I. Akimushkin. Albatross! The shoebill, the hammerhead, and the holy ibis. Addition to the wading birds: the flamingo family. Geese and Swans. The Secretarybird and the Osprey. Recognition by 'horns' and eyes. Lek! Wild chickens. The peafowl. Guinea fowls. Turkey. Other phasanids
It does not need any particular introductions: adventure novels, sea stories have introduced it to us since childhood.
The ocean, the ship, the albatross - this unity have been established in our consciousness for centuries. The ocean darkens before the storm - the albatross, as its brother the petrel, rejoicing and celebrating the storm flies over the foaming sea.
But it is not the storm itself that cheers it up, not the disturbance of the sea, but its gift that come to the surface - small fish, squids, crustaceans that scurry among the waves, seeds, nuts that were washed into the sea, refuse from the ships that float on top of the waves.
In calm weather the albatross flies little, it sits on the water, lulled to sleep by the motion of the sea. It sleeps on water too. But not all night long: for a part of it this bird hunts fish and squid that rise during the night from the depths to the ocean's surface. At sunrise the albatross rises with the morning wind, flying into the sky and travels, circling ever higher. It can glide for hours without twitching a wing.
And so the albatrosses wander over the oceans: some, perhaps, journey all around the world. Marking them with rings has indicated a travel of ten thousand km. The young albatrosses, while developing and maturing, take a long time preparing to fly (six months and more) but then they fly over the seas for 5-7 years without returning to land. At this age they have their first meetings with sites of future nests and the experiments of building nests. But they build their nests and raise chicks for real at an older age. That, at least, is the case of royal albatrosses, which live for 40 years. The others, probably, live the same way, though with possibly different chronological schedules.
The males and females keep loyalty to each other for years, if not for decades. There, where they have mated two years ago (the large albatrosses breed only every other year), the males arrive first and wait for their partners. If they had not perished in lonely wanderings over the seas - it had been a long while since the separation - they will always return to the old nest and find there their spouses.
Of course, only memories remain from the old nest: they have to build a new one, but sometimes they renovate the old one instead. The nest's construction is simple: a small pile of plants, or, more rarely, a small mound of earth and peat.
But the leks, the mating rituals are quite varied. Especially for the waved albatross.
The male walks around the female, shaking from side to side with every step and stretching out the neck. The head waves around. This is the beginning of the mating ceremony. Its' continuation: the birds stand beak to beak and seemingly fence with them. Then they raise the beaks upwards and opening them wide, snap them shut. This all is being repeated in different variations, adding other 'elements' of the ritual: the symbolic feather cleaning, mutual bows with beaks pressed to chests or to the ground (the 'symbolic indication of the nest'), cries, and whistles with raised heads, and 'dances' around the nest.
Both incubate the single egg: first the male then the female. After 60-80 days, different species have different times, the chick hatches. It also has to be fed for a long time. In case of the greater albatrosses the chick sits still in the nest for 7-9 months until it learns to fly. Sometimes the young albatrosses leave their parents' nest and build their own nearby. In it they grow feathers and grow strong. They are still supported by their parents, but do not receive it very often: once every 24 hours, during the night or before the dawn.
The wandering albatross is the biggest tubenose bird, about the size of a swan. But it has longer wings than a swan: 3.2, and even, supposedly, 3.5 m in the wingspan of its snow-white, narrow, 'board-like', wings. There is no other bird in the world with such a prolonged childhood. Nobody remains a chick for so long, or sits in its nest for almost a year.
For example, in December, on the Kergelen islands, the females build nests, and before the New Year they are already incubating one great egg. Chicks hatch in March. For a month the female warms 'a big ball of white fluff with two lively black eyes'. The two of them no longer fit into a single nest, the female leaves the nest for her offspring and sits next to him for a week or two.
'As for the father, it, not long ago before this, has already returned to the wandering life above the ocean. In May I always found the chicks on their own. Since they feed, of course, not on air alone, and continue to grow even after their mother's departure, it's clear that from time to time it returns to feed its chick, but these visits, apparently, occur between long periods of time.' (E. Ober de la Ru).
Meanwhile, the southern polar winter approaches with rains, snow, and, what is the most unpleasant, with eternal wings! Almost not a day without a tempest! 'The continuity and strength of the wind reach almost such records, the equal of which you will rarely meet anywhere else'. It is exactly the relentless winds brought to the Kergelen archipelago the ill fame of 'land of eternal hurricanes', 'islands of despair'.
And all of this must be endured by young, still helpless, albatrosses. All hurricane winter long they sit on puny, wind-scattered nests. Alone before the elements! No one and nothing warms them up, and the mother arrives to feed them only rarely. And if it perishes in wanderings above the sea? It is terrible to think about... Day after day, month after month the featherless chicks dream blank dreams under unceasing rain and icy snow. But their sleep is wary: quiet rustle or hushed footsteps carry a threat worse than the wind. With one jump, woken in alarm, the young albatross jumps towards the uninvited disturber of its loneliness. It clacks the beak, and it threatens. But what can it do: the means of defense are not trustworthy, are not dangerous for a strong foe, they promise only minor trouble, not crippling one. A blow, a peck of the beak - nonsense, really. Here the 'vomit', the disgustingly stinky stream, spat from the beak, is more effective than physical blows. But here they too have significantly less amount of this liquid than the young giant petrels, which have big stores of such a liquid.
