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See! the flushed horizon flames intense
With vivid red, in rich profusion streamed
O'er heaven's pure arch. At once the clouds assume
Their gayest liveries; these with silvery beams
Fringed lovely; splendid those in liquid gold,
And speak their sovereign's state. He comes, behold!
The transformation scene described in July continues throughout August. Torrential rain alternates with fierce sunshine. The earth is verdant with all shades of green. Most conspicuous of these are the yellowish verdure of the newly-transplanted rice, the vivid emerald of the young plants that have taken root, the deeper hue of the growing sugar-cane, and the dark green of the mango topes.
Unless the monsoon has been unusually late in reaching Northern India the autumn crops are all sown before the first week in August. The sugar-cane is now over five feet in height. The cultivators are busily transplanting the better kinds of rice, or running the plough through fields in which the coarser varieties are growing.
The aloes are in flower. Their white spikes of drooping tulip-like flowers are almost the only inflorescences to be seen outside gardens at this season of the year. The mango crop is over, but that of the pineapples takes its place.
At night-time many of the trees are illumined by hundreds of fireflies. These do not burn their lamps continuously. Each insect lets its light shine for a few seconds and then suddenly puts it out. It sometimes happens that all the fireflies in a tree show their lights and extinguish them simultaneously and thereby produce a luminous display which is strikingly beautiful. Fireflies are to be seen during the greater part of the year, but they are far more abundant in the "rains" than at any other season.
As in July so in August the voices of the birds are rarely heard after dark. The nocturnal music is now the product of the batrachian band, ably seconded by the crickets.
During a prolonged break in the rains the frogs and toads are hushed, except in jhils and low-lying paddy fields. Cessation of the rain, however, does not silence the crickets.
The first streak of dawn is the signal for the striking up of the jungle and the spotted owlets. Hard upon them follow the koels and the brain-fever birds. These call only for a short time, remaining silent during the greater part of the day. Other birds that lift up their voices at early dawn are the crow-pheasant, the black partridge and the peacock. These also call towards dusk. As soon as the sun has risen the green barbets, coppersmiths, white-breasted kingfishers and king-crows utter their familiar notes; even these birds are heard but rarely in the middle of the day, nor have their voices the vigour that characterised them in the hot weather. Occasionally the brown rock-chat emits a few notes, but he does so in a half-hearted manner. In the early days of August the magpie-robins sing at times; their song, however, is no longer the brilliant performance it was. By the end of the month it has completely died away.
The Indian cuckoo no more raises its voice in the plains, but the pied crested-cuckoo continues to call lustily and the pied starlings make a joyful noise. The oriole's liquid pee-ho is gradually replaced by the loud tew, which is its usual cry at times when it is not nesting.
The water-birds, being busy at their nests, are of course noisy, but, with the exception of the loud trumpeting of the sarus cranes, their vocal efforts are heard only at the jhil.
The did-he-do-its, the rollers, the bee-eaters, two or three species of warblers and the perennial singers complete the avian chorus.
Numbers of rosy starlings are returning from Asia Minor, where they have reared up their broods. The inrush of these birds begins in July and continues till October. They are the forerunners of the autumn immigrants. Towards the end of the month the garganey or blue-winged teal (Querquedula circia), which are the earliest of the migratory ducks to visit India, appear on the tanks. Along with them comes the advance-guard of the snipe. The pintail snipe (Gallinago stenura) are invariably the first to appear, but they visit only the eastern parts of Northern India. Large numbers of them sojourn in Bengal and Assam. Stragglers appear in the eastern portion of the United Provinces; in the western districts and in the Punjab this snipe is a rara avis. By the third week in August good bags of pintail snipe are sometimes obtained in Bengal. The fantail or full-snipe (G. coelestis) is at least one week later in arriving. This species has been shot as early as the 24th August, but there is no general immigration of even the advance-guard until quite the end of the month.
The jack-snipe (G. gallinula) seems never to appear before September.
Most of the monsoon broods of the Indian cliff-swallow emerge from the eggs in August. The "rains" breeding season of the amadavats or red munias is now over, and the bird-catcher issues forth to snare them.
His stock-in-trade consists of some seed and two or three amadavats in one of the pyramid-shaped wicker cages that can be purchased for a few annas in any bazaar. To the base of one of the sides of the cage a flap is attached by a hinge. The flap, which is of the same shape and size as the side of the cage, is composed of a frame over which a small-meshed string net is stretched. A long string is fastened to the apex of the flap and passed through a loop at the top of the cage. Selecting an open space near some tall grass in which amadavats are feeding, the bird-catcher sets down the cage and loosens the string so that the flap rests on the earth. Some seed is sprinkled on the flap. Then the trapper squats behind a bush, holding the end of the string in his hand. The cheerful little lals inside the cage soon begin to twitter and sing, and their calls attract the wild amadavats in the vicinity. These come to the cage, alight on the flap, and begin to eat the seed. The bird-catcher gives the string a sharp pull and thus traps his victims between the flap and the side of the cage. He then disentangles them, places them in the cage, and again sets the trap.
