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The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds - A. O. Hume

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

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Order PASSERES     Family LANIIDAE   Subfamily LANIINAE

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476. Lanius erythronotus (Vigors). Rufous-backed Shrike

Lanius erythronotus (Vigors); Jerdon B. Ind. i, p. 402.
Collyrio erythronotus, (Vigors), Hume, Rough Draft N. & E. no. 257.
Collyrio caniceps* (Blyth), Hume, Rough Draft N. & E. no. 257 bis.

*[Mr. Hume may probably still consider L. caniceps separable from L. erythronotus. I therefore keep the notes on the two races distinct as they appeared in the 'Rough Draft,' merely adding a few later notes.--ED.]

Lanius erythronotus

The Rufous-backed Shrike lays from March to August; the first half of this period being that in which the majority of these birds lay in the Himalayas, which they ascend to elevations of 6000 feet: and the latter half being that in which we find most eggs in the plains; but in both hills and plains some eggs may be found throughout the whole period above indicated.

The nests of this species are almost invariably placed on forks of trees or of their branches at no great height from the ground; indeed, of all the many nests that I have myself taken, I do not think that one was above 15 feet from the ground. By preference they build, I think, in thorny trees, the various species of acacia, so common throughout the plains of India, being apparently their favorite nesting-haunts, but I have found them breeding on toon (Cedrela toona) and other trees. Internally the nest is always a deep cup, from 3 to 3 inches in diameter, and from 1 to 2-1/8 deep. The cavity is always circular and regular, and lined with fine grass. Externally the nests vary greatly; they are always massive, but some are compact and of moderate dimensions externally, say not exceeding 5 inches in diameter, while others are loose and straggling, with a diameter of fully 8 inches. Grass-stems, fine twigs, cotton-wool, old rags, dead leaves, pieces of snake's skin, and all kinds of odds and ends are incorporated in the structure, which is generally more or less strongly bound together by fine tow-like vegetable fibre. Some nests indeed are so closely put together that they might almost be rolled about without injury, while others again are so loose that it is scarcely possible to move them from the fork in which they are wedged without pulling them to pieces.

I have innumerable notes about the nests of this Shrike, of which I reproduce two or three.

"Etawah, March 18th. - The nest was on a babul tree, some 10 feet from the ground, on one of the outside branches; an exterior framework of very thorny babul twigs, and within a very warm deep circular nest made almost entirely of sun (Crotalaria juncea) fibre, a sort of fine tow, and flocks of cotton-wool, there being fully as much of this latter as of the former; a few fine grass-stems are interwoven; there are a few human and a few sleep's wool hairs at the bottom as a sort of lining. The cavity of the nest is about 3 inches in diameter by 2 deep, and the side walls and bottom are from 1 to 2 inches thick."

"Bareilly, May 27th, 1867. - Found a nest containing two fresh eggs. The nest was in a small mango tree, rather massive, nearly 2 inches in thickness at the sides and 3 inches thick at the bottom. It was rather stoutly and closely put together, though externally very ragged. The interior neatly made of fine grass-stems, the exterior of coarser grass-stems and roots, with a quantity of cotton-wool, rags, tow string and thread intermingled. The cavity was oval, about 3 by 3 inches and 2 inches deep."

"Agra, August 21st. - Mr. Munro sent in from Bitchpoorie a beautiful nest which he took from the fork of a mango tree about 40 feet from the ground, a very compact and massive cup-shaped nest, not very

Mr. F. R. Blewitt records the following note: "Breeds from March to August, on low trees, and, as would appear, without preference for any one kind.

"The nest in shape much resembles that of Lanius lahtora; but judging from the half-dozen or so I have seen, L. erythronotus certainly displays more skill and ingenuity in preparing its nest, which in structure is more neat and compact than that of L. lahtora. In shape it is circular, ordinarily varying from 5 to 7 inches in diameter, and from 2 to 2 inches in thickness. Hemp, old rags, and thorny twigs are freely used in the formation of the outer portion of the nest, but the Shrike shows a decided predilection for the former. In one nest I observed the cast skin of a snake worked in with the outer materials; in two others some kind of vegetable fibre was used to bind and secure the thorn twigs, and one had the margin made of fine neem-tree twigs and leaves. The egg-cavity is deeply cup-shaped, from 3 to 4 inches in diameter, and lined usually with fine grass. Five appears to be the regular number of eggs; but on this score I cannot be very certain, seeing that my experience is confined to some half-dozen or so of nests.

