Suborder MEROPES Meropidae - Bee-Eaters - India

Fauna of India (Birds)  vol iii 1895 - by W. T. Blanford

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Suborder MEROPES

Only the left carotid is present. The manubrium sterni is trifid, the inner portion being forked, and the outer single. Behind the spine is a foramen as in Upupidae and Bucerotidae. Cervical vertebrae 15. The flexor perforans digitorum gives off from its inner side the slip which supplies the hallux, before blending with the f. longus hallucis. The conjoined tendons then divide into three to supply the other toes. Other characters as in Coraciae. A single family.


Bill long, slender, and curved throughout, culmen ridged, both mandibles pointed; legs and feet feeble, syndactyle, the outer or fourth toe united to the third or middle toe as far as the last joint, second and third toes united by the basal joint only. Tail-feathers 12. Primaries 10. Sexes alike or nearly so.

Key to the Genera
a. Breast-plumes not elongate; wing pointed; 2nd quill longest
   a’. Middle pair of tail-feathers much longer than the others                                             ..... Merops
   b'. Middle tail-feathers not longer                                                                                ..... Melittophagus
b. Breast-plumes elongate, pendent, and brightly coloured; wing rounded; 4th quill longest  ..... Nyctiornis

Genus MEROPS, Linn., 1766

Bill very long, slender, and pointed, nostrils partially covered by plumes; a few small rictal bristles at the base of the bill; wings long, pointed, 1st primary minute, 2nd longest; the two middle tail-feathers longer than the others, and with their terminal portion narrow. The genus ranges throughout the greater part of the Old World; four species are Indian.

Key to the Species
a. Throat green or chestnut; middle tail-feathers exceed others by more than length of culmen
   a’. Throat green or bluish green: wing 3.6                                                                  .... M. viridis
   b’. Chin yellow, throat chestnut: wing 5-6
      a”. Tail blue above                                                                                                .... M. philippinus
      b”. Tail green above                                                                                             .... M. persicus
b. Chin & throat yellow; middle tail-feathers exceed outer by less than length of culmen   .... M. apiaster

The habits of all Bee-eaters are similar. All feed on insects, and the larger species very much on bees and wasps, which they capture in the air, seize across the body, and crush, either with their mandibles or by beating the insect against their perch, before swallowing. They select a perch with a good look-out, often a dead branch at the top of a tree or bush, and they are fond of sitting on telegraph-wires. They generally, after sallying forth and hunting, return to the same perch. They have a pleasant whistling note: they generally live in colonies and make long nest-holes, two or three inches in diameter and often several feet deep, in the bank of a river, on a hill-side, or sometimes on level ground; at the bottom of this hole they hollow out a chamber, in which their eggs, which are white, glossy, and very spherical ovals, are laid, usually without any lining.

Merops viridis  Common Indian Bee-eater

Merops viridis, Linn. Syst. Nat. i, p.182 (1766); Blyth, Cat. p.53; Horsf. & M.Cat. p.84; Jerdon, B.I.i, p.205; Stoliczka, J.A.S.B. xxxvii, p.19; Hume S.F. i, p.167; iii, p.49; xi, p.42; id. 117; Adam, S.F.i, p.371; Blyth & Wald. Birds Burm, p.73; Morgan, Ibis, 1875, p.314; Hume & Dav. S.F. vi, pp.67, 498; Legge Birds Ceyl. p.309; Scully, S.F. viii, p.237; Davison, S.F.x, p.350; Oates, B.B. ii, p.65; id. in Hume’s N. & E. 2nd ed iii, p.60; Barnes, Birds Bomb. p.93; Dresser, Mon. Mer. p.31, pl. ix; Sharpe, Cat. B.M. xvii, p.78
Merops ferrugeiceps and M. torquatus, Hodg. Gray's Zool. Misc. p.82 (1844), descr. nulla
Merops indicus, Jerdon, Madr. Jour. L.S. xi, p.227
Patringa, Harrial, H.; Banspati in Bengal; Tailinqi, Veda Raghu, Mahr.; Chinna passeriki, Tel.; Kurumenne, Kurullu, Cing. ; Kattalan, Kuruvi, E Tamil, Ceylon; Monagyi, Arrakan; Hnet-pasin-to, Burm. Several of these terms are also used for other species of Merops.

