Drongos - The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds

The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds  (Volume 1) Second Edition 1889  -  by  Allan O. Hume

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327. Dicrurus ater (Hermann). Black Drongo

Dicrurus macrocercus (V.), Jerdon B. Ind. i, p. 427.
Buchanga albirictus, (Hodgson), Hume, Rough Draft N. & E. no. 278.

The Black Drongo or Common King-Crow lays throughout India, at any rate in the plain country; it does not appear to breed either in the Himalayas or the Nilgiris at any height exceeding 5000 feet. A few eggs may be found towards the close of April, and again during the first week of August, but May, June, and July are the months.

It builds usually pretty high up in tall trees, in some fork not quite at the outside, constructing a broad shallow cup, and lays normally four eggs, although I have found five. Elsewhere I have recorded the following in regard to its nidification:

"Close at our own gate is a pretty neem tree (Melia azadirachta). High up in a fork a small nest was visible, and projecting over it on one side a black forked tail that could belong to nothing but the King-Crow. Of this bird we have already taken during the last six weeks at least fifty nests, and in many cases where we had left the empty nest in status quo, we found it a week later with a fresh batch of eggs laid therein. Many birds will never return to a nest which has once been robbed, but others, like the King-Crow and the Little Shrike (Lanius vittatus) will continue laying even after the nest has been twice robbed. The very day after the nest has been cleared of perhaps four slightly incubated eggs, a fresh one that otherwise would assuredly never have seen the light is laid, and that, too, a fertile egg, which, if not meddled with, will be hatched off in due course. It might be supposed that immediately on discovering their loss, nature urged the birds to new intercourse, the result of which was the fertile egg, and this, in some cases, is probably really the case; Martins and others of the Swallow kind being often to be seen busy with 'love's pleasing labour' before their eggs have been well stowed away by the collector. But this will not account for instances that I have observed of birds in confinement, who separated from the male before they had laid their full number, and then later, just when they began to sit deprived of their eggs, straightway laid a second set, neither so large nor so well colored as the first, but still fertile eggs that were duly hatched. But for the removal of the first set, these subsequent eggs would never have been developed or laid. Now, the theory has always been that the contact of the sperm- and germ-cells causes the development and fertilization of the latter. In these cases no fresh accession of sperm-cells was possible, and hence it would seem as if in some birds the female organs were able to store up living sperm-cells, which only work to fertilize and develop ova in the event of some accident rendering it necessary, and which otherwise ultimately lose vitality and pass away without action.

"The nest of the King-Crow that we took was of the ordinary type; in fact I have noticed scarcely any difference in the shape or materials of all the numerous nests of this common bird that I have yet seen. They are all composed of tiny twigs and fine grass-stems, and the roots of the khus-khus grass, as a rule, neatly and tightly woven together, and exteriorly bound round with a good deal of cobweb, in which a few feathers are sometimes entangled. The cavity is broad and shallow, and at times lined with horsehair or fine grass, but most commonly only with khus. The bottom of the nest is very thin, but the sides or rim rather firm and thick; in this case the cavity was 4 inches in diameter, and about 1 in depth, and contained three pure white glossless eggs. In the very next tree, however (a mango, and this is perhaps their favorite tree), was another similar nest, containing four eggs, slightly glossy, with a salmon-pink tinge throughout, and numerous well-marked brownish-red specks and spots, most numerous towards the large end, looking vastly like Brobdingnagian specimens of the Rocket-bird's eggs. The variation in this bird's eggs is remarkable; out of more than one hundred eggs nearly one third have been pure white, and between the dead glossless purely white egg and a somewhat glossy, warm pinky grounded one, with numerous well-marked spots and specks of maroon colour, dull-red, and red-brown or even dusky, every possible gradation is found. Each set of eggs, however, seems to be invariably of the same type, and we have never yet found a quite white and a well colored and marked egg in the same nest.

"These birds are very jealous of the approach of other birds even of their own species to a nest in which they have eggs, and many a little family would this year have been safely reared, and their ovate cradles have escaped the plundering hands of my shikaries, had not attention been invariably called to the thereabouts of the nest by the pertinacious and vicious rushes of one or other of the parents from near their nest at every feathered thing that; passed them by."

Captain Hutton says: "This species, which appears to be generally diffused throughout India, is not uncommon in the Dehra Doon, but does not ascend the hills; it breeds in June, laying four eggs of somewhat variable size. They are pure white, thus differing widely from those of the supposed D. longcaudatus of Mussoorie.