And now the winter's past, its' troubles are forgotten. Spring has returned to the islands. With it - the adult albatrosses. But they have nothing to do with grown-up and feathered-up chicks of last year's clutches. They are busy, first of all, with the business of mating. In comic poises they flirt endlessly.
'If several males court the same female, this occurs with keeping their dignity intact. The males never lose their concentration and do not fight.' (E. Ober de la Ru).
Soon the females, after choosing on meadows, at the seashore, an appropriate place, will dig and rake the ground with their beaks. They build from it, mixing it with leaves, a small mound: a nest. The big egg will be incubated together with the male.
And their children from last year?
Forgotten and abandoned, one after another they fly away at the very peak of nest building into the seas still unknown to them. Some linger and celebrate the very first New Year of their lives on the islands. 'After long journeys around the world they, undoubtedly, return to breed on the same valleys that saw them hatch into the world.'
THE SHOEBILL, THE HAMMERHEAD, AND THE HOLY IBIS
The shoebill, under the Arabian name of 'Abu-markub' ('father of a shoe'), became famous due to Bengt Berg. His book about the journey through Sudan was very popular before WWII, and was translated into many languages, including Russian, so, perhaps, you are familiar with Abu-markub.
Nobody has such as a grandiose beak as this bird does: truly, a shoe on its head! The 'shoe' is born pressed to the chest even in flight. Abu-markub is an excellent flier, glides as well as an eagle does.
The bird may be common, as it was believed earlier, but the Abu-markub is seen never everywhere and not always. During the day it hides in the thicket of shore canes and papyruses that, in Sudan, may hide even elephant herds as if they were hares. It rarely emerges into open spaces. People say it is phlegmatic and lazy: you pass next to it, it will not take wing. Quiet, rarely gives itself away by piercing 'laughter' and beak clacking, similar to a stork's.
It hunts usually at night, and, as a rule, alone, for fish, frogs, molluscs and the youngest crocodiles. The shoebill's nest may be big - 'a flat platform out of stems and canes', but is always well hidden in impenetrable places.
The hammerheads declare themselves by rough, loud cries, especially before rains, by noisy games with jumps and 'dances' alongside lakes and rivers of Africa, south of Arabia and on Madagascar, not being particularly shy around people. Their nests as such that one must be a blind man to not see one: woven from branches, strengthened with silt, balls or 'baskets', depending upon one's opinion, two meters in diameter. They hang upon trees near water. A round entrance leads one from a side. The space inside is not very big, 30 cm across, but it is enough for a bird slightly bigger than a crow, to live here in moderate comfort. Most important, here it got a roof over the head and walls around it - not just floor, as with most birds.
...The mummies of cats, the sarcophagi with embalmed bulls in giant tombs, the cemeteries of holy ibises, the funeral grottoes of crocodiles - all of that cost a lot of money and wasted labor. But the religion ordered... By the decision of the priests, goddess Bast was incarnated as a cat, god Sobek - a crocodile, Anubis - a baboon.
In this zoological collection of deities the ibis was given one of the most honourable places - he represented Thoth himself in the Nile valley, the god of knowledge, magic and writing, not counting the other important 'professions' and duties.
Possibly, the ibises owe their deification to the floods of the Nile that brought fertility to the lands of Egypt. At that time, multitudes of these birds flew into the Nile valley.
But now for over a century the holy ibises do not nest in Egypt. To the south, in Africa, there are still many of these white, black-headed and black-tailed birds. The same species, apparently, known as the black-headed ibis, lives in India and Indochina.
The South Europe has its own ibis, the glossy ibis (lives in Spain, Italy, in the Balkans, at the mouth of Danube). In our lands, it lives on south of Ukraine, in Transcaucasia, the mouth of Volga and in the Urals, in Central Asia. The glossy ibises nest alongside herons, cormorants, spoonbills low in the trees or in the reeds.
The glossy ibis is the only ibis that spread throughout the warm countries of the world, in the east it even reached Australia. After crossing the ocean, the glossy ibises appeared in USA and Cuba. But almost everywhere they are quite rare.
The mountain ibis lived in Europe 300 years ago, mostly in the Alps. The size of a goose, wings - green, with a copper sheen, a naked red 'face' and a crest on the nape. It nested on the cliffs, as it does now, in Morocco. The hunters scaled the cliffs for the nestlings: it was the best treat on the nobles' feasts. But the other mortals were forbidden from harassing and eating the 'forest ravens', as the mountain ibis was called in Switzerland. (A strange, though, name for an ibis!)
'...in the last decades, none of the investigators were able to see it on our territory. It nests on trees, is exceptionally cautious. Biological data is almost absent. Hunting is completely forbidden, all trustworthy data about the encounters with the red-faced ibis represents a great interest' (V.E. Flint, R.L. Beme, U.V. Kostin, A.A Kuznetsov).