Coloration: Upper parts, including wing-coverts and tertiaries, bright green, sometimes more or less tinged with ferruginous or golden on the crown, nape, and upper back, tertiaries and rump a little bluer. Lores and a band under the eye to the ear coverts black, primary and secondary quills pale rufous, greenish on the outer webs, tipped blackish. Tail duller green above, dark brown below, tips of the elongate middle feathers blackish. Lower parts green. A black gorget; chin and cheeks, and sometimes the throat, bluish or even verditer-blue. Lower abdomen and lower coverts also sometimes bluish.

Bill black; irides blood-red; feet dark plumbeous (Jerdon).

Size: Length about 9;  tail 4.5-5;  outer rectrices 2.9;  wing 3.6;  tarsus 0.4;  bill from gape 1.4
Specimens with a ferruginous head are more common to the eastward, especially in Burma; birds from the North-west Provinces show the blue throat best, but the intensity of this colour appears to increase as the plumage gets worn. Both of the varieties are occasionally found in southern India.

Distribution: Common and resident almost throughout India, Ceylon, and Burma. Wanting in the Himalayas, where this species rarely occurs, even in the. lower ranges, though there are specimens from Kashmir and Murree in the Hume Collection. Absent also as a rule on the higher hills of the peninsula, and in some of the denser and damper forests. In Ceylon M. viridis is only found in the drier parts of the low country. In Tenasserim it has not been observed south of Mergui, and it does not occur in the Malay peninsula nor in the Andamans or Nicobars, though it is found in Siam and Cochin China. West of India it extends through Baluchistan and southern Persia to north-eastern Africa.

Habits: One of the commonest and most familiar of Indian birds; a resident in general, but locally migratory in some places; thus it is said to leave the island of Bombay from April till September. It has the usual habits of Bee-eaters, but generally prefers a lower perch than the larger species; it lives on various insects, usually captured in the air, and it has a pleasant whistling note. It breeds from the middle of March till the beginning of June, and lays from 3 to 5 eggs at the end of a hole which it digs to a depth of 1 to 5 feet, usually in a bank or cliff. The eggs are spherical ovals, white and glossy, and measure about 0.78 by 0.70.

Merops philippinus  Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Merops philippinus, Linn. Syst. Nat. ed, xiii (Vindob.), i, p.183 (1767); Jerdon. Madr. Jour. L.S. xi, p.228; Blyth, Cat. p.52; Horsf.& M.Cat. p.86; Walden, Tr. Z.S. viii, p.42; Hume, S.F. iii, p.456; iv, pp.36, 287; xi, p.42; id. 118; Blyth & Wald. Birds Burm. p.72 ; Hume & Dav. S.F. vi, pp.67, 498; Ball, S.F. vii, p.203; Cripps, ibid. p.258; Legge, Birds Ceyl. p.306; Doig, S.F. viii, p.370; Vidal, S.F. ix, p.49; Bingham ibid. p.152; Butler, ibid. p.381; Davison, S.F.x. p.350; Oates, B.B.ii, p.66; Dresser, Mon. Mer. p.55, pl. xv; Barnes, Birds Bom. p.94; Littledale, Jour. Bomb. N.H. Soc. i, pp.31, 196; Oates in Hume’s N. & E. 2nd ed. iii, p.63; Sharpe, Cat. B.M. xvii, p.71
Merops philippensis, Jerdon, B.I. i, p.207; Ball, S.F. i, p.57; Anderson, Yunnan Exp., Aves, p.581
Merops daudini, Cuv. Règne Anim, Nouv. ed. i, p.442 (1829), descr. nulla; Hume, S.F.ii, p.162; iii, p.49
Bara patringa, H.; Komu passeriki, Tel.; Huet-pasin-to, Burm

Fig. 31 - head of M. philippinus

Coloration: Lores and a streak past the eye to the ear-coverts black, bordered above by a narrow pale verditer-blue supercilium and below by a broader blue line. Upper parts to rump, including the wing-coverts, green with a rufous tinge passing into the verditer-blue of the rump, upper tail-coverts, and tail. Tertiaries also sometimes bluish; middle pair of tail-feathers with elongate black tips, and all tail-feathers dark brown beneath: wing-feathers more rufous green than the back, all except the tertiaries tipped with black, the outer webs bluish or brighter greenish towards the tip. Chin yellow; throat chestnut, passing into green on the breast, this passes into pale blue round the vent and on the lower tail-coverts. Wing-lining light brownish rufous.