Almost all the birds that rear up their young in the spring have finished nesting duties for the year by August. Here and there a pair of belated rollers may be seen feeding their young. Before the beginning of the month nearly all the young crows and koels have emerged from the egg, and the great majority of them have left the nest. Young house-crows are distinguished from adults by the indistinctness of the grey on the neck. They continually open their great red mouths to clamour for food.
The wire-tailed swallows, swifts, pied crested-cuckoos, crow-pheasants, butcher-birds, cuckoo-shrikes, fantail flycatchers, babblers, white-necked storks, wren-warblers, weaver-birds, common and pied mynas, peafowl, and almost all the resident water-birds, waders and swimmers, except the terns and the plovers, are likely to have eggs or young. The nesting season of the swifts and butcher-birds is nearly over. In the case of the others it is at its height. The wire-tailed swallows and minivets are busy with their second broods. The nests of most of these birds have already been described.
The Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus) usually lay their large white eggs on the ground in long grass or thick undergrowth. Sometimes they nestle on the grass-grown roofs of deserted buildings or in other elevated situations. Egrets, night-herons, cormorants, darters, paddy-birds, openbills, and spoonbills build stick nests in trees. These birds often breed in large colonies. In most cases the site chosen is a clump of trees in a village which is situated on the border of a tank. Sometimes all these species nest in company. Hume described a village in Mainpuri where scores of the above-mentioned birds, together with some whistling teal and comb-ducks, nested simultaneously. After a site has been selected by a colony the birds return year after year to the place for nesting purposes. The majority of the eggs are laid in July, the young appearing towards the end of that month or early in the present one.
The nest of the sarus crane (Grus antigone) is nearly always an islet some four feet in diameter, which either floats in shallow water or rises from the ground and projects about a foot above the level of the water. The nest is composed of dried rushes. It may be placed in a jhil, a paddy field, or a borrow pit by the railway line. A favourite place is the midst of paddy cultivation in some low-lying field where the water is too deep to admit of the growing of rice. Two very large white eggs, rarely three, are laid. This species makes no attempt to conceal its nest. In the course of a railway journey in August numbers of incubating saruses may be seen by any person who takes the trouble to look for them.
"Raoul" makes the extraordinary statement that incubating sarus cranes do not sit when incubating, but hatch the eggs by standing over them, one leg on each side of the nest! Needless to say there is no truth whatever in this statement. The legs of the sitting sarus crane are folded under it, as are those of incubating flamingos and other long-legged birds.
Throughout the month of August two of the most interesting birds in India are busy with their nests. They are the pheasant-tailed and the bronze-winged jacana. These birds live, move and have their being on the surface of lotus-covered tanks. Owing to the great length of their toes jacanas are able to run about with ease over the surface of the floating leaves of water-lilies and other aquatic plants, or over tangled masses of rushes and water-weeds.
In the monsoon many tanks are so completely covered with vegetation that almost the only water visible to a person standing on the bank consists of the numerous drops that have been thrown on to the flat surfaces of the leaves, where they glisten in the sun like pearls.
Two species of jacana occur in India: the bronze-winged (Motopus indicus) and the pheasant-tailed jacana or the water-pheasant (Hydrophasianus chirurgus). They are to be found on most tanks in the well-watered parts of the United Provinces. They occur in small flocks and are often put up by sportsmen when shooting duck. They emit weird mewing cries. The bronze-winged jacana is a black bird with bronze wings. It is about the size of a pigeon, but has much longer legs. The pheasant-tailed species is a black-and-white bird. In winter the tail is short, but in May both sexes grow long pheasant-like caudal feathers which give the bird its popular name. The bronze-winged jacana does not grow these long tail feathers.
The nests of jacanas are truly wonderful structures. They are just floating pads of rushes and leaves of aquatic plants. Sometimes practically the whole of the pad is under water, so that the eggs appear to be resting on the surface of the tank. The nest of the bronze-winged species is usually larger and more massive than that of the water-pheasant. The latter's nest is sometimes so small as hardly to be able to contain the eggs—a little, shallow, circular cup of rushes and water-weeds or floating lotus leaves or tufts of water-grass. The eggs of the two species show but little similarity. Both, however, are very beautiful and remarkable. The eggs of the bronze-winged jacana have a rich brownish-bronze background, on which black lines are scribbled in inextricable confusion, so that the egg looks as though Arabic texts had been scrawled over it. This species might well be called "the Arabic writing-master." The eggs of the water-pheasant are in shape like pegtops without the peg. They are of a dark rich green-bronze colour, and devoid of any markings.
The nest of the handsome, but noisy, purple coot (Porphyrio poliocephalus) is a platform of rushes and reeds which is sometimes placed on the ground in a rice field, but is more often floating, and is then tethered to a tree or some other object. From six to ten eggs are laid. These are very beautiful objects. The ground colour is delicate pink. This is spotted and blotched with crimson; beneath these spots there are clouds of pale purple which have the appearance of lying beneath the surface of the shell.
