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The Crateropodidæ or Babbler Family

This heterogeneous family is well represented in the Nilgiris.

The Madras seven sisters (Crateropus griseus) do not ascend the hills to any considerable height. But, of course there are seven sisters in the hills. Every part of India has its flocks of babblers. The Nilgiri babbler is a shy bird; it seems to dislike being watched. One might think it is aware that it is not so beautiful as it might be. But this cannot be the reason, because it has no objection to any person hearing its voice, which may be likened to the squeak of a rusty axle. This Nilgiri babbler does not enter gardens unless they are somewhat unkempt and contain plenty of thick bushes.

Mirabile dictu, this shy and retiring bird is none other than the jungle babbler (Crateropus canorus)--the common seven sisters or sath bhai--which in northern India is as bold and almost as confiding as the robin. No one has attempted to explain why the habits of this species on the Nilgiris should differ so much from those it displays in other places.

The southern scimitar-babbler (Pomatorhinus horsfieldi), like the jungle babbler on the Nilgiris, is a bird heard more often than seen.

Every person who has spent any time at Coonoor must be well acquainted with the notes of this species. A common call is a loud ko-ko-ko-e-e-e. Sometimes one bird calls ko-ko-ko, and another answers ko-ee. When the birds are feeding in company, they keep up a continual chatter, which is not unpleasing to the ear. When alarmed they give vent to a harsh cry of a kind characteristic of the babbler tribe. The scimitar-babbler is a bird nearly as big as a myna. It is of brownish hue and has a tail of moderate length. The breast and chin are pure white, and there is a white line running along each side of the head from front to back. The yellow beak is long and curved, hence the adjectival "scimitar." It is impossible to mistake the bird. The difficulty is to obtain anything more than a fleeting glimpse of it. It is so shy that it takes cover the instant it knows that it is being watched. It hops about in thick bushes with considerable address, much as a crow-pheasant does. It feeds on insects, which it picks off the ground or from leaves and trunks of trees. It uses the long bill as a probe, by means of which it secures insects lurking in the crevices of bark.

The Nilgiri laughing-thrush (Trochalopterum cachinnans) is a very common bird on the hills. Like the two species of babbler already described, it is a shy creature, living amid thick shrubs, from which it seldom ventures far. The head is slightly crested, the upper plumage, including the wings and tail, is olive brown. The head is set off by a white eyebrow. The under parts are chestnut. The beak and legs are black. Laughing-thrushes congregate in small flocks. They subsist chiefly on fruit. Their cry is loud and characteristic; it may be described as a bird's imitation of human laughter. Their cheerful calls are among the sounds heard most often at Ootacamund and Coonoor.

The Indian white-eye (Zosterops palpebrosa) is a bird that has puzzled systematists. Jerdon classed it among the tits, and its habits certainly justify the measure; but later ornithologists have not accepted the dictum "Manners makyth bird," and have placed the white-eye among the babblers.

The white-eye is a plump little bird, considerably smaller than a sparrow. The head and back are yellowish green, becoming almost golden in the sunlight. The wings and tail are brown. The chin, breast, and feathers under the tail are bright yellow, the abdomen is white. Round the eye is a ring of white feathers, interrupted in front by a black patch.

From this ring--its most striking feature--the bird has derived its name. The ring is very regular, and causes the bird to look as though it had been decorating its eye with Aspinall's best enamel.

White-eyes invariably go about in flocks; each member of the company utters unceasingly a cheeping note in order to keep his fellows apprized of his movements. These birds feed largely on insects, which they pick off leaves in truly tit-like manner, sometimes even hanging head downwards in order to secure a morsel.

The beautiful southern green-bulbul (Chloropsis malabarica) is numbered among the Crateropodidæ. It is not a true bulbul. It is common on the lower slopes of the Nilgiris, but does not often venture as high as Coonoor. A rich green bulbul-like bird with a golden forehead, a black chin and throat, and a patch of blue on the wing can be none other than this species.

