laughter.
The remaining laughing-thrushes are known as the rufous-chinned (Ianthocincla rufigularis) and the red-headed (Trochalopterum erythrocephalum). The former may be distinguished from the white-throated species by the fact that the lower part only of its throat is white, the chin being red. The red-headed laughing-thrush has no white at all in the under parts. The next member of the family of the Crateropodidæ that demands our attention is the rusty-cheeked scimitar-babbler (Pomatorhinus erythrogenys).
Scimitar-babblers are so called because of the long, slender, compressed beak, which is curved downwards like that of a sunbird.
Several species of scimitar-babbler occur in the Himalayas. The above mentioned is the most abundant in the Western Himalayas. This species is known as the Banbakra at Mussoorie. Its bill is 1½ inch long. The upper plumage is olive brown. The forehead, cheeks, sides of the neck, and thighs are chestnut-red, as is a patch under the tail. The chin and throat and the median portion of the breast and abdomen are white with faint grey stripes. Scimitar-babblers have habits similar to those of laughing-thrushes. They go about in pairs, seeking for insects among fallen leaves. The call is a loud whistle.
Very different in habits and appearance from any of the babblers mentioned above is the famous Himalayan whistling-thrush (Myiophoneous temmincki). To see this bird it is necessary to repair to some mountain stream. It is always in evidence in the neighbourhood of the dhobi's ghat at Naini Tal, and is particularly abundant on the banks of the Kosi river round about Khairna. At first sight the Himalayan whistling-thrush looks very like a cock blackbird. His yellow bill adds to the similitude. It is only when he is seen with the sun shining upon him that the cobalt blue patches in his plumage are noticed. His habit is to perch on the boulders which are washed by the foaming waters of a mountain torrent. On these he finds plenty of insects and snails, which constitute the chief items on his menu. He pursues the elusive insect in much the same way as a wagtail does, calling his wings to his assistance when chasing a particularly nimble creature. He has the habit of frequently expanding his tail. This species utters a loud and pleasant call, also a shrill cry like that of the spotted forktail. All torrent-haunting birds are in the habit of uttering such a note; indeed it is no easy task to distinguish between the alarm notes of the various species that frequent mountain streams.
Of very different habits is the black-headed sibia (Lioptila capistrata). This species is strictly arboreal. As mentioned previously, it is often found in company with flocks of tits and other gregarious birds. It feeds on insects, which it picks off the leaves of trees. Its usual call is a harsh twitter. It is a reddish brown bird, rather larger than a bulbul, with a black-crested head. There is a white bar on the wing.
The Indian white-eye (Zosterops palbebrosa) is not at all like any of the babblers hitherto described. In size, appearance, and habits, it approximates closely to the tits, with which it often consorts. Indeed, Jerdon calls the bird the white-eyed tit. It occurs in all well-wooded parts of the country, both in the plains and the hills. No bird is easier to identify. The upper parts are greenish yellow, and the lower bright yellow, while round the eye runs a broad conspicuous ring of white feathers, whence the popular names of the species, white-eye and spectacle-bird. Except at the breeding season, it goes about in flocks of considerable size. Each individual utters unceasingly a low, plaintive, sonorous, cheeping note. As was stated above, all arboreal gregarious birds have this habit. It is by means of this call note that they keep each other apprised of their whereabouts. But for such a signal it would scarcely be possible for the flock to hold together. At the breeding season the cock white-eye acquires an unusually sweet song. The nest is an exquisite little cup, which hangs, like a hammock, suspended from a slender forked branch. Two pretty pale blue eggs are laid.
A very diminutive member of the babbler clan is the fire-cap (Cephalopyrus flammiceps). The upper parts of its plumage are olive green; the lower portions are golden yellow. In the cock the chin is suffused with red. The cock wears a further ornament in the shape of a cap of flaming red, which renders his identification easy.
Until recently all ornithologists agreed that the curious starling-like bird known as the spotted-wing (Psaroglossa spiloptera) was a kind of aberrant starling, but systematists have lately relegated it to the Crateropodidæ. At Mussoorie the natives call it the Puli. Its upper parts are dark grey spotted with black. The wings are glossy greenish black with white spots. The lower parts are reddish. A flock of half-a-dozen or more birds having a starling-like appearance, which twitter like stares and keep to the topmost branches of trees, may be set down safely as spotted-wings.
We now come to the last of the Crateropodidæ--the bulbuls. These birds are so different from most of their brethren that they are held to constitute a sub-family. I presume that every reader is familiar with the common bulbul of the plains. To every one who is not, my advice is that he should go into the verandah in the spring and look among the leaves of the croton plants. The chances are in favour of this search leading to the discovery of a neat cup-shaped nest owned by a pair of handsome crested birds, which wear a bright crimson patch under the tail, and give forth at frequent intervals tinkling notes that are blithe and gay.
Both the species of bulbul common in the plains ascend the lower ranges of the Himalayas. These are the Bengal red-vented bulbul (Molpastes bengalensis) and the Bengal red-whiskered bulbul (Otocompsa emeria).
The addition of the adjective "Bengal" is important, for every province of India has its own special species of bulbul.
The Molpastes bulbul is a bird about half as big again as the sparrow, but with a longer tail. The black head is marked by a short crest. The cheeks are brown. There is a conspicuous crimson patch under the tail. The remainder of the plumage is brown, but each feather on the body is margined with creamy white, so that the bird is marked by a pattern that is, as "Eha" pointed out, not unlike the scales on a fish. Both ends of the tail feathers are creamy white.
Otocompsa is a far more showy bird. The crest is long and pointed and curves forward a little over the bill. There is the usual crimson patch under the tail and another on each cheek. The rest of the cheek is white, as is the lower plumage. A black necklace, interrupted in front, marks the junction of the throat and the breast. Neither of these bulbuls ascends the hills very high, but I have seen the former at the Brewery below Naini Tal.
The common bulbul of the Himalayas is the white-cheeked species (Molpastes leucogenys). This bird, which is very common at Almora, has the habits of its brethren in the plains. Its crest is pointed and its cheeks are white like those of an Otocompsa bulbul. But it has rather a weedy appearance and lacks the red feathers on the sides of the head. The patch of feathers under the tail is bright sulphur-yellow instead of crimson.
The only other species of bulbul commonly seen in the hills is a very different bird. It is known as the black bulbul (Hypsipetes psaroides).
The bulbuls that we have been considering are inoffensive little birds which lead quiet and respectable lives. Not so the black bulbuls. These are aggressive, disreputable-looking creatures which go about in disorderly, rowdy gangs.
The song of most bulbuls is a medley of pleasant tinkling notes; the cries of the black bulbuls are harsh and unlovely.
Black bulbuls look black only when seen from a distance. When closely inspected their plumage is seen to be dark grey. The bill and legs are red. The crest, I regret to say, usually looks the worse for wear. Black bulbuls seem never to descend to the ground. They keep almost exclusively to tops of lofty trees. They are very partial to the nectar enclosed within the calyces of rhododendron flowers. A party of half a dozen untidy black birds, with moderately long tails, which keep to the tops of trees and make much noise, may with certainty be set down as black bulbuls.
These curious birds form the subject of a separate essay.