Courtship and Display
In the breeding season, territory is occupied and mates, mates are wooed, rivals are fought, pairing takes place and then duties of nesting and parenthood start.
In the springtime, everything is filled with awakening life. Generally, it is the males who have to coax the females to become partners. So, they don the gay plumes of the marriage season. At this time of year, peculiar fineries are thrust into prominence, like crests, frills, collars, long neck-plumes, trains, spurs, highly-colored patches of bare skin and brightly-hued bills, feet and legs.
The female, on the other hand, is dressed in dull colors. This is because she has to sit on the nest and is exposed to danger. Her colors help to escape the attention of the enemy. Strangely enough, there are some species, like the painted snipe and bustard quail, which do the opposite: the female is decked out gaudily. After she lays the eggs, the male sits on them and rears the young.
Have you ever seen the peacock, our National Bird, courting? It is a wonderful sight. He first majestically approaches the female, then spreads the fan of his gorgeous tail. What a beauty he is, with silky fringes, powdered with glittering gold dust, and near the tip of every plume a beautiful spot of changing colors sparkling like a living eye!
The peacock prances and shows first the back of his screen-a huge shield of dull single tone. Suddenly, he turns around and confronts the female with all the glory of his brilliant multi-hued screen. As he dances, he shakes the gorgeous train rapidly. All the eyes in the coverts laugh and sparkle, changing their from green to blue, to bronze and gold and back again to green.
Courtship performances differ greatly. Some birds perform aerial acrobatics. Those, which have colorful legs, rise into the air and descend towards a female with their legs dangling to attract attention. Some puff out their bright feathers and hover a female.
A bird does not build its nest just anywhere. The site is chosen with care. An adequate source of food in the area around is important so that the young ones can be fed.
A good deal of fighting takes place among birds for the best nesting-places. Once their disputes are settled, each cock-bird is now a property-owner, and a more peaceful state of affairs prevails. Next he courts a female, and then begins the work of nest- building and rearing of the young.
Nests and Brood Care
A constant and fierce struggle for existence goes on among birds. The breeding season holds utmost dangers for parents and their young. The eggs are sought by lizards, snakes, and rats, squirrels, monkeys and man himself. Even other birds are not to be trusted. Crows and gulls are notorious robbers.
Birds build crude or careful nests, depending on their needs.
There are roughly six types of nests:
Open-topped nests: These are deep and cup-shaped to prevent eggs or young birds from falling out. A lining is often added of soft material such as fibers, hair, wool and even fluffy feathers. Such nests belong usually to birds like the crow, the stork and the dove, which live in colonies or pairs and can defend them.
Covered nests: Completely covered over by a domed roof, these nests have only a small opening on one side. The chamber is lined with small feather or hair.
Nests in tunnels: Birds like the kingfisher, the bee-eater and the sand martin, cut tunnels and pits on the river banks with their bills.
Nests in holes: Builders in holes in trees, rocks and walls are the woodpecker, the owl, the parakeet, the myna and the hornbill. They either dig the holes themselves, or use natural holes. The hornbill has a very strange custom. When the female begins to sit on her eggs in a hole in a tree, she is walled in by her mate. During the whole of this period, the male works hard to feed her through a small opening made for the purpose.
Nests that are no nests at all: Terns, plovers, lapwings and stone curlews make no nests at all in the true sense. They breed upon the ground. Their eggs, which resemble their surroundings very closely, are difficult to find. Plovers collect tiny shells and pebbles, place them on a rocky shore, and lay the eggs on top of them.
Usually, it is the mother-bird alone who sits on the eggs to keep them warm, but the devoted father is even eager to help her in every way. Sometimes he sits on the eggs, while she hops off to feed and stretch herself.
Most birds breed only once a year, but if the first brood is destroyed, they may lay a second time.
Not all eggs are "egg-shaped". Birds which lay in tree-holes, rocks, ruins or similar places where the eggs are not likely to roll about, have round eggs. Lapwings and other birds of that family have pear-shaped eggs. They are placed in a circle with pointed ends inwards so as to occupy as little space as possible. There are birds which lay a large single elongated egg on a flat rock or ocean cliff.
The number of eggs laid by different species depends on the food supply available, their defensive capacity and habits. Some birds lay a single egg; some two; some four. Eagles lay from one to four, ducks from five to sixteen and tits from four to six eggs. Generally, ground birds which fly poorly and are exposed to more dangers lay up to twenty eggs. Several females lay eggs in the same nest.
The color and marketing's of egg-shells play an important part in their preservation. Wood-peckers, kingfishers, parakeets and owls, which have covered nests, lay pure white eggs, since "protective coloration" is not needed. There is also the added advantage in that the parent-birds can see the white eggs clearly in the dark. But where the nests are open, the eggs have the color of the surrounding area, so as to make it difficult for the enemy to spot them. Many eggs are buff, green, blue, brown, purple or primrose.
The surface of most eggs is smooth or even glossy. Some have a highly polished appearance; others are rough and chalky in texture.
The parent-bird sits on the eggs to keep them warm. To ensure even heat, a brooding bird sheds some abdominal feathers, and there may be one to four such bare patches, which are called "brood-spots". The bird sits with the bare patches comfortably in contact with the eggs. The cooling for a short time when the bird leaves the nest for food does no harm. It may take as little as eleven days for small birds and as long as eighty days for larger birds to hatch their eggs. Soft-billed insect-eating birds and the hard-billed seed-eaters work from dawn to dusk searching for food for their chicks. Some birds feed their young on partly-digested food. Young pigeons thrust their bills into the mouth of the mother to take the 'pigeon's milk', which is partly digested food and partly a secretion from the bird. The petrel secretes an oil from the fish it eats and feeds it to the young. Whatever the method, feeding the young is a very tiring job indeed, and it goes on till they are big enough to help themselves.
Birds like the sparrow, the lark and the thrush are born with their eyes closed and are quite helpless. It may be a week or a fortnight before they are able to leave their nests. On the other hand, duckling, chickens, baby plovers and other game birds come out of their eggs open-eyed, wearing a thick coat of down. They leave the nest as soon as they are hatched and pick their own food, run about and swim.
Birds defend their young by attacking enemies in a most courageous way. I have watched a small bulbul driving a kite away by pecking vigorously at him. Birds exchange warning notes too when danger is near, and the young hasten to take shelter under the mother's wing.
The squatting instinct is very strong in young plovers which are exposed on shingle beaches without cover, and in game birds in sparse vegetation. At a warning-cry from the mother, or at a passing shadow, which may mean the swoop of a bird of prey, the chicks flatten themselves against the ground and remain still as long as danger is near.
The partridge and many other birds decoy intruders from their offspring by pretending to be injured or lame. The intruder goes after it in the almost certain hope of catching the wounded bird which flops and tumbles along a yard or two in front of him. As soon as he has been led some distance away, she flies off!
Yet, despite all this love and care, thousands of young birds perish every year.