The true bulbuls are also classified among the Crateropodidæ.

My experience is that the common bulbul of the plains--Molpastes hæmorrhous, or the Madras red-vented bulbul--is very rarely seen at the Nilgiri hill stations. Jerdon, likewise, states that it ascends the Nilgiris only up to about 6000 feet. Davison, however, declares that the bird begins to get common 4 miles from Ootacamund and is very numerous about Coonoor and all down the ghats. Be this as it may, the Madras red-vented bulbul is not the common bulbul of the Nilgiris. Its sweet notes are very largely, if not entirely, replaced by the yet sweeter and more cheery calls of the hill-bulbul. It will be labour lost to look up this name in Oates's ornithology, because it does not occur in that work. The smart, lively little bird, whose unceasing twittering melody gives our southern hill stations half their charm, has been saddled by men of science with the pompous appellation Otocompsa fuscicaudata. Even more objectionable is the English name for the pretty, perky bird. What shall I say of the good taste of those who call it the red-whiskered bulbul, as though it were a seedy Mohammedan who dips his grizzly beard in a pot of red dye by way of beautifying it? I prefer to call this bird the southern hill-bulbul. This name, I admit, leaves something to be desired, because the species is not confined to the hills. It is to be found in most places along the west coast. Nor is it the only bulbul living on the hills. The justification for the name is that if a census were taken of the bird-folk who dwell in our hill stations, it would show that Otocompsa fuscicaudata outnumbered all the crows, mynas, sparrows, flycatchers, and sunbirds put together. It is the bird of the southern hills. Every thicket, every tree--nay, every bush on the hills--has its pair of bulbuls. This species has distinctive plumage. Its most striking feature is a perky crest, which arises from the crown of the head and terminates in a forwardly-directed point, like Mr. Punch's cap. The crest is black and gives the bird a very saucy air. The wings and tail are dark brown, but each feather has a pale edge, which makes a pattern like scales on a fish. Below the eye is a brilliant patch of crimson. A similarly-coloured but larger patch is displayed at the base of the tail. The lower part of the cheek is white; this is divided off from the snowy breast by a narrow black band. The breast is, in its turn, separated from the greyish abdomen by a broad black band, which ornithologists term a collaret. Sometimes the collaret is interrupted in the middle. The hill-bulbul is a most vivacious bird. From dawn to sunset it is an example of perpetual motion. Its vocal cords are as active as its wings. The tinkling sounds of this bulbul form the dominant notes of the bird chorus. Husband and wife almost always move about in company. They flit from tree to tree, from bush to bush, plucking raspberries and other hill fruit as they pass. Bulbuls eat insects, but not when fruit is available. Like all birds bulbuls have large appetites. Recently I saw an Otocompsa devour three wild raspberries within as many minutes, each berry was swallowed at one gulp--a surprising feat, considering the small size of the bird's bill.

A bulbul's nest is a beautifully-shaped cup, usually placed in a bush at about 3 feet from the ground. As a rule, the bulbul selects an exposed site for its nest; in consequence many of the eggs are devoured by lizards. Crows in particular are addicted to young bulbuls, and take full advantage of the simplicity of the parent birds. Probably, three out of four broods never reach maturity. But the bulbul is a philosophic little bird. It never cries over broken eggs. If one clutch is destroyed it lays another.

The yellow-browed bulbul (Iole icteria) demands notice in passing, because it is common on the minor ranges. Its upper plumage is greenish yellow, the wings being darker than the back. The lower parts are canary yellow; the bird has also a yellow ring round the eye. Its note has been described as a soft, mellow whistle.

A very different bird is the southern or Nilgiri black bulbul (Hypsipetes ganeesa). This is an untidy-looking creature. Its crest is ragged. Its general hue is shabby black or brown, tinged with grey in places. The bill and feet are bright coral red. Black bulbuls utter a variety of notes, most of which are pleasing to the human ear, although they incline to harshness. The birds go about in flocks.