"I have recently reared three young birds, and it is very amusing to witness their many antics, shrewdness, and intelligence. They are very tame, flying in and out of the bungalow at pleasure; when irritated, which is rather a failing with them, they show every sign of resentment. If one is inclined to be rebellious, not coming to call, the show of a piece of meat at once secures its submission and capture. Singular how partial they are to raw meat, and more singular to see the expert way in which they catch up the meat with the claws of either leg, and hold it from them while they devour it piecemeal. I saw the other evening an old bird pounce on a field-mouse, kill it, and then bring and cleverly fix the victim firmly between the two forks of a branch and pull it in pieces. It consumed but a part of the mouse."

Mr. W. Theobald makes the following note on this bird's breeding in the neighborhood of Pind Dadan Khan and Kaias in the Salt Range: '"Lay in May; eggs five to six; shape blunt, ovato-pyriform; size varies from 088 to 093 of an inch in length, and from 068 to 081 of an inch in breadth. Colour white or pale greenish white, slightly ringed and spotted with yellowish grey and neutral tint. Nest of roots, coarse grass, rags, cotton, etc., lined with fine grass, and placed in forks of trees."

Captain Hutton, who recognizes the distinctions between this species and L. caniceps, says: "This is an abundant species in the Doon, but is found also within the mountains up to about 5000 feet. In the Doon I took a nest on the 28th June containing four eggs. It is composed of grass and fine stalks of small plants roughly put together, bits of rag, shreds of fine bark, and lined with very fine grass-seed stalks; internal diameter 3 inches, external 6 inches; depth 2 inches."

Sir E. C. Buck notes having taken a nest containing four hard-set eggs on the 22nd of June, far in the interior of the Himalayas, at Niratu, north-east of Notgurh. The nest was in a tuhar tree and was composed externally of grass-seed ears, internally of finer grass; a very different-looking nest from any I have elsewhere seen, but he forwarded the bird and eggs, so that there could be no mistake.

From Murree, Colonel C. H. T. Marshall writes: "Found numerous nests in the valleys in May and June, between 4000 and 5000 feet up. From four to six eggs are laid, and in regard to this Shrike I have had no reason to think that it rears more than one brood in the year."

Major Wardlaw Ramsay say says, writing of Afghanistan: "I found a great many nests in May and June. The first (27th May) was situated in the centre of a dense thorny creeper, and contained six eggs, white, faintly washed with pale green, and spotted and blotched with purplish stone-colour and pale brown. The nest was composed of green grass, moss, cotton-wool, thistle-down, rags, cows' hair, mules' hair, shreds of juniper-bark, etc. Other nests were found in willows by the river-bank and in apricot-trees. In a large orchard at Shalofyan, in the Kurrum valley, I found three nests within a few yards of one another."

Major C. T. Bingham writes: "I have only found one nest of this Shrike, which is, however, common enough both at Allahabad and at Delhi. This nest I found on the 3rd June in the Nicholson gardens at Delhi. It was placed high up in the fork of a babul tree, and though more straggling and loosely built was very like that of L. lahtora; the two eggs it contained, except that they are a trifle smaller, are very like those of L. lahtora"

Colonel Butler has furnished me with the following note: The Rufous-backed Shrike commences nidification at Mt. Abu about the end of May. I took a nest on the 11th June containing five fresh eggs. It was placed in the fork of one of the outer branches of a mango-tree about 15 feet, from the ground. The hen bird sat very close, allowing the native I sent up the tree to put his hand almost on to her back before she moved, and then she only flew to a bough close by, remaining there chattering and scolding angrily the whole time the nest was being robbed. The nest, which is coarse and somewhat large for the size of the bird, is composed externally of dry grass-roots, twigs, rags, raw cotton, string, and other miscellaneous articles all woven together. The interior is neatly lined with dry grass and horsehair. The eggs, five in number, are of a pale greenish-white colour, spotted all over with olivaceous inky-brown spots and specks, increasing in size and forming a zone at the large end. They vary much in shape, some being pyriform, and others blunt and similar in shape at both ends. I took another nest on the 19th June near the same place containing five fresh eggs, similar in every respect to the one already described, except that it was built on a thorn-tree about 10 feet from the ground. I took a nest at Deesa on the 8th July, 1875, containing four fresh eggs; these eggs are smaller and rounder than those from Abu, and the blotches are larger and more distinct. The same pair of birds built another nest a few days later, on 18th July, within ten yards of the tree from which the other nest was taken, laying five eggs.

