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The Turdidæ or Thrush Family

This large family is well represented in the hills, and embraces a number of beautiful and interesting birds.

The dark grey bush-chat (Oreicola ferrea) is as common in the hills as is the robin in the plains. It is about the size of a robin. The upper plumage of the cock is grey in winter and black in summer. This change in colour is the result of wear and tear suffered by the feathers. Each bird is given by nature a new suit of clothes every autumn, and in most cases the bird, like a Government chaprassi, has to make it last a whole year. Both eat, drink, sleep, and do everything in their coats. There is, however, this difference between the bird and the chaprassi: the plumage of the former always looks clean and smart, while the garment of the chaprassi is usually neither the one nor the other. The coat of the dark grey bush-chat is made up of black feathers edged with grey. As the margins of the feathers alone show, the bird looks grey so long as the grey margins exist, and when these wear away it appears black. The cock has a conspicuous white eyebrow, and displays some white in his wings and tail. He is quite a dandy. The hen is a reddish brown bird with a pale grey eyebrow. This species likes to pretend it is a flycatcher. The flycatchers proper do not object in the least; in this country of multitudinous insects there are more than enough for every kind of bird.

Brief mention must be made here of the Indian bush-chat (Pratincola maura), because this chat is common at Almora, and breeds there. I have not seen it at other hill stations. It does not appear to ascend the Himalayas higher than 5500 feet. In the cock the upper parts are black (brown in winter) with a large white patch on each side of the neck. The breast is orange-red. The lower parts are ruddy brown. The hen is a plain reddish brown bird.

We now come to what is, in my opinion, one of the most striking birds in the Himalayas. I refer to the bird known to men of science as Henicurus maculatus, or the western spotted forktail. Those Europeans who are not men of science call it the hill-wagtail on account of its habits, or the dhobi bird because of its unaccountable predilection for the spot where the grunting, perspiring washerman pursues his destructive calling. The head and neck of this showy bird are jet black save for a conspicuous white patch running from the centre of the crown to the base of the bill, which gives the bird a curious appearance. The shoulders are decorated by a cape or tippet of black, copiously spotted with white. The wings are black and white. The tail feathers are black, but each has a broad white band at the tip, and, as the two median feathers are the shortest, and each succeeding pair longer, the tail has, when closed, the appearance of being composed of alternate broad black and narrow white V-shaped bars. The lower back and rump are white, but these are scarcely visible except during flight or when the bird is preening its feathers. The legs are pinkish white. This forktail is a trifle larger than a wagtail, and its tail is over 6 inches in length. It is never found away from streams.

I will not dilate further upon the habits of this bird because a separate essay is devoted to it.

Two other water-birds must now be mentioned. These love not the dhobi, and dwell by preference far from the madding crowd. They are very common in the interior of the hills, and everyone who has travelled in the inner ranges must be familiar with them, even if he do not know what to call them. The white-capped redstart (Chimarrhornis leucocephalus) is a bird that compels attention. His black plumage looks as though it were made of rich velvet. On his head he wears a cap as white as snow. His tail, rump, and abdomen are bright chestnut red, so that, as he leaps into the air after the circling gnat, he looks almost as if he were on fire.

The third common bird of Himalayan streams is the plumbeous redstart or water-robin (Rhyacornis fuliginosus). This species is very robin-like in appearance. The body is dusky indigo blue; the tail and abdomen are ferruginous. The habits of this and the bird just described are similar. Both species love to disport themselves on rocks and boulders lapped by the gentle-flowing stream in the valley, or lashed by the torrent on the hillside. Like all redstarts, these constantly flirt the tail.

The grey-winged ouzel (Merula boulboul) is perhaps the finest songster in the Himalayas. Throughout the early summer the cock makes the wooded hillsides ring with his blackbird-like melody. The grey-winged ouzel is a near relative of the English blackbird. Take a cock blackbird and paint his wings dark grey, and cover his bill with red colouring matter, and you will have to all appearances a grey-winged ouzel. In order to effect the transformation of the brown female, it is only necessary to redden her bill.

The nesting operations of this species are described in the essay near the end of Part I.

Two other species allied to the grey-winged ouzel demand our attention. The first is the blue-headed rock-thrush (Petrophila cinclorhyncha). This is not like any bird found in England. The head, chin, and throat of the cock are cobalt blue; there is also a patch of this colour on his wing; the sides of the head and neck are black, as are the back and wing feathers. The rump and lower parts are chestnut. The hen, as is the case with many of her sex, is an inconspicuous olive-brown bird. This species spends most of its time on the ground, and frequents, as its name implies, open rocky ground.

The last of the Turdidæ which has to be considered is the small-billed mountain-thrush (Oreocincla dauma). This bird is as like the thrush of our English gardens as one pea is like another. Unfortunately it does not visit gardens in this country, and is not a very common bird.