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The Pekin-Robin

This is not a robin, nor does it seem to be nearly related to the familiar redbreast; Pekin- or China-robin is merely the name the dealers give it, because a great many specimens are imported from China. Its classical name is Liothrix lutea. Oates calls it the red-billed liothrix. It is a bird about the size of a sparrow. The prevailing hue of the upper plumage is olive green, but the forehead is yellow. There is also a yellow ring round the eye, and the lower parts are of varying shades of this colour. Some of the wing feathers are edged with yellow and some with crimson, so that the wings, when closed, look as though lines of these colours are pencilled upon them. Oates, I notice, states that the hen has no red in the wing, but this does not seem to be the case in all examples. In the Pekin-robins that hail from China the chief difference between the sexes is that the plumage of the hen is a little duller than that of the cock. The bill is bright red. It is thus evident that the liothrix is a handsome bird, its beauty being of the quiet type which bears close inspection. But the very great charm of this sprightly little creature lies, not so much in its colouring, as in its form and movements. Its perfect proportions give it a very athletic air. In this respect it resembles the nimble wagtails. Next to these I like the appearance of the Pekin-robin better than that of any other little bird. Finn bestows even greater praise upon it, for he says: "Altogether it is the most generally attractive small bird I know of--everyone seems to admire it."

There is no bird more full of life. When kept in a cage, Pekin-robins hop from perch to perch with extraordinary agility, seeming scarcely to have touched one perch with their feet before they are off to another. I am inclined to think that the liothrix, like Camilla, Queen of the Volscians, could trip across a field of corn without causing the blades to move. This truly admirable bird is a songster of no mean capacity. Small wonder, then, that it has long been a favourite with fanciers. Moreover, it stands captivity remarkably well. It is the only insectivorous bird which is largely exported from India. So hardy is it that Finn attempted to introduce it into England, and with this object set free a number of specimens in St. James's Park some years ago, but they did not succeed in establishing themselves, although some individuals survived for several months. The English climate is to Asiatic birds much what that of the West Coast of Africa is to white men. J. K. Jerome once suggested that Life Insurance Companies should abolish the application form with its long list of queries concerning the ailments of the would-be insurer, his parents, grandparents, and other relatives, and substitute for it the German cigar test. If, said he, the applicant can come up smiling immediately after having smoked a German cigar, the Company could be certain that he was "a good life," to use the technical term. As regards birds, the survival of an English winter is an equally efficient test. The Pekin-robin is a very intelligent little bird. Finn found that it was not deceived by the resemblance between an edible and an unpalatable Indian swallow-tailed butterfly, although the sharp king-crow was deceived by the likeness.

Those Anglo-Indians who wish to make the acquaintance of the bird must either resort to some fancier's shop, or hie themselves to the cool heights of Mussoorie, or, better still, of Darjeeling, where the liothrix is exceptionally abundant. But even at Darjeeling the Pekin-robin will have to be looked for carefully, for it is of shy and retiring habits, and a small bird of such a disposition is apt to elude observation. In one respect the plains (let us give even the devil his due) are superior to the hills. The naturalist usually experiences little difficulty in observing birds in the sparsely-wooded flat country, but in the tree-covered mountains the feathered folk often require to be stalked. If you would see the Pekin-robin in a state of nature, go to some clearing in the Himalayan forest, where the cool breezes blow upon you direct from the snows, whence you can see the most beautiful sight in the world, that of snow-capped mountains standing forth against an azure sky. Tear your eyes away from the white peaks and direct them to the low bushes and trees which are springing up in the clearing, for in this you are likely to meet with a small flock of Pekin-robins. You will probably hear them before you see them. The sound to listen for is well described by Finn as "a peculiar five-noted call, tee-tee-tee-tee-tee." As has been stated already, most, if not all, birds that go about in flocks in wooded country continually utter a call note, as it is by this means that the members of the flock keep together. Jerdon states that the food of the liothrix consists of "berries, fruit, seeds, and insects." He should, I think, have reversed the order of the bird's menu, for it comes of an insectivorous family--the babblers--and undoubtedly is very partial to insects--so much so that Finn suggests its introduction into St. Helena to keep them down. At the nesting season, in the early spring, the flock breaks up into pairs, which take upon themselves what Mr. E. D. Cuming calls "brow-wrinkling family responsibilities," and each pair builds in a low bush a cup-shaped nest.