"I found other nests at Deesa on the following dates:--

"July 2nd. A nest containing 4 incubated eggs.
" 7th. " " 2 fresh eggs.
" 8th. " " 4 "
" 9th. " " 2 "
" 10th. " " 5 "
" 10th. " " 4 "
Aug. 9th. " " 3 "

"I found many other nests in the same neighborhood containing young birds during the last week of July."

Regarding the Rufous-backed Shrike, Mr. Benjamin Aitken has sent me the subjoined interesting note: "This Shrike makes its appearance in Bombay regularly during the last week of September, and announces its arrival by loud cries for the first few days, till it has made itself at home in the new neighborhood; after which it spends nearly the whole of its days on a favorite perch, darting down on every insect that appears within a radius of thirty yards. It pursues this occupation with a system and perseverance to which L. lahtora makes but a small approach. When its stomach is full, it enlivens the weary hours with the nearest semblance to a song of which its vocal organs are capable; for while many human bipeds have a good voice but no ear, the L. erythronotus has an excellent ear but a voice that no modulation will make tolerable. It remains in Bombay till towards the end of February, and then suddenly becomes restless and quarrelsome, making as much ado as the Koel in June, and then taking its departure, for what part of the world I do not know. This I know, that from March to August there is never a Rufous-backed Shrike in Bombay.

"The Rufous-backed Shrike, though not so large as the Grey Shrike, is a much bolder and fiercer bird. It will come down at once to a cage of small birds exposed at a window, and I once had an Amadavat killed and partly eaten through the wires by one of these Shrikes, which I saw in the act with my own eyes. The next day I caught the Shrike in a large basket which I set over the cage of Amadavats. On another occasion I exposed a rat in a cage for the purpose of attracting a Hawk, and in a few minutes found a L. erythronotus fiercely attacking the cage on all sides. I once caught one alive and kept it for some time. As soon as it found itself safely enclosed in the cage, it scorned to show any fear, and the third day took food from my hand. It was very fond of bathing, and was a handsome and interesting pet."

Messrs. Davidson and Wenden remark: "Very common in Satara; breeding freely in beginning of the rains; observed at Lanoli. Bare in the Sholapoor District and does not appear to breed there." And the former gentleman, writing of Western Khandeish, says: "A few pairs breed about Dhulia in June and July."

Mr. C. J. W. Taylor records the following note from Manzeerabad in Mysore: "Plentiful all over the district. Breeding in May; eggs taken on the 7th."

I have so fully described the eggs of L. lahtora, of which the eggs of this present species are almost miniatures, that I need say but little in regard to these. On the whole, the markings in this species are, I think, feebler and less numerous than in L. lahtora; and though this would not strike one in the comparison of a few eggs in each, it is apparent enough when several hundreds of each are laid side by side, four or five abreast, in broad parallel rows. The ground-colour, too, in the egg of L. erythronotus has seldom, if ever, as much green in it, and has commonly more of the pale creamy or pinky stone-colour than in the case of L. lahtora.

In size the eggs of L. erythronotus appear to approach those of the English Red-backed Shrike, though they average perhaps somewhat smaller.

In length they vary from 085 to 105 inch, and in breadth from 065 to 077 inch, but the average of more than one hundred eggs measured is 092 by 071 inch.

Lanius caniceps

This closely allied species, the Pale Rufous-backed Shrike, breeds only, so far as I yet know, in the Nilgiris, Palanis, etc. It lays from March to July, the majority, I think, breeding in June. Its nest is very similar and is similarly placed to that of the preceding, from which, if it differs at all, it only differs in being somewhat smaller.

It lays from four to six eggs, slightly more elongated ovals than those of L. erythronotus, taken as a body, but not, in my opinion, separable from these when mixed with a large number.

Captain Hutton, however, does not concur in this: he remarks: "This species, which is very common in Afghanistan, occurs also in the Doon and on the hills up to about 6000 feet. At Jeripanee I took a nest on the 21st June containing five eggs, of a pale livid white colour, sprinkled with brown spots, chiefly collected at the larger end, where, however, they cannot be said to form a ring; interspersed with these are other dull sepia spots appearing beneath the shell. Diameter 094 by 069 inch, or in some rather more. Shape rather tapering ovate.