It sounds alarming, like a declaration of an expensive loss...
A beautiful bird is dying out: the white or grey, red-faced, crested red-legged ibis (also known as Japanese or Chinese) was common at the turn of the 20th century in Japan; fifty years ago it nests in North China, and in the Ussuri valley among our lands. Before the war, the red-legged ibises were often encountered in Korea. And now...
'In Japan, according to the newest data, there're nine of them, if just a few of them live on the continent, is unknown' (Hans Kumerleve).
Another rarity of nature is the red ibis. Completely red - from the beak to the toes on its legs! Only the wingtips are black. Its homeland is South America. How it happens the author does not know; maybe the local foods are higher in carotin, which causes bird feathers to redden, but there, the birds that are slightly pink and simply white in our lands often shine with scarlet plumage. Nature appears to be put more colours on the flamingo, spoonbills and ibises that live there.
The red ibises nest in the mangroves, in large communities, alongside the white ibises. They are identical in everything, except for the coloration. Even white-red pairs occur: one of the birds is a white ibis, the second is a red one. Possibly, they are of a single species, but of two genetically different 'color phases'.
Fledgling nestlings of the red ibis gather together in the depths of the mangroves. The adult ibises quiver their wings like a flaming 'coverlet' combining into one protective phalange.
'You look at a spoonbill and it seems that it's some sort of a mix of a duck with a stork... The beak tip is flat, resembles, form-wise, a spoon or a scoop, and if to look upon a spoonbill from above, it resembles a bald Cyrano de Bergerac with a monstrous nose' (Gilbert Klingel).
The ibises stick their beaks in liquid silt or where the ground is softer. The spoonbills use their bills completely different; they 'scythe', shaking from side to side the lowered tip. It, as we already know, is flat, spoon-like. They use it as a soupspoon as well. The spoonbills hunt small fishes, frogs, aquatic insects and crustaceans.
The common spoonbill nests in some parts of Western Europe, and on our territory basically everywhere alongside the glossy ibis, as well as on the uttermost south of Siberia and the Far Eastern Primorye. The subspecies of the common spoonbill, or closely related to it species, live in Africa, South Asia and Australia.
The American, or pink, spoonbill is not yellowish-white as ours is, but is really pink and crestless. It is this species that got the bald head.
ADDITION TO THE WADING BIRDS: THE FLAMINGO FAMILY
The flamingo is a wader, very much so - it is a very long-legged bird. However, due to reasonable causes that will not be discussed here, it was excluded from the wading birds proper, (and also from the Anseriform birds, where the flamingos belonged once as well), these days, but gave them their own order. This order is small, (six extant species), therefore, it is easier to talk about the flamingo here. The flamingo are connected to the proper wading birds by some genetically shared common traits.
'...The skeleton and the other organs indicate storks, the proteins are like those of the herons, conversely, the parasites that live in the plumage, the voice, the webbed feet and the tongue anat-omy allow concluding a relationship with the geese and co. The fossil discoveries do not clarify the question about the flamingo's taxonomic position, but however they prove that this group is very ancient, it appeared back in the Oligocene, around 30 MYA before the appearance of most bird orders' (Adelhait Shtuder-Tirsh).
Indeed, the voice of a flamingo is reminiscent of that of a goose - 'prolonged quiet cackling'. Indeed, it has the three front toes on its feet connected with webbing as those of geese and ducks. And, in both cases, there is a gland at the end of the back. The fourth toe in the back is small, in case of four flamingo species: Chilean (west of South America), lesser (Africa) and American flamingos (Central America, West Indies and the Galapagos Islands). The greater flamingo, (formerly considered a subspecies of the American) lives in Africa, south Europe, India, in some parts of the Mesopotamian valley, and in the former USSR - on the shores of the Caspian Sea, but it is far from common there, and at some Kazakhstan lakes.
The fourth toe is absent in the Andean and James's flamingos. Both are rare, especially the James's: their range, marked on the map, is barely noticeable on the brown color of the Bolivian mountains.
The greater flamingo is white-pink in color. The youngsters are grey, later they become pink. Only at three to four years of age do they acquire adult plumage. However, they become sexually mature only at six to seven years of age. The flamingos live for 30 years and more. Males and females are colored the same. Male and female take turn incubating one, two, more rarely three eggs for 27-32 days. After a week or sooner the hatchlings live the nest. These are precocial birds, some scientists say. Others declare it to be altricial, but the nesting period is abbreviated: there is a tendency to transition to the precocial type, as in the case of geese and ducks.
The flamingo fly stretching the neck forwards and the legs backwards. They are good swimmers. They feed and nest on the shores of silty, on occasion - even rocky, marine shallows and brackish lakes, where a living soup is formed out of habituated to brackish water crustaceans like the artemias, that flourish in the 'ooze' of our Sivash. There, where the blue-green algae covered in greenery the clear water, where single-cell and multi-cell plankton reigns and the mini snails have densely packed the silt with their conic shells. All of them are food for the flamingo.