The white-breasted water-hen (Gallinula phoenicura) is a bird that must be familiar to all. One pair, at least, is to be found in every village which boasts of a tank and a bamboo clump, no matter how small these be. The water-hen is a black bird about the size of the average bazaar fowl, with a white face, throat and breast. It carries its short tail almost erect, and under this is a patch of brick-red feathers. During most seasons of the year it is a silent bird, but from mid-May until the end of the monsoon it is exceedingly noisy, and, were it in the habit of haunting our gardens and compounds, its cries would attract as much attention as do those of the koel and the brain-fever bird. As, however, water-hens are confined to tiny hamlets situated far away from cities, many people are not acquainted with their calls, which "Eha" describes as "roars, hiccups and cackles." The nest is built in a bamboo clump or other dense thicket. The eggs are stone-coloured, with spots of brown, red and purple. The young birds, when first hatched, are covered with black down, and look like little black ducklings. They can run, swim and dive as soon as they leave the egg. Little parties of them are to be seen at the edge of most village tanks in August.
The resident ducks are all busy with their nests. The majority of them lay their eggs in July, so that in August they are occupied with their young.
The cotton-teal (Nettopus coromandelianus) usually lays its eggs in a hole in a mango or other tree. The hollow is sometimes lined with feathers and twigs. It is not very high up as a rule, from six to twelve feet above the ground being the usual level. The tree selected for the nesting site is not necessarily close to water. Thirteen or fourteen eggs seem to be the usual clutch, but as many as twenty-two have been taken from one nest. Young teal, when they emerge from the egg, can swim and walk, but they are unable to fly. No European seems to have actually observed the process whereby they get from the nest to the ground or the water. It is generally believed that the parent birds carry them. Mr. Stuart Baker writes that a very intelligent native once told him that, early one morning, before it was light, he was fishing in a tank, when he saw a bird flutter heavily into the water from a tree in front of him and some twenty paces distant. The bird returned to the tree, and again, with much beating of the wings, fluttered down to the surface of the tank; this performance was repeated again and again at intervals of some minutes. At first the native could only make out that the cause of the commotion was a bird of some kind, but after a few minutes, he, remaining crouched among the reeds and bushes, saw distinctly that it was a cotton-teal, and that each time it flopped into the water and rose again it left a gosling behind it. The young ones were carried somehow in the feet, but the parent bird seemed to find the carriage of its offspring no easy matter; it flew with difficulty, and fell into the water with considerable force.
August is the month in which some fortunate observer will one year be able to confirm or refute this story.
The comb-duck or nukta (Sarcidiornis melanotus), which looks more like a freak of some domesticated breed than one of nature's own creatures, makes, in July or August, a nest of grass and sticks in a hole in a tree or in the fork of a stout branch. Sometimes disused nests of other species are utilised. About a dozen eggs is the usual number of the clutch, but Anderson once found a nest containing no fewer than forty eggs.
The lesser whistling-teal (Dendrocygna javanica) usually builds its nest in a hollow in a tree. Sometimes it makes use of the deserted nursery of another species, and there are many cases on record of the nest being on the ground, a bund, or a piece of high ground in a jhil. Eight or ten eggs are laid.
The little grebe or dabchick (Podiceps albipennis) is another species that lays in July or August. This bird, which looks like a miniature greyish-brown duck without a tail, must be familiar to Anglo-Indians, since at least one pair are to be seen on almost every pond or tank in Northern India. Although permanent residents in this country, little grebes leave, in the "rains," those tanks that do not afford plenty of cover, and betake themselves to a jhil where vegetation is luxuriant. The nest, like that of other species that build floating cradles, is a tangle of weeds and rushes. When the incubating bird leaves the nest she invariably covers the white eggs with wet weeds, and, as Hume remarks, it is almost impossible to catch the old bird on the nest or to take her so much by surprise as not to allow her time to cover up the eggs. As a matter of fact, these birds spend very little time upon the nest in the day-time. The sun's rays are powerful enough not only to supply the heat necessary for incubation but to bake the eggs. This contretemps, however, is avoided by placing wet weeds on the eggs and by the general moisture of the nest. No better idea of the heat of India during the monsoon can be furnished than that afforded by the case of some cattle-egrets' eggs taken by a friend of the writer's in August, 1913. He found a clutch of four eggs; not having leisure at the time to blow them, he placed them in a bowl on the drawing-room mantelshelf. On the evening of the following day he heard some squeaks, but, thinking that these sounds emanated from a musk-rat or one of the other numerous rent-free tenants of every Indian bungalow, paid little heed to them. When, however, the same sounds were heard some hours later and appeared to emanate from the mantelpiece, he went to the bowl, and, lo and behold, two young egrets had emerged! These were at once fed. They lived for three days and appeared to be in good health, when they suddenly gave up the ghost.