"The differences perceptible between this and the last are the much smaller size of the spots and blotches, the latter, indeed, scarcely existing, while in L. erythronotus they are large and numerous; there is great difference likewise in the shape of the egg, those of the present species being less globular or more tapering. The nest was found in a thick bush about 5 feet from the ground, and was far more neatly made than that of the foregoing species; it is likewise less deep internally. It was composed of the dry stalks of 'forget-me-not,' compactly held together by the intermixture of a quantity of moss interwoven with fine flax and seed-down, and lined with fine grass-stalks. Internal diameter 3 inches; external 6 inches; depth 1 inch, forming a flattish cup, of which the sides are about 1 inch thick. The depth, therefore, is less by 1 inch than in that of the last-mentioned nest."

Mr. H. R. P. Carter tells me that "at Coonoor, on the Nilgiris, this species breeds in April and May, placing its nest in large shrubs, orange-trees, and other low trees which are thick and leafy. The nest is externally irregular in shape, and is composed of fibres and roots mixed with cotton-wool and rags; in one nest I found a piece of lace, 6 or 8 inches long; internally it is a deep cup, some 4 inches in diameter and 2 in depth. The eggs are sometimes three in number, sometimes four."

Mr. Wait says that "the breeding-season extends from March to July in the Nilgiris; the nest, cup-shaped and neatly built, is placed in low trees, shrubs, and bushes, generally thorny ones; the outside of the nest is chiefly composed of weeds (a white downy species is invariably present), fibres, and hay, and it is lined with grass and hair; there is often a good deal of earth built in, with roots and fibres in the foundation of this nest; four appears to be the usual number of eggs laid."

Miss Cockburn, from Kotagherry, also on the Nilgiris, tells me that "the Pale Rufous-backed Shrike builds in the months of February and March and forms a large nest, the foundation of which is occasionally laid with large pieces of rags, or (as I have once or twice found) pieces of carpet. To these they add sticks, moss, and fine grass as a lining, and lay four eggs, which are white, but have a circle of ash-colored streaks and blotches at the thick end, resembling those on Flycatchers' eggs. They are exceedingly watchful of their nests while they contain eggs or young, and never go out of sight of the bush which contains the precious abode."

Mr. Davison remarks that "this species builds in bushes or trees at about 6 to 20 feet from the ground: a thorny thick bush is generally preferred, Berberis asiatica being a favorite. The nest is a large deep cup-shaped structure, rather neatly made of grass, mingled with odd pieces of rag, paper, etc., and lined with fine grass. The eggs, four or five in number, are white, spotted with blackish brown, chiefly at the thicker end, where the spots generally form a zone. The usual breeding-season is May and the early part of June, though sometimes nests are found in April and even as late as the last week in June, by which time the south-west monsoon has generally burst on the Nilgiris."

Dr. Fairbank writes: "This bird lives through the year on the Palanis and breeds there. I found a nest with five eggs when there in 1867, but have not the notes then made about it."

Captain Horace Terry informs us that this Shrike is a most common bird in the Palani hills, found everywhere and breeding freely.

Mr. H. Parker, writing from Ceylon, says: "A pair of these Shrikes reared three clutches of young in my compound (two of them out of one nest) from December to May, inclusive; but this must be abnormal breeding."

Colonel Legge writes in his 'Birds of Ceylon' "This bird breeds in the Jaffna district and on the north-west coast from February until May. Mr. Holdsworth found its nest in a thorn-bush about 6 feet high, near the compound of his bungalow, in the beginning of February... Layard speaks of the young being fledged in June at Point Pedro, and says that it builds in Euphorbia trees in that district."

The eggs of this species, sent me by Captain Hutton from the Doon and by numerous correspondents from the Nilgiris, are indistinguishable from many types of L. erythronotus, and indeed the birds are so closely allied that this was only to be expected. It is unnecessary to describe these at length, as my description of the eggs of L. erythronotus applies equally to these.

In size the eggs, however, vary less and average longer than those of this latter species. In length they range from 093 to 1 inch, and in breadth from 07 to 072 inch, but the average of twenty was 095 by 07 inch.

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