But not for everyone without choice: the Andean, James's and lesser flamingos eat only the smaller plankton and the blue-green algae. The red, greater and American flamingos prefer to feed on crustaceans and mollusks of the matching size.
To do this delicate operation the evolution has perfected the flamingo beak for ages. It is not the point that at the end it turned out to be hooked, though that has a meaning as well. The point is in the filtration device - the horned plates at the edges of the upper and the lower halves of it. A flamingo elegantly bends the neck downwards and positioned upside down, the beak enters the water. It is slightly open - a small slit forms the entrance. As soon as the thick tongue, moving backwards, opens a space inside the beak, the water enters it through that opening. (Nature abhors a vacuum!) The water takes with it all the swimmers. Here a flamingo closes the beak. The meaty tongue moves forwards and like a lever it pushes the water out. The food remains in the beak.
In general, this is a type of feeding depicted by the 'baleen whale'. But the whale, compared to the flamingo, does it very slowly. The flamingo's filtration is speedy: the beak quickly snaps, filters the water in short bursts. It is impossible to follow its' manipulations precisely.
The filtration device is, of course, an interesting acquirement. But the flamingo has something else worthy of a special surprise. We will learn about it when the flamingos will begin to feed the nestlings.
Meanwhile, in their scattered flock, the pink birds are busy with their courting. They walk through the shallows on their stilts of legs. It is a ceremonious, parading step. A speedy run... Suddenly - stop! - a picture poise. A quiver of flaming wings. Above a mass of white-pink bodies - smooth fluctuations of hundreds of beaked 'question marks'. Above blue water - pink shimmering. The flamingos are courting. In their own way, as they have evolved. A ritual of choosing a mate, a mating ritual...
The female chooses the place, where a pillar of silt shall stand. They build it together, collecting the silt. Pebbles, feathers, shells, broken stems - all that lies in silt is put into the pile. They fasten with silt by stamping on it all. A decapitated cone - a nest of the flamingo grows out of sticky mud or from the shallows. It grows up to 50 cm in height. On top is a small indentation. In it lie two white eggs.
Sitting on this pillar of silt and folding their legs, the flamingos take turn incubating their eggs. To stand up and switch with its partner, this bird must push with its beak against the ground.
The red-legged, fat-legged, red- and straight-beaked nestling burst through the shell and hatched. Here begins the fairy tale wonder that we promised to talk about: the feeding with bird milk! Actually, this miracle is not new for us - we saw it at the penguins'. Here something special is happening: nourishment with one's own blood! That, what the old legends obscurely hinted at, talking about the pelicans. True, they confused the birds, and the feeding method itself was talked about only vaguely...
Elegantly bending over its' red-legged nestling, the pink bird opens its black-pink beak and into the nestling's beak a pink bird milk flows. It has proteins, and vitamins, and 23% of... blood. Because of it and the carotenoids, the provitamin A, the color of the flamingo's 'bird milk' is light pink. This liquid food concentrate is formed in the gullet of the feeding birds. But how do they manage their own 'bloodletting' to nourish the nestlings is currently unclear.
They feed so for more than 2 months, although already in 2-3 weeks, the straight beaks of their offspring bend downwards and they could, supposedly, filter water by themselves and eat the adults' food. But the beak may be hooked, yet the filtration device in it is still flawed. The young flamingos already can fly, but still cannot properly feed themselves in the shallows. They swim and walk there. If the adults left to find food far away, grown-up guardians remain with the youngsters. When at evenings it is time to return to the nests, the old flamingo walks at behind the youngsters, 'at that it constantly cries and speeds the lagging nestlings with the beak'.
GEESE AND SWANS
The geese and the swans - are a black and white, pied, Australian bird with a very appropriate English name - the magpie goose. Its' feet are almost webless, the head bulges upwards, and it really enjoys spending time on trees.
They are eight species of whistling ducks that are still better off named as geese and which are also strongly attached to trees (the nests, however, are built on the ground). They are brightly colored, rather long-legged, the heads look duck-like, and the rest of the bodies are rather goose-like. They dwell in tropics and subtropics all over the world and in Australia.
It is the snow-white, with mortuary black wing edges, South American coscoroba swan (a single species). It is a strange bird: not quite a duck nor a goose nor a swan; appearance-wise, however, it is more goose-like. And, finally, five species of swans, nine of geese, five of branta. They deserve greater detail.
The swan, as it is known, is as white as morning snow. But it is such only in the midnight lands of the north. If from there we head to the south, then we will see - a strange affair! - that the swans there grow steadily blacker. The swan that swims in American waters from the south of Brazil to Terra del Fuego has black head and neck. And the swan that lives two oceans over to the east, in Australia, is completely as black as night. Only the wingtips and the end of the beak are white.
The most beautiful of our swans, the hero of many legends, a transformed fairy tale prince is the mute swan. Nature did not give a loud and clear call as it did with the northern swans, but graced it with a truly swan neck. It bears that neck in an elegantly bent letter S, the wings, during a lek or in excitement are raised slightly and they become snow-white sails alongside the living boat. The mute swan's beak bulges in a noticeable knob in front of the forehead, its color is black. The beak itself is red. Have a look, if there are mute swans in a zoo, you will easily recognize them by the red bulging beak.
