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'Tis raging noon; and, vertical, the sun
Darts on the head direct his forceful rays;
O'er heaven and earth, far as the ranging eye
Can sweep, a dazzling deluge reigns; and all
From pole to pole is undistinguish'd blaze.
* * * * *
All-conquering heat, oh, intermit thy wrath,
And on my throbbing temples potent thus
Beam not so fierce! incessant still you flow,
And still another fervent flood succeeds.
Pour'd on the head profuse. In vain I sigh,
* * * * *
Thrice happy he who on the sunless side
Of a romantic mountain, forest crown'd
Beneath the whole collected shade reclines.
With dancing feet glad peafowl greet
Bright flash and rumbling cloud;
Down channels steep red torrents sweep;
The frogs give welcome loud;
* * * * *
No stars in skies, but lantern-flies
Seem stars that float to earth.
WATERFIELD. Indian Ballads.
There are two Indian Junes—the June of fiction and the June of fact. The June of fiction is divided into two equal parts—the dry half and the wet half. The former is made up of hot days, dull with dust haze, when the shade temperature may reach 118°, and of oppressive nights when the air is still and stagnant and the mercury in the thermometer rarely falls below 84°. Each succeeding period of four-and-twenty hours seems more disagreeable and unbearable than its predecessor, until the climax is reached about the 15th June, when large black clouds appear on the horizon and roll slowly onwards, accompanied by vivid lightning, loud peals of thunder and torrential rain. In the June of fact practically the whole month is composed of hot, dry, dusty, oppressive days; for the monsoon rarely reaches Northern India before the last week of the month and often tarries till the middle of July, or even later.
The first rain causes the temperature to fall immediately. It is no uncommon thing for the mercury in the thermometer to sink 20 degrees in a few minutes. While the rain is actually descending the weather feels refreshingly cool in contrast to the previous furnace-like heat. Small wonder then that the advent of the creative monsoon is more heartily welcomed in India than is spring in England. No sound is more pleasing to the human ear than the drumming of the first monsoon rain.
But alas! the physical relief brought by the monsoon is only temporary. The temperature rises the moment the rain ceases to fall, and the prolonged breaks in the rains that occur every year render the last state of the climate worse than the first. The air is so charged with moisture that it cannot absorb the perspiration that emanates from the bodies of the human beings condemned to existence in this humid Inferno. For weeks together we live in a vapour-bath, and to the physical discomfort of perpetual clamminess is added the irritation of prickly heat.
Moreover, the rain brings with it myriads of torments in the form of termites, beetles, stinking bugs, flies, mosquitoes and other creeping and flying things, which bite and tease and find their way into every article of food and drink. The rain also awakens from their slumbers the frogs that have hibernated and æstivated in the sun-baked beds of dried-up ditches and tanks. These awakened amphibia fill the welkin with their croakings, which take the place of the avian chorus at night. The latter ceases with dramatic abruptness with the first fall of monsoon rain. During the monsoon the silence of the night is broken only by the sound of falling raindrops, or the croaking of the frogs, the stridulation of crickets innumerable, and the owlet's feeble call. Before the coming of the monsoon the diurnal chorus of the day birds begins to flag because the nesting season for many species is drawing to a close. The magpie-robin still pours forth his splendid song, but the quality of the music in the case of many individuals is already beginning to fall off. The rollers, which are feeding their young, are far less noisy than they were at the time of courtship. The barbets and coppersmiths, although not so vociferous as formerly, cannot, even in the monsoon, be charged with hiding their lights under a bushel. Towards the end of June the chuk, chuk, chuk, chuk, chuk of Horsfield's nightjar is not often heard, but the bird continues to utter its soft churring note. The iora's cheerful calls still resound through the shady mango tope. The sunbirds, the fantail flycatchers, the orioles, the golden-backed woodpeckers, the white-breasted kingfishers and the black partridges call as lustily as ever, and the bulbuls continue to twitter to one another "stick to it!" With the first fall of rain the tunes of the paradise flycatchers and the king-crows change. The former now cry "Witty-ready wit," softly and gently, while the calls of the latter suddenly become sweet and mellow.