Bill black; irides crimson; legs dusky plumbeous (Jerdon).

Size: Length about 12;  tail 5-6;  outer feathers only 3.5;  wing 5.25;  tarsus 0.5;  bill from gape 2.

Distribution: Throughout the greater part of the Oriental region. This Bee-eater is generally but somewhat locally distributed over India, Ceylon, and Burma, extending west to Sind, but not found in the Himalayas.

Habits: A resident species, but partially migratory in many places, and in Ceylon merely a winter visitant; it keeps much to forest countries and well-wooded districts, and generally breeds in the banks of rivers. It feeds on wasps, bees, dragonflies, beetles, and even butterflies. It sometimes congregates in large numbers, but is more often seen in small companies or singly. Its voice is described by Jerdon as a full, mellow, rolling whistle. it breeds, usually in large colonies, from March to June, in a hole 4 to 7 feet long, the egg-chamber being occasionally lined with grass or feathers; it lays usually four or five white, glossy, nearly spherical eggs, measuring about 0.88 by 0.76.

Merops persicus  Blue-checked Bee-eater

Merops persicus, Pall. Reis. Russ. Reichs, ii, Anhang, p.708 (1773); Blyth, Cat. p.52; Davids. & Wend. S.F. vii, p.77; Hume, 120; Scully, Ibis, 1881, p.429; Davidson, S.F.x, p.295; Barnes, Birds Bomb p.95; Swinhoe & Barnes, Ibis, 1885, p.61; Dresser, Mon. Mer. p.63, pl. xvi; St. John, Ibis, 1889, p.157; Oates in Hume’s N. & E. 2nd ed. iii, p.65; Sharpe, Cat.B.M. xvii, p.66
Merops aegyptius, Forsk. Descr. An., Aves, p.1 (1775); Horsf.& M.Cat. i, p.89; Jerdon, B.I.i, p.209; G.F.L. Marshall, Ibis, 1872, p.203; Hume, S.F.i. p.167; iii, p.326; Adam, S.F.i, p.371; Butler, S.F.iii, p.456; vii, p.181
Egyptian Bee-eater, Jerdon

Coloration: Very similar to M. philippinus, but greener. Forehead white, passing into verditer-blue, which unites the long blue supercilia; a black streak through the lores past the eye to the ear-coverts, bordered below by white, passing down into blue and then into green on the cheeks; upper parts and wings green, bluer on the rump and upper tail-coverts; quills greenish rufous, tipped blackish; tail-feathers also rufescent green, the long median pair dusky at the tips; chin yellow, throat chestnut, rest of lower parts green like the back; wing-lining brownish rufous.

Bill black; iris red; legs and feet fleshy (C. T. Bingham).

Size: Length about 12; tail 5 to 6, to end of outer rectrices 3.5;  wing 6; tarsus 0.55;  bill from gape 1.75.

Distribution: Migratory, wintering in Africa, and passing the summer in western and central Asia. A summer visitant to north-western India, breeding in parts of Sind, Rajputana, the Punjab, and Afghanistan, and ranging occasionally during migration as far as Gilgit, Aligarh and Mainpuri in the N. W. Provinces, Mhow, Khandesh, and even Pandharpur in the Bombay Deccan, where Mr. Davidson obtained a young specimen in October. This species has not, so far as I know, been observed in Kashmir proper.

Habits: Similar to those of other Bee-eaters. This species breeds near Delhi, as observed by Bingham, from the middle of May to the middle of July, and lays 3 to 5 eggs in the usual nest-hole. The eggs measure on an average 0.95 by 0.8l.