Our other swans (and there are two: the whooper and the lesser, or the tundra swan) have neither bulges nor red color on their beaks. In their case the beak is yellow at base, black at tip. The tundra swan's yellow spot does not reach the nostrils, the whooper's stretches diagonally under and beyond them. Both do not bend their necks in an S, but carry it high, stretching the neck upwards.
The tundra swan nests in the tundra. The whooper, whose sweet and loud cry sounds in a whooping 'gang-go' - further down south, in forested tundra and on the shores of remote and taiga lakes from Iceland, Scandinavia to south-east to Altai, and further through the whole Siberia. The mute swan's range is broken, scattered in small spots through Europe and Asia (Denmark and the coasts of the Baltic Sea, the lowlands of Danube, Dniester, Don, Kuban, Volga, Ural, Kazakhstan, and between Shilka and Argun rivers. In Canada and Alaska live subspecies of the tundra swan and the whooper. Some ornithologists consider them to be separate species. Only black beaks differentiate them from our swans. The American subspecies of the whooper, the trumpeter swan, was almost exterminated before WWII, only 73 birds were left. Now, under the government's protection, the numbers of those swans grew to 2000.
Swans do not live and do not even winter in Africa, aside from some most northern parts of the Nile and in Tunis.
Geese too do not live in Africa (except for the Nile 'goose', which is separate topic), and overall the true geese never nest south of Northern India, only winter there. The humanity owes a lot to the grey goose: the domestic geese are its' descendants. The grey geese nest in parts of Europe, and in Asia - from Ural to Far East. Their pinkish beak differentiates them from the other wild geese.
The Far Eastern swan goose, which also gave genetic input into the formation of some of the breeds of the domestic geese, the beak is black and much longer than those of the other geese are. The trademark sign of the bean goose (north of Europe, Siberia) - the orange 'band' on the black beak. The greater white-fronted goose (north of America and the Old World) has a white spot on the forehead. The lesser white-fronted goose (north of Eurasia) it is more on the top of head. The emperor goose has a white head and the back part of the neck. The bar-headed goose also has a white head, with two horizontal dark stripes on the back. The sides of the neck boast white stripes. Finally, the snow goose is as white as the snows of its homeland. Only the wingtips are black. And its homeland in our part of the world is the island of Wrangel, in America - the uttermost north of Alaska and Canada. There also lives the lesser snow goose - the ninth and final species of wild geese. The ranges of the emperor and bar-headed geese are restricted by a lesser space: the first - Chukotka and the west of Alaska, the second - Central Asia.
The branta are similar to geese but are smaller. Still, some subspecies of Canada goose are the size of a regular goose or even a swan. Those beautiful, white-cheeked, black-necked birds were introduced to New Zealand and other countries.
All branta nests only in the north of the Old and New Worlds. All except one, the nene. Its range on Earth's scale is microscopic: lava fields with small green meadows on the slopes of Hawaiian volcanoes. This is a terrestrial bird. The webbing on its feet has atrophied almost completely, without them it was easier to move on rocky slopes and frozen lava flows. Once, thousands of nene lived on Hawaii. Not only people, but dogs, pigs, introduced mongooses, hunted them, and as a result only 42 of these rare birds were left. After WWII the ornithologist and painter Peter Scott (the son of a famous Polar explorer!) was able to raise and breed 200 of those birds in England. They were reintroduced to the Hawaiian Islands; now 500 of those birds live there in the wild.
THE SECRETARYBIRD AND THE OSPREY
The secretarybird - is a peculiar bird: when it, with dignity, walks around on its long legs in the savanna, then it resembles a short-beaked crane or stork. The black feathers of its crest are folded in a narrow knot on its head, if this bird is at peace. This crest is the reason why it is called a secretary: in the past, the legal clerks had a manner of sticking a goose quill behind their ears to have it at hand, if they needed to write down something.
They walk in pairs, close to each other. In grasses, in shrubs, while pushing them aside with long legs, these birds of prey seek locusts, beetles, lizards, rats, mice, hatchlings. They eat small tortoises too. However, snakes... snakes for the secretarybirds are the most desirable prey. Even as hatchlings, they 'work out' fighting maneuvers for snake hunting in their nests, like dancing, they through their legs upwards one after another, beating up the insides of their nests instead of their future victims.
When a secretarybird sees a snake, it quickly runs to it, half-spreading its wings for a better balance. It strikes with its legs. The strikes are powerful, but snakes are tough too, a secretarybird will need to hit it ten times, before it kills the snake. If the snake is very poisonous, then the long-legged bird of prey attacks it carefully. It will fly over the reptile and will strike it from above with one leg and then another. It does not use its wings as a shield against snakebites. (Hornbills use wings for protection against snakebites, when they attack a snake from all sides in a small flock!) The fastest snake in the world - is the mamba. Not every person can run away from it. The secretarybirds avoid the mamba, do not bother it.
Having beaten the snake to the death, the secretarybird, first, uses its sharp beak as a knife, to decapitate the dead reptile. Then it tears its prey to pieces and eats it.