Speaking generally, the monsoon seems to exercise a sobering, a softening influence on the voices of the birds. The pied myna forms the one exception; he does not come into his full voice until the rains have set in.
The monsoon transfigures the earth. The brown, dry, hard countryside, with its dust-covered trees, becomes for the time being a shallow lake in which are studded emerald islets innumerable. Stimulated by the rain many trees put forth fresh crops of leaves. At the first break in the downpour the cultivators rush forth with their ploughs and oxen to prepare the soil for the autumn crops with all the speed they may.
There is much to interest the ornithologist in June.
Of the birds whose nests have been previously described the following are likely to have eggs or young: white-eyes, ioras, tailor-birds, king-crows, robins, sparrows, tree-pies, seven sisters, cuckoo-shrikes, Indian wren-warblers (second brood), sunbirds (second brood), swifts, fantail flycatchers (second brood), orioles, paradise flycatchers, grey horn-bills, and the various mynas, bulbuls, butcher-birds, doves, pigeons and lapwings. The following species have young which either are in the nest or have only recently left it: roller, hoopoe, brown rock-chat, magpie-robin, coppersmith, green barbet, nightjar, white-eyed buzzard, pipit, wire-tailed swallow, white-breasted kingfisher, grey partridge, kite, golden-backed woodpecker (second brood), and the several species of bee-eater and lark.
With June the breeding season for the blue rock and green pigeons ends. In the sal forests the young jungle-fowl have now mostly hatched out and are following the old hens, or feeding independently.
Some of the minivets are beginning to busy themselves with a second brood.
The breeding operations of a few species begin in June.
Chief of these is that arch-villain Corvus splendens—the Indian house-crow. Crows have no fine feathers, hence the cocks do not "display" before the hens. To sing they know not how. Their courtship, therefore, provides a feast for neither the eye nor the ear of man. The lack of ornaments and voice perhaps explains the fact that among crows there is no noisy love-making. Crows make a virtue of necessity. Any attempt at courtship after the style of the costermonger is resented by the whole corvine community. The only amorous display permitted in public is head-tickling. The cock and the hen perch side by side, one ruffles the feathers of the neck, the other inserts its bill between the ruffled feathers of its companion and gently tickles its neck, to the accompaniment of soft gurgles.
Crows are the most intelligent of birds. Like the other fowls of the air in which the brain is well developed, they build rough untidy nests—mere platforms placed in the fork of a branch of almost any kind of tree. The usual materials used in nest-construction are twigs, but crows do not limit themselves to these. They seem to take a positive pride in pressing into service materials of an uncommon nature. Cases are on record of nests composed entirely of spectacle-frames, wires used for the fixing of the corks of soda-water bottles, or pieces of tin discarded by tinsmiths.
Four, five or six eggs are laid; these are of a pale greenish-blue hue, speckled or flaked with sepia markings. The hen alone collects the materials for the nest, but the cock supervises her closely, following her about and criticising her proceedings as she picks up twigs and works them into the nest.
From the time of the laying of the first egg until the moment of the departure of the last young bird, one or other of the parents always mounts guard over the nest, except when they are chasing a koel. Crows are confirmed egg-lifters and chicken-stealers; they apply their standard of morality to other birds, and, in consequence, never leave their own offspring unguarded. A crow's nest at which there is no adult crow certainly contains neither eggs nor young birds.