"It is evident likewise that the eggs which Captain Tickell assigns to this species do not belong to it. (vide Journal As. Soc. vol. xvii. p. 304.)

"The nest differs from that of our hill species, being larger and far less neatly made; it is placed in the bifurcation of the smaller branches of a tall tree, and is composed exteriorly of two hard semi-woody stalks of various plants, plastered over with cobwebs. Another one was constructed entirely of fine roots, like the khus-khus used for tatties, and plastered over like the former with cobwebs. It is flattened or saucer-shaped, and about 3 inches in diameter."

Mr. F. R. Blewitt remarks: "It breeds from the middle of May well into August. I do not think it has two broods in the year, at least close observation has not proved the fact. Trees of various sizes are chosen indiscriminately for the nest, from the lofty mango and tamarind to the low-growing roonji, etc.

"The nest is a peculiarly slight-formed structure (occasionally I have seen it otherwise, but this is the exception), always neatly made. The exterior of the nest is composed of small fine twigs, roots, and grass, with generally a good deal of spider's web round the outer surface. The average exterior diameter of the nest is about 55 inches. The cavity is frequently lined with horsehair. On three or four occasions I have seen very fine khus substituted for the hair. The average inner diameter of the nest is about 34 inches.

"The regular number of eggs is four; in colour they are a light reddish white, with a few spots or blotches, here and there of a purplish red or red-brown. The eggs often differ much in size. I happened to find in one nest two eggs, one of the usual size, the other only about one third of the size. What is more surprising, it was perfectly formed, as regards the white and yolk."

The instance of sagacity related by Mr. Phillips, and quoted by Jerdon, was related to him by the late Mr. Davis, my old Collector of Customs.

"I have on two or three occasions myself witnessed similar instances of sagacity. This bird, during the breeding-season, is pugnacious to a degree, fearlessly attacking every bird that approaches the tree on which the nest may be."

Writing from the Sambhur Lake, Mr. E. M. Adam says: "Very common here. The King-Crow breeds here in June and July. The eggs vary much with regard to coloring; some are pure white without spots, some have dark brown spots on the white ground, whilst others have a pale rufous ground darker at the broader end, with spots of deep rust-colour and lilac."

Colonel G. F. L. Marshall writes: "At Bheera Tal, fully 4000 feet above the sea, I found two nests of this species on the 24th May, one contained four eggs, and the other three; the eggs varied much in size, and out of the seven, six were pure white, almost like Barbet's eggs, and the seventh had only a faint sprinkling of tiny dark spots at one end. The birds, all four of which I shot, were typical D. ater, with the white spot well developed. On the same day, and in the same place, I found eggs of D. longicaudatus. I record this, as it is not usual to find D. ater breeding at this elevation. It may be noticed that the eggs of this species found by Hutton in the Doon were all pure white, while in the plains I think white is more exceptional."

Dr. Scully says: "In Nepal it breeds freely at elevations of from 4000 to 5000 feet. Three nests were taken in the valley, in May and June; these contained each three or four pure white eggs."

Major C. T. Bingham remarks: "I have found many nests of the King-Crow both at Allahabad and Delhi. In both places they begin laying towards the end of May, and I got fresh eggs at Allahabad as late as the 13th August. The nests and eggs have been nearly always of the same type. The former, a shallow, but well-made saucer, rather small sometimes for the size of the bird, of grass-roots and twigs, and absolutely without lining; the latter white, when fresh with a pink tinge, spotted, chiefly at the larger end, rather scantily with claret-colour and dark brown. I have never found a pure white egg."

Lieut. H. E. Barnes, writing of Rajpootana (now known as Rajasthan) in general, tells us: "The King-Crow breeds during May and June. A few nests may be found in July, but by far the greater number are to be found during the latter part of May and the commencement of June."

Colonel Butler informs us that "The Common King-Crow breeds in the neighborhood of Deesa during the rains. I have taken nests on the following dates:

"June 6, 1875. A nest containing 4 fresh eggs.
June 7, 1875. " " 4 fresh eggs.
June 9, 1875. " " 2 fresh eggs.
" " " " 4 young birds.
June 10, 1875 " " 4 fresh eggs.
June 11, 1875. " " 4 fresh eggs.
June 13, 1875. " " 3 fresh eggs.
" " " " 4 fresh eggs.
July 8, 1875. " " 4 fresh eggs.
July 12, 1875. " " 4 fresh eggs.