'I've seen how an almost adult hare was caught in tall grass and killed with quick blows, so that loud slaps were heard. Here the head too was left untouched... The secretarybird has good manners... I watched a swamp harrier that was eating something, when a secretarybird passed several yards away from it, stopped, attentively observed the harrier for a minute, and moved on. The harrier, frightened by me, flew away with its heavy prey and sat down in 20 yards away from the secretarybird. The latter, with great dignity, went to the harrier, checked, what the harrier was eating, and with the same dignity left' (R. Meynertchagen).
The secretarybird flies without much enthusiasm, only if it is forced, or to sleep in a tree. It flies with a running start and after landing, it runs for some time as well. The secretarybird nests on tops of prickly shrubs or trees. These are large, up to 2 m in diameter, but are so well hidden by the thick branches, that they are unnoticeable. The female incubates 2-3 white eggs for 45 days. The young secretarybirds stay in nests for a long time: 80-100 days they live under parental protection.
The only species of secretarybird, which was previously thought to be a special variety of the bustards, is now classified by taxonomists as a special family of birds of prey. They live only in the savannahs and steppes of Africa south of the Sahara. 20 MYA the secretarybirds lived in southern France as well.
The osprey too is a unique member of a special family. The ospreys nest almost all over the world, except for the tundra zone, South America, and central Africa, but they winter there, so one can say that they inhabit the entire Africa for some period of time. They nest - on top of tall trees, on cliffs, in some places, rarely, on the ground as well. Hatchlings, already as juveniles, stay for two more months in nests. Then they learn the art of fishing under parental guidance. After a week, they are adroit fishermen themselves.
The osprey is a virtuoso of attacking fish from the sky. Noticing fish while flying overhead, the osprey half-folds its wings, stretches its legs far forwards, and quickly lunges at it, usually at a forty-five degree angle, but sometimes from directly above. Often it submerges entirely, and immediately the osprey flies away, carrying the fish in talons of one or both legs. It holds the fish usually head forwards. In air, the osprey shakes away the water and flies to a ravine or a tree to eat. Then, it happens, it will fly over the water, dipping into it head and legs, to wash away pis-cine slime and scales.
The osprey has long claws, the toes from the inner side are studded with sharp bumps, (the slippery fish won't escape!), one front toe, when the osprey grabs the fish, turns backwards, so that the osprey would grip it tighter, as if with pincers. The osprey weighs about 2 kg, and it some-times fishes out fish weighing at 2-3 kg. However, usually its menu has 100-200 g fish, and the osprey's daily meal is about 400 g total.
The osprey cannot lift prey heavier than 4 kg. In addition, it happens that when its talons go in too deeply, the osprey cannot pull them out in time and sinks, carried to the bottom by its heavyweight victim. Often, pikes and carps were caught with a gloomy 'decoration' on their backs - a dead osprey, of which sometimes only the bones remain to ride the fish. There is such a photo of a carp, caught in Saxony. It was small, it weighted 4 kg, and yet it was able to drown an osprey in the river depths.
When there is no luck in catching fish, the osprey hunts mice, frogs, even little crocodiles! Sometimes it attacks birds, even such large ones as the gannets are. Some sea eagles turn pirate, attacking the osprey in mid-air, when the latter had a successful hunt. The osprey is forced to abandon prey, and the white-tailed robber dexterous catches it in air and shamelessly carries it away as its' own.
RECOGNITION VIA HORNS AND EYES
...Somewhere at the edge of the clearing, whose grey fog had separated the blackness of the forest, - a sudden and loud "who-who-whooo". Then silence so silent, that it rings in one's ears. And again - "who-who-whooo". A pause. "Who-who-whooo" with certain shakiness at the end... A trilling "u"...
We move there, closer, an unseen dry twig cracked under foot, and a sharp "que-witt", "que-witt" has alarmed and frightened away the sleepy silence of the forest. That silence, now alarmed, had hid, frozen itself under the moody fir trees, in the sleepy branches of the twigs.
"An eagle owl is hooting!" - will possibly say your inexperienced in night-cries companion, if you're not alone in the forest. That is not much like an eagle owl. Those, who haven't heard it, can be forgiven such lapse in judgement. The forests have grown scarce, few eagle owls have remained. And this "Who-who-whooo" with the variations of "who" and "que-witt" is quite often heard in the April woods: the male of the tawny owl, an owl common in Central Russia, is calling the female. They live as a couple, remaining loyal to each other for years. In spring after the separation (and sometimes they don't break-up during the winter, migrating through the forests together), they'll fly there, where their nests were earlier. And now they're crying out during the quiet nights to find each other: the male "who-who-whoo'ing", the female "quit'ting" or "que-wikk'ing" - it's all in the ear of the listener.
In the forests, parks, gardens of Europe, Asia and north-western Africa these owls destroy a great multitude of mice, voles, rats - legions of small rodents! People receive a great help from the tawny owls, as well as from the rest of them. They'll eat, of course, the songbird, the pigeon, if they can catch them, a frog, a lizard, an insect, even an earthworm or a fish, but mice and similar rodents - are the main source of their meals.