As has already been stated, crows spend, much time in teasing and annoying other birds. Retribution overtakes them in the nesting season. The Indian koel (Eudynamis honorata) cuckolds them. The crows either are aware of this or have an instinctive dislike to this cuckoo. The sight of the koel affects a crow in much the same way as a red cloth irritates a bull. One of these cuckoos has but to perch in a tree that contains a crow's nest and begin calling in order to make both the owners of the nest attack him. The koel takes full advantage of this fact. The cock approaches the nest and begins uttering his fluty kuil, kuil. The crows forthwith dash savagely at him. He flies off pursued by them. He can easily outdistance his pursuers, but is content to keep a lead of a few feet, crying pip-pip or kuil-kuil, and thus he lures the parent crows to some distance. No sooner are their backs turned than the hen koel slips quietly into the nest and deposits an egg in it. If she have time she carries off or throws out one or more of the legitimate eggs. When the crows return to the nest, having failed to catch the cock koel, they do not appear to notice the trick played upon them, although the koel's egg is smaller than theirs and of an olive-green colour. Through the greater part of June and July the koels keep the crows busy chasing them. Something approaching pandemonium reigns in the neighbourhood of a colony of nesting crows: from dawn till nightfall the shrieks and yells of the koels mingle with the harsh notes of the crows.
Sometimes the crows return from the chase of the cock koel before the hen is ready, and surprise her in the nest; then they attack her. She flees in terror, and is followed by the corvi. Her screams when being thus pursued are loud enough to awaken the Seven Sleepers. She has cause for alarm, for, if the raging crows catch her, they will assuredly kill her. Such a tragedy does sometimes occur.
Not infrequently it happens that more than one koel's egg is laid in a crow's nest.
The incubation period of the egg of the koel is shorter than that of the crow, the consequence is that when, as usually happens, there is one of the former and several of the latter in a nest, the young koel is invariably the first to emerge. It does not attempt to eject from the nest either the legitimate eggs or the young crows when they appear on the scene. Indeed, it lives on excellent terms with its foster brethren. But to say this is to anticipate, for as a rule, neither young koels nor baby crows hatch out until July.
The crow-pheasants (Centropus sinensis), which are cuckoos that do not lead a parasitic existence, are now busy with nursery duties. The nest of the crow-pheasant or coucal is a massive structure, globular in shape, with the entrance at one side. Large as the nest is, it is not often discovered by the naturalist because it is almost invariably situated in the midst of an impenetrable thicket. Three or four pure-white eggs are laid.
The white-necked storks or beef-steak birds (Dissura episcopus) are busy at their nests in June. These birds build in large trees, usually at a distance from water. The nest is rudely constructed of twigs. It is about one and a half feet in diameter. The eggs are placed in a depression lined with straw, grass or feathers. White-necked storks often begin nest-building about the middle of May, but eggs are rarely laid earlier than the second week of June. House-crows nest at the same time of year, and they often worry the storks considerably by their impudent attempts to commit larceny of building material.
The breeding season of the paddy-birds has now fairly begun. These birds, usually so solitary in habit, often nest in small colonies, sometimes in company with night-herons. The nest is a slender platform of sticks placed high up in a tree, often in the vicinity of human habitations. Nesting paddy-birds, or pond-herons as they are frequently called, utter all manner of weird calls, the one most frequently heard being a curious gurgle.
Some of the amadavats build nests in June, but the great majority breed during the winter months.
As soon as the first rains have fallen a few of the pheasant-tailed jacanas begin nesting operations, but the greater number breed in August; for this reason their nests are described in the calendar for that month.
In June a very striking bird makes its appearance in Northern India. This is the pied crested cuckoo (Coccystes jacobinus). Its under parts are white, as is a bar in the wing. The remainder of the plumage is glossy black. The head is adorned by an elegant crest. The pied cuckoo has a peculiar metallic call, which is as easy to recognise as it is difficult to describe. The bird victimises, not crows, but babblers; nevertheless the corvi seem to dislike it as intensely as they dislike koels.
By the beginning of the month the great majority of the cock bayas or weaver-birds have assumed their black-and-golden wedding garment; nevertheless they do not as a rule begin to nest before July.
The curious excrescence on the bill of the drake nukta or comb-duck is now much enlarged. This betokens the approach of the nesting season for that species.
If the monsoon happen to burst early many of the birds which breed in the rains begin building their nests towards the end of June, but, in nine years out of ten, July marks the beginning of the breeding period of aquatic birds, therefore the account of their nests properly finds place in the calendar of that month, or of August, when the season is at its height.