Merops apiaster  European Bee-eater

Merops apiaster, Linn. Syst. Nat. i, p.182 (1766); Blyth Cat. p.52; Adams, P.Z.S. 1858, p.474; Jerdon, B.I.i, p.210; id. ibis, 1872, p.3; Murray, S.F.i vii, p.113; Hume, 121; Wardl.-Ramsay, Ibis, 1880, p.49; Barnes, S.F.ix pp.215, 453; Biddulph, Ibis, 1881, p.48; Barnes, Birds Bom. p.95; St. John, Ibis, 1889, p.157; Oates in Hume’s N. & E. 2nd ed. iii, p.66; Sharpe, Cat.B.M. xvii, p.63

Coloration: Forehead white, followed by an indistinct line of verditer-blue passing into green, that is continued on each side as a supercilium. A black line including the lores and ear-coverts and passing under the eye; crown, hindneck and upper back chestnut, darkest on the head and passing into pale yellowish brown, weathering in worn plumage to buff on the lower back and rump, paler still on the scapulars. Secondary-coverts and quills chestnut. Primary-coverts and primary and tertiary quills bluish green, all quills except the tertiaries tipped black. Upper tail-coverts bluish green. Tail-feathers bronze-green above, the slightly elongate median pair tipped black, all blackish beneath. Chin and throat rich yellow, followed by a black gorget. Breast, abdomen, and under tail-coverts greenish blue, paler behind; wing-lining buff.

Bill black; iris red; legs and feet brown.

Size: Length about 10.5;  tail 4 to 5;  outer rectrices 3.5;  wing 5.75;  tarsus 0.55;  bill from gape 1.7.

Distribution: A migratory bird, wintering in Africa, and perhaps in southern Arabia, and breeding in summer in southern Europe and Central Asia, Within Indian limits this Bee-eater breeds in Kashmir and probably in Afghanistan, and has been observed when migrating in the N.W. Punjab, Baluchistan, and on one occasion in Sind.

Habits: Those of the genus. This and other large Bee-eaters keep more on the wing than M. viridis and feed on various insects, chiefly bees and wasps. M. apiaster breeds in Kashmir during May and June, and lays 4 to 7 eggs (6 being a common number) in a chamber at the end of a deep hole. The eggs are white and glossy, and measure about 1.08 by 0.9

Genus Melittophagus, Boie, 1828

This genus contains one Indian species, other kinds being found throughout the Ethiopian region, whilst one, M. quinticolor, inhabits Java. The only distinction from Merops is that the middle pair of tail-feathers are no longer than the other rectrices. Plumage and habits are similar to those of Merops, and the two types are scarcely worth separating.

Melittophagus swinhoii  Chestnut-headed Bee-eater

Merops erythrocephalus?, Gm. Syst. Nat. i, p.463 (1778); Blyth, Cat. p.53; Blyth & Wald. Birds Burma, p.72.
Merops quinticolor, apud Horsf. & M.Cat. p.88; Jerdon, B.I.i, p.208; Beavan, Ibis 1867, p.318; Godw.-Aust. J.A.S.B. xxxix, pt.2, p.266; Holdsw. P.Z.S. 1872, p.423; Jerdon, Ibis, 1872, p.3; Walden, Ibis, 1873, p.301; Davidson, Jour. Bomb. N.H. Soc. vi, p.332 (nec V.)
Merops swinhoei, Hume, N. & E. p.102 (1873); id. S.F.ii, p.163; vii, p.455; xi, p.42; id. 119; Ball S.F.ii, p.386; vii, p.203; Fairb. S.F.iv, p.254; Armstrong, ibid. p.305; Legge Birds Ceyl. p.312; Parker, S.F.ix, p.478; Davison, S.F.x, p.350; Barnes, Birds Bom. p.95
Merops leschenaultii, apud Fairb. S.F.v, p.394; Anders. Yunnan Exped., Aves, p.582; Hume & Dav., p.68 (nec V.).
Melittophagus leschenaulti, apud Oates, B.B.ii, p. 68
Melittophagus quinticolor, apud Dresser, Mon. Mer. p.115, pl. xxvi; Oates in Hume’s N. & E. 2nd ed. iii. p.67
Melittophagus swinhoii, Sharpe, Cat.B.M. xvii, p.55
Kurrumenne Kurulla, Pook-kira, Cingalese.