The tawny owls are owls neither great nor small, average, with a wingspan up to a meter. In colour they're tawny or grey (the color morphs). The beak's yellow, the eyes - black. Long-tailed and bearded owls live in Europe to the north of the tawny, and beyond the Urals - throughout Siberia. The tawny owl didn't move eastwards past the Irtysh river. These owls are bigger than the tawny: the long-tailed has a wingspan up to 1.2 meters, the bearded - up to a meter and a half. The first bird has a long, striped tail and black eyes. The second has a black spot under the beak, the `beard', and the yellow eyes seem to be in the middle of a firing goal: the `facial disk' has light and dark rings around the eyes.
Both of these birds are big, can be confused with an eagle owl. But they lack `horns', so familiar to us via pictures. Still, do only the eagle owls have `horns'?
...The cereals have surrounded the dusty road. A summer noon. It's hot. The heat shimmering over the far-our valley. From a green copse that grew in a hollow, a wide-winged bird arose, quietly flew over the field and suddenly fell into the growths onto a callow mouse.
It grasped the mouse in the talons, stiffened the small `hornlets', pressed it to the beak. It began to eat.
A familiar behaviour: an owl! A strange owl, however. Hunts during the day... The `hornlets'... It's small, however, for an eagle owl, and the `hornlets' are small, barely bigger than the nails on a hand...
It's a marsh owl. However, it lives not only on the marshes, but also in the steppe, mountains, deserts, meadows, tundra, and scrubland. A bird of open spaces and a very spacious living space: Europe, Asia, southwards to Iran, both Americas. Ochre-reddish, yellow-eyed, black-beaked. The only one of our owls that makes nests (on the ground from dry grass), hunts mice night and day, usually before noon and in the evening. In spring the male of the marsh owl, while surveying his territory, cries-out `boo-boo-boo-boo', sometimes `wood-wood-wood' and claps its wings. A brief `kev' - the cry of alarm and warning.
Not only has the marsh owl hunted during the day. Once on Moscow's hippodrome before all of the honoured public on the tribunes a long-tailed bird, from below as mottled as a hawk, swooped straight onto the race track and carried away a sparrow. A barred owl! It has the following traces:
"The flight is quick with a mix of active flapping and swooping, like a falcon's. Incautious and noticeable, often sits onto the treetops or on the telegraph poles. The voice - a falcon-like `ki-ki-ki' and a peculiar `ul-ul-ul'." (V.E. Flint, R.L. Beme, U.V. Kostin, A.A. Kuznetsov).
The eyes and beak are yellow, the `horns' are absent, and the flight is nosier than of all the owls. The habitat? A narrow, but a long stripe through the boreal forest zones of America, Europe and Asia.
Here, in the same boreal forests, except for America, lives the sparrow-owl. (The wingspan, if it is fully opened, is 9-10 cm.) It, generally speaking, is shy. But sometimes, when it hunts during the day, it likes to sit somewhere in the open. It twitches its tail, looking around. Here the titmice may notice it and attack it, chirping loudly, driving it away.
In spring and also throughout the entire summer and autumn the male monotonously cries during the quiet nights, very forlornly: "dew... dew... dew..." Sometimes, once it starts in the evening, it continues until morning.
These sad songs are not the call to the mate who has left it alone. The female is right next to the male. Even during the winter they migrate together through the forests, and if they do separate, it's not for long. They have shared, for the both of them, larders in tree hollows, in cracks between the stones, with previously prepared food supplies. They empty them together or alone and do not fight. And when the hunting is successful, they're filled again.
Two related species of owl, the saw-whet and house owls, are bigger than this one. The first lives alongside the sparrow-owl as well as in the coniferous forests of Canada and USA. The second - southwards of the Oka river, the Ural Mountains, the Baikal Lake to Afghanistan, Arabia and Africa.
The eagle owl (apparently, we've reached it at last) is not satisfied with the night, it gives no rest to its neighbours during the day either. From the mouse to the hare, from the titmouse to the black grouse - it is ready to eat them all. Even the hedgehog isn't protected by its quills from the long talons of the eagle owl. In the boreal forest and steppe, on occasion also in the desert, valleys and mountains, the eagle owl does its hunting. It lives in remote places, away from people. To meet it is no simple undertaking. However, let us go into the northern woods, somewhere beyond Vologda. There, on the moss marsh, where the capercailles hold their leks, does the eagle owl live. Let us go through the narrow path into overgrown and overbearing pine forest. By night-time we'll be there. We'll sit on a fallen tree, be observant and alert.
The moon has silvered one side of the clearing; the second is seemingly cut-off by the black shadow of the forest. And see, it is as if that blackness had silently one of its pieces torn-off. It flew through the moonlight onto that side of the clearing, and vanishes in the woods. Then a deep "who-whooo" came from there. A pause. "Who-whooo! Oo-oo-oo!" - both drawn-out and pitiful.