"The nest consists of a broad shallow saucer about 3 inches in diameter measured from the inside, composed of dry twigs and fine roots, and is invariably fixed in the fork of a tree. The bottom of the nest, though strongly woven, is often so thin that the eggs are visible from below. The eggs, usually four in number, are of the Oriole type, being white or creamy buff:, sparingly spotted and speckled with deep chocolate or rusty brown, with, occasionally, markings of inky purple. The markings of the eggs of this species, like those of the Oriole, are apt to run if washed."

Messrs. Davidson and Wenden, writing from the Deccan, say: "Common and breeds."

Mr. Vidal remarks of this bird in the South Konkan: "Abundant. Breeds in May."

Mr. Rhodes W. Morgan, writing from South India, says in 'The Ibis': "Breeds from March to the end of May, constructing a slight cup-shaped nest in a tree. The nest is composed of fine twigs bound together with cobwebs, and is rather a flimsy concern, the eggs often being visible from below. It is generally placed in the fork of a branch, at from 10 to 30 feet from the ground. The eggs are three in number, occasionally only two, and vary very greatly in colour, some being almost of a pure white, whilst others again are spotted and blotched, especially at the larger end, with claret and light purple on a rich salmon-colored ground. The birds are very noisy in the breeding-season, keeping all intruders off, not hesitating to attack Kites and Crows. They seem to have an especial antipathy to the latter."

Mr. Benjamin Aitken states that in Madras "the King-Crow, so conspicuous on the backs of cattle, telegraph-wires, etc., all through the cold and hot seasons, is conspicuous by its absence during the breeding-season. Many of them retire to woods and gardens to breed, but even when they do not, they keep very quiet while they have their nests. Last June there was a nest in a tree in the Thieves' bazaar at Madras, but the birds hardly ever showed themselves out of the tree."

Mr. J. Inglis informs us that in Cachar "this King-Crow is extremely common. It breeds all through the summer. It lays four or five pure white eggs on the top of a few grasses placed in the fork of a tree. It is very pugnacious, and attacks birds of all sizes if they approach it."

There are two very distinct types of this bird's eggs. The one pure white and spotless, the other a pale salmon-colour, spotted with a rich brownish red. These eggs unquestionably both belong to the same species, as I have taken them times without number myself and can positively certify to their parentage; moreover connecting links are not wanting in a large series. I have one egg perfectly white, with the exception of three or four blackish-brown spots, another with more of these spots, another with almost as many as the ordinary spotted eggs have, the ground-colour in all these being still pure white, and the spots being blackish or very deep reddish brown. Then I have others similar to those just described, but showing a faint salmon-colored halo round one or two of the largest spots, others in which the halo is further developed, and others again with the entire ground-colour an excessively pale salmon throughout, and so on a complete series gradually increasing in intensity of colour till we get the pure rich salmon-buff which is at the other end of the scale. I am particular in this description, because the eggs of this bird have been a subject of almost as many contradictions between Indian naturalists as the chameleon of pious memory. In shape the eggs are typically a rather long oval, somewhat pointed towards one end. Very much elongated varieties are common, recalling in this respect the eggs of Chibia hottentotta. Spherical varieties, if they occur, must be very rare, the enormous series I possess containing no example. In the colour of the ground, as above remarked, there is every possible, variety of shade between pure white and a very rich salmon-colour. In the intensity and number of the markings there is an equally great variety. The markings, always spots and specks, the largest never exceeding 01 inch in diameter, are invariably most numerous towards the large end, where they are sometimes, though rarefy, slightly confluent. They vary from only two or three to a number too large to count, and in colour through many shades of reddish, blackish, and purplish brown, the latter being rare and abnormal.

The eggs are entirely devoid of gloss, as a rule, though here and there a slight trace of it is observable. It is this want of gloss alone that distinguishes some of the larger white, black-spotted varieties from the eggs of the common Oriole, which they occasionally exactly resemble not only in shape, colour, and character of marking, but even (though generally smaller) in size.

In length they vary From 087 to 115 inch, and in breadth from 07 to 085, but the average of 152 eggs measured is 101 by 075 inch. I have two dwarf eggs of this species not included in the above average which I myself obtained in different nests, measuring only 078 by 05 inch, and 087 by 062 inch.

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