Coloration: Whole crown with the ear-coverts, hindneck, and upper back chestnut. Lores and a narrow line running back under the eye and ear-coverts black; interscapulars, scapulars, and outside of wings bright green; quills the same, but (the tertiaries excepted) with black tips and rufous inner margins. Rump and upper tail-coverts pale blue. Tail-feathers green above, all except the median pair dusky on their margins and tips. Chin and throat yellow; a rufous-brown gorget joining the chestnut of the upper surface, and bordered behind with black not extending to the sides of the neck, but succeeded by an ill-defined yellow band. Breast green, passing into bluish green on the abdomen and lower tail-coverts.

Bill black; iris crimson; legs dusky black (Oates).

Size: Length 8.5; tail 4; wing 4.2; tarsus 0.43; bill from gape 1.7.

After going over the original descriptions, I believe the true Merops quinticolor to be the Javan species. M. leschenaulti is not recognizable. Vieillot appears merely to have copied Levaillant’s descriptions and localities, and the latter are notoriously worthless.

Distribution: A resident, locally distributed throughout Ceylon and in the hill-forests near the Malabar coast as far north as Belgaum, ascending the Nilgiris to about 5000 feet. Elsewhere in the peninsula this bird is only known to occur in the great forest-region south-east of Bengal, and there it is very rare; but Mr. Ball obtained a specimen in Sarguja and I shot one on the Goddvari below Sironcha. It ranges throughout the lower Himalayas as far west as Dehradoon, and east of the Bay of Bengal from Assam to the Malay peninsula, Siam, and Cochin China, occurring locally throughout Burma and in the Andaman islands.

Habits: Similar to those of Merops. This bird is usually seen perched on a tree, very often on a dead branch, or catching insects on the wing. It chiefly prefers forests or well-wooded country near streams. It breeds about March and April, generally in colonies, in holes of considerable depth, and lays usually 5 or 6 glossy white eggs in a chamber at the end of the hole. The eggs measure about 0.87 by 0.76.

Genus NYCTIORNIS, Swains., 1831

Larger than Merops; bill stronger and deeper; ridge of the culmen flattened; a hollow on each side of the ridge; nostrils covered by plumes. Wing rounded; first quill about two-thirds of the second, third or fourth longest; tail rather long, even. Feathers of throat and breast elongate and richly coloured. Only two species are known, both are found within our area.

Key to the Species
Middle of throat and of breast light blue .... N. athertoni
Middle of throat and of breast scarlet     ....N. amictus

Nyctiornis athertoni  Blue-bearded Bee-eater

Merops athertoni, Jard. & Selby, Ill. Orn. ii, pl. 58 (1829)
Nyctiornis athertoni, Horsf.& M.Cat, p.89; Jerdon, B.I.i, p.211; Godw.-Aust. J.A.S.B. xliii, pt.2, p.153; Blyth & Wald. Birds Burma, p.73; Hume & Inglis, S.F.v, p.18; Fairbank, Ibid. p.394; Hume & Dav., p.68; Hume, S.F.vii, p.203; xi, p.42; id. 122; Anderson, Yunnan Exped., Aves, p.583; Bingham, S.F.ix, pp.153,472; Butler, ibid. p.382; Davison, S.F.x, p.351; Macgregor, ibid. p.436; Oates, B.B.ii p.63; id. in Hume’s N. & E. 2nd ed. iii, p.58; Dresser, Mon. Mar. p.7, pl.3; Barnes, Birds Bom. p.96; Davidson, Jour. Bomb, N.H.Soc. vi, p.333; Sharpe, Cat.B.M. xvii, p.88
Bucia nepalensis, Hodgson, J.A.S.B. v, p.361 (1836)
Merops cyanogularis, Jerdon, Mad. Jour. L.S. xi, p.229 (1840)
Alcemerops athertonii, Blyth, Cat. p.52
Blue-necked Bee-eater, Jerdon; Bukay Chera, Nepal; Sang-rhyok, Lepcha; Pya-too-huet, Burmese.

