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Ye strangers, banished from your native glades,
Where tyrant frost with famine leag'd proclaims
"Who lingers dies"; with many a risk ye win
The privilege to breathe our softer air
And glean our sylvan berries.
GISBORNE'S Walks in a Forest.
October in India differs from the English month in almost every respect. The one point of resemblance is that both are periods of falling temperature.
In England autumn is the season for the departure of the migratory birds; in India it is the time of their arrival.
The chief feature of the English October—the falling of the leaves—is altogether wanting in the Indian autumn.
Spring is the season in which the pulse of life beats most vigorously both in Europe and in Asia; it is therefore at that time of year that the trees renew their garments.
In England leaves are short-lived. After an existence of about six months they "curl up, become brown, and flutter from their sprays." In India they enjoy longer lives, and retain their greenness for the greater part of a year. A few Indian trees, as, for example, the shesham, lose their foliage in autumn; the silk-cotton and the coral trees part with their leaves gradually during the early months of the winter, but these are the exceptions; nearly all the trees retain their old leaves until the new ones appear in spring, so that, in this country, March, April and May are the months in which the dead leaves lie thick upon the ground.
In many ways the autumn season in Northern India resembles the English spring. The Indian October may be likened to April in England. Both are months of hope, heralds of the most pleasant period of the year. In both the countryside is fresh and green. In both millions of avian visitors arrive.
Like the English April, October in Northern India is welcome chiefly for that to which it leads. But it has merits of its own. Is not each of its days cooler than the preceding one? Does it not produce the joyous morn on which human beings awake to find that the hot weather is a thing of the past?
Throughout October the sun's rays are hot, but, for an hour or two after dawn, especially in the latter half of the month, the climate leaves little to be desired. An outing in the early morning is a thing of joy, if it be taken while yet the air retains the freshness imparted to it by the night, and before the grass has yielded up the sparkling jewels acquired during the hours of darkness. It is good to ride forth on an October morn with the object of renewing acquaintance with nimble wagtails, sprightly redstarts, stately demoiselle cranes and other newly-returned migrants. In addition to meeting many winter visitors, the rider may, if he be fortunate, come upon a colony of sand-martins that has begun nesting operations.
The husbandman enjoys very little leisure at this season of the year. From dawn till sunset he ploughs, or sows, or reaps, or threshes, or winnows.
The early-sown rice yields the first-fruits of the kharif harvest. By the end of the month it has disappeared before the sickle and many of the fields occupied by it have been sown with gram. The hemp (san) is the next crop to mature. In some parts of Northern India its vivid yellow flowers are the most conspicuous feature of the autumn landscape. They are as brilliantly coloured as broom. The san plant is not allowed to display its gilded blooms for long, it is cut down in the prime of life and cast into a village pond, there to soak. The harvesting of the various millets, the picking of the cotton, and the sowing of the wheat, barley, gram and poppy begin before the close of the month. The sugar-cane, the arhar and the late-sown rice are not yet ready for the sickle. Those crops will be cut in November and December.
As in September so in October the birds are less vociferous than they were in the spring and the hot weather. During the earlier part of the month the notes of the koel and the brain-fever bird are heard on rare occasions; before October has given place to November, these noisy birds cease to trouble. The pied starlings have become comparatively subdued, their joyful melody is no longer a notable feature of the avian chorus. In the first half of the month the green barbets utter their familiar cries at frequent intervals; as the weather grows colder they call less often, but at no season of the year do they cease altogether to raise their voices. The tonk, tonk, tonk of the coppersmith is rarely heard in October; during the greater part of the cold weather this barbet is a silent creature, reminding us of its presence now and then by calling out wow softly, as if half ashamed at the sound of its voice. The oriole now utters its winter note tew, and that sound is heard only occasionally.
It is unnecessary to state that the perennials—the crows, kites, doves, bee-eaters, tree-pies, tailor-birds, cuckoo-shrikes, green parrots, jungle and spotted owlets—are noisy throughout the month.
The king-crows no longer utter the soft notes which they seem to keep for the rainy season; but, before settling down to the sober delights of the winter, some individuals become almost as lively and vociferous as they were in the nesting season. Likewise some pairs of "blue jays" behave, in September and October, as though they were about to recommence courtship; they perform strange evolutions in the air and emit harsh cries, but these lead to nothing; after a few days of noisy behaviour the birds resume their more normal habits.
The hoopoes have been silent for some time, but in October a few of them take up their refrain—uk-uk-uk-uk, and utter it with almost as much vigour as they did in March.
It would thus seem that the change of season, the approach of winter, has a stimulating influence on king-crows, rollers and hoopoes, causing the energy latent within them suddenly to become active and to manifest itself in the form of song or dance.
In October the pied chat and the wood-shrike frequently make sweet melody. Throughout the month the cock sunbirds sing as lustily and almost as brilliantly as canaries; many of them are beginning to reassume the iridescent purple plumage which they doffed some time ago. From every mango tope emanates the cheerful lay of the fantail flycatcher and the lively "Think of me... Never to be" of the grey-headed flycatcher. Amadavats sing sweet little songs without words as they flit about among the tall grasses.
In the early morning and at eventide, the crow-pheasants give vent to their owl-like hoot, preceded by a curious guttural kok-kok-kok. The young ones, that left the nest some weeks ago, are rapidly losing their barred plumage and are assuming the appearance of the adult. By the middle of November very few immature crow-pheasants are seen.
Migration and moulting are the chief events in the feathered world at the present season. The flood of autumn immigration, which arose as a tiny stream in August, and increased in volume nightly throughout September, becomes, in October, a mighty river on the bosom of which millions of birds are borne.
Day by day the avian population of the jhils increases. At the beginning of the month the garganey teal are almost the only migratory ducks to be seen on them. By the first of November brahminy duck, gadwall, common teal, widgeon, shovellers and the various species of pochard abound. With the duck come demoiselle cranes, curlews, storks, and sandpipers of various species. The geese and the pintail ducks, however, do not return to India until November. These are the last of the regular winter visitors to come and the first to go.
The various kinds of birds of prey which began to appear in September continue to arrive throughout the present month.
Grey-headed and red-breasted flycatchers, minivets, bush-chats, rose-finches and swallows pour into the plains from the Himalayas, while from beyond those mountains come redstarts, wagtails, starlings, buntings, blue-throats, quail and snipe. Along with the other migrants come numbers of rooks and jackdaws. These do not venture far into India; they confine themselves to the North-West Frontier Province and the Punjab, where they remain during the greater part of the winter. The exodus, from the above-mentioned Provinces, of the bee-eaters, sunbirds, yellow-throated sparrows, orioles, red turtle-doves and paradise flycatchers is complete by the end of October. The above are by no means the only birds that undergo local migration. The great majority of species probably move about in a methodical manner in the course of the year; a great deal of local migration is overlooked, because the birds that move away from a locality are replaced by others of their kind that come from other places.
During a spell of exceptionally cold weather a great many Himalayan birds are driven by the snow into the plains of India, where they remain for a few days or weeks. Some of these migrants are noticed in the calendar for December.
In October the annual moult of the birds is completed, so that, clothed in their warm new feathers, they are ready for winter some time before it comes. In the case of the redstart, the bush-chat, most of the wagtails, and some other species, the moult completely changes the colouring of the bird. The reason of this is that the edges of the new feathers are not of the same colour as the inner parts. Only the margins show, because the feathers of a bird overlap like slates on a roof, or the scales of a fish. After a time the edges of the new feathers become worn away, and then the differently-hued deeper parts begin to show, so that the bird gradually resumes the appearance it had before the moult. When the redstarts reach India in September most of the cocks are grey birds, because of the grey margins to their feathers; by the middle of April, when they begin to depart, many of them are black, the grey margins of the feathers having completely disappeared; other individuals are still grey because the margins of the feathers are broader or have not worn so much.
October is the month in which the falconer sallies forth to secure the hawks which will be employed in "the sport of kings" during the cold weather. There are several methods of catching birds of prey, as indeed there are of capturing almost every bird and beast. The amount of poaching that goes on in this country is appalling, and, unless determined efforts are made to check it, there is every prospect of the splendid fauna of India being ruined. The sportsman is bound by all manner of restrictions, but the poacher is allowed to work his wicked will on the birds and beasts of the country, almost without let or hindrance.
The apparatus usually employed for the capture of the peregrine, the shahin and other falcons is a well-limed piece of cane, about the length of the expanse of a falcon's wings. To the middle of this a dove, of which the eyelids have been sewn up, is tied. When a wild falcon appears on the scene the bird-catcher throws into the air the cane with the luckless dove attached to it. The dove flies about aimlessly, being unable to see, and is promptly pounced upon by the falcon, whose wings strike the limed cane and become stuck to it; then falcon and dove fall together to the ground, where they are secured by the bird-catcher.
Another method largely resorted to is to tether a myna, or other small bird, to a peg driven into the ground, and to stretch before this a net, about three feet broad and six long, kept upright by means of two sticks inserted in the ground. Sooner or later a bird of prey will catch sight of the tethered bird, stoop to it, and become entangled in the net.
A third device is to catch a buzzard and tie together some of the flight feathers of the wing, so that it can fly only with difficulty and cannot go far before it falls exhausted to the ground. To the feet of the bird of which the powers of flight have been thus curtailed a bundle of feathers is tied. Among the feathers several horsehair nooses are set. When a bird of prey, of the kind on which the falconer has designs, is seen the buzzard is thrown into the air. It flaps along heavily, and is immediately observed by the falcon, which thinks that the buzzard is carrying some heavy quarry in its talons. Now, the buzzard is a weakling among the raptores and all the other birds of prey despise it. Accordingly, the falcon, unmindful of the proverb which says that honesty is the best policy, swoops down on the buzzard with intent to commit larceny, and becomes entangled in the nooses. Then both buzzard and falcon fall to the ground, struggling violently. All that the bird-catcher has to do now is to walk up and secure his prize.
October marks the beginning of a lull in the nesting activities of birds, a lull that lasts until February. As we have seen, the nesting season of the birds that breed in the rains ends in September, nevertheless a few belated crow-pheasants, sarus cranes and weaver-birds are often to be found in October still busy with nestlings, or even with eggs; the latter usually prove to be addled, and this explains the late sitting of the parent. October, however, is the month in which the nesting season of the black-necked storks (Xenorhynchus asiaticus) begins, if the monsoon has been a normal one and the rains have continued until after the middle of September. This bird begins to nest shortly after the monsoon rains have ceased. Hard-set eggs have been taken in the beginning of September and as late as 27th December. Most eggs are laid during the month of October. The nest is a large saucer-shaped platform of twigs and sticks. Hume once found one "fully six feet long and three broad." The nest is usually lined with grass or some soft material and is built high up in a tree. The normal number of eggs is four, these are of a dirty white hue.