Fig. 32 - head of N. athertoni

Coloration: Forehead, sometimes to vertex, pale verditer-blue. Whole upper parts, with sides of neck and breast and upper surface of wings and tail, grass-green. Chin, middle of throat and of upper breast, forming a broad line, light blue, the long breast-feathers deep verditer except at the margins. Lower surface from breast, including the wing-lining, ochreous buff, streaked with broad green shaft-stripes from breast to vent. Tail-feathers dull ochreous yellow beneath, their outer margins and tips blackish.

Bill horny, light at the base below; iris brown; legs fleshy brown, tinged with green (Oates).

Size: Length 14;  tail 5.25;  wing 5.8;  tarsus 0.7;  bill from gape 2.3. The female somewhat less.

Distribution: Resident throughout the lower Himalayas as far west as Dehradoon, from the plains to about 4000 feet, also from Assam to Tenasserim, Siam, and Cambodia, throughout the Burmese countries, in the larger forests. This Bee-eater is replaced in southern Tenasserim by the next species, but it is found in the Malabar from the neighbourhood of Belgaum to Travancore. The only other reported occurrence in the peninsula of India is at Sambalpur, whence there are two skins in the Hume Collection. Not known in Ceylon.

Habits: A forest-bird, usually seen solitary or in pairs, perching on high trees, and capturing insects on the wing. The eggs were obtained by Major Bingham in Tenasserim from a hole 7 feet deep in the bank of a stream on April 23rd; they were four in number, hard-set, nearly round, white and glossy, and measured about 1.14 by 1.03. Several similar nests and eggs were taken by Mr. Davidson in Kanara at the end of March, and by Mr. E. C. Stuart Baker in Cachar from March till June. It was long supposed, doubtless erroneously, that this bird might breed in holes of trees.

Nyctiornis amictus  Red-bearded Bee-eater

Merops amictus, Temm. Pl. Col. pl. 310 (1824)
Nyctiornis amicta, Swains. Zool. Ill. ser. 2, ii, text to pl.56; Horsf.& M.Cat. p.383; Blyth, Ibis, 1866, p.345; Blyth & Wald. Birds Burm. p.73; Hume & Dav., pp.69, 498; Hume, 122 bis; Bingham, S.F.viii, p.193; ix, p.153; Oates, B.B.ii, p.64; Dresser, Mon, Mer. p.1, pls. 1, 2; Sharpe, Cat.B.M. xvii, p.90
Alcemerops amicta, Blyth, Cat. p.52
Nyctiornis malaccenis, Cab. & Heine, Mus. Hein. ii, p.133 (1859); Hume, S.F.ii p.409

Coloration: Nasal plumes and point of chin pale verditer-green. Lores and forehead pink, passing into lilac on the vertex. Feathers on eyelids dark green or blue; whole upper parts, including ear coverts, sides of neck and breast, and upper surface of wings and tail, grass-green. Cheeks in front of eye, throat, and elongate plumes in middle of breast scarlet, the latter dark green near the shafts. Lower parts from breast pale green. Tail-feathers beneath ochreous yellow, with broad black tips; exterior margin of outer most feathers also black. Wing-lining ochreous buff.

In the female the forehead and lores are scarlet like the throat; vertex only pink. Young birds are green throughout. Bill black, whitish at base; iris bright yellow to orange. Legs and feet pale green, often dingy, sometimes bluish (Davison).

Size: Length 13; tail 5; wing 5.25;  tarsus 0.6;  bill from gape 2.45 Females measure rather less and have a shorter bill.

Distribution: Tenasserim and throughout the Malay peninsula to Sumatra and Borneo. In Tenasserim this bird is found as far north as Moulmein, Myawadi, and the Thoungyeng valley, but is rare north of Yay.

Habits: Similar to those of N. athertoni. The note, according to Davison, is hoarse, of four syllables, and uttered at irregular intervals. Nidification not known.

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