From behind came a reply, not unlike a trumpeting: "Uu" (rather like the sound of a child's trumpet). Immediately a flying shadow separated from the black forest, and flew off, clapping its wings. It landed on a branch very close to us. It is illuminated by the moon from behind and one can see that it's an owl, and one can notice the `horns' on its round head. They're long and going upwards.
Yes... But... The `horns' are long, and the bird itself is small... The size of a tawny owl. Maybe even smaller. The body is thin, slim as they say. Therefore, this is a long-horned owl - not the eagle owl.
The long-horned owl lives in the same places as the eagle-owl (but also in America, in the USA), in the same landscape, but it doesn't avoid people. It is also famous that this bird, migratory in the north, is also social during winter, which is unusual for the owls. Along the paths to the winter homes and while generally wintering, the long-horned owls gather by the dozen. During the day they hide together on the same tree or on several ones growing nearby. They sit as the usually do, adhering tightly to the trunk.
Well, but where's the eagle owl? That's a trick question. There's no eagle owl. We didn't wait for it, didn't see it. Maybe, they have all died-out here already. Those that have remained must be protected. The eagle owl, to say it scientifically, "undoubtedly deserves protection as a great monument of nature".
If it was sought in the Sahara, it would've been found, most likely. There the eagle owls also live. Ditto in India, in China. And south of the Sahara lives the African `pale' eagle owl. In Americas, from Alaska to Patagonia lives the great horned owl. Both resemble the initial bird; the first has a two-step, the second - a three-step `hooting'.
In South Asia, on the Kurilas islands, on Sakhalin and in the Primorye the fish owls sweep through the shallow water in the mornings and evenings, catching fish and crustaceans.
Fishing owls of a different kind hunt in Africa. These ones have no `horns'. In Australia, where are no eagle-owls, the needle-legged owls occupy their "ecological niche", exterminating rabbits, opossums and birds. Their toes have stiff bristles. A similar owl of a different species lives in the Far East, in the Primorye.
Further to the north, in the tundras all around the Arctic Ocean, the role of the eagle-owl is taken by a big, almost just as big, snowy or polar owl. It will appear huge next to its tiny relative, the elf owl. That owl is so small that it has no problem in fitting in holes made by gila woodpeckers in cacti. Sometimes it lives there too, right alongside the woodpeckers. Its homeland is the south-west of USA and Mexico.
Here, at the American Far West and southwards to Patagonia, in rabbit holes and burrows live the burrowing owls, and their families. If they don't find the burrows of the other animals, they'll dig them themselves. Their owlets, once grown up, will sit at the burrow's threshold and wait for the parents. If they're frightened by anything, they'll immediately get back into the burrow and from there will sound the rattle of a rattlesnake - a malicious sound, well known around those parts, and no one will be willing to follow the owlets into their burrow. How do they manage to imitate the threat signals of a venomous monster so artfully?
The burrowing owl is no bigger than the house owl, and its prey is pretty much identical, not counting the millipedes and the scorpions, which are caught by this owl as well.
Before we part ways with the owls, let's get home. Do you know the Ukrainian nights? After this well-known question there is no need to describe them: it awakens some very distinct memories. It is irrelevant, whether these memories were read or experienced. Anyhow, here's the Ukrainian night in all of its beauty, praised by Gogol. And in that night - a screech. Not of the Cossacks or of the robbers, but "sad and melodious" - "scree-e". "Scree-e". It's the cry of a screech owl. A small owl - the wing's shorter than 20 centimetres in length, whereas a marsh owl's is 28-34 cm.
The marsh owl wasn't remembered in vain. It too has `horns' on its head. Ditto for the screech owls and their kin. So how many owls that are `horned' like the eagle-owl do we have? The answer is this: seven. One large: the eagle-owl. Two middle-sized: the long-horned and the marsh. Four small ones: the screech owl and three others (also in the south of the country). In Middle Asia - the brown owl, in Primorye - the collared and the Ussury owls. Meanwhile, the screech owl lives almost everywhere to the south of the Oka River, the Ural Mountains and the Baikal Lake, except for Caspian and middle Asian steppes and deserts. In India and Africa, its "drawn-out and melodious" "scree-e" can also be heard at night.
One more, very unusual looking owl can be met at the very west of Ukraine (and also Belarus and Lithuania). The barn owl. On top it is mottled gold, with a heart-shaped facial disk, bordered by clearly golden feathers, with the disk its being dirty white without any others colours, clearly contrasting with the rest of the plumage.
Most likely such encounter can take place somewhere on an attic, on a bell tower, at the sea coast - in a sea cliff cave, in a tree hollow - the barn owls hide in such places during the day. They nest here as well. During some years they raise chicks in the autumn too, even during the winter, if the winter's warm and there are plenty of mice (or other food for the chicks). That's a rare situation: only the crossbills, as you probably known, nest on our territory during winter, and the raven makes its nest in the end of winter in February. When the spring is early, by March or April the male barn owl, having chosen a nesting site (usually at the old, time-tested place) begins to lek, strutting around its mate. They stay with each other for years.
The barn owls aren't talkative; one can hear the cry of this owl only when it is scared and hisses, opening its beak. Also, during the mating period the tender, quiet snoring, "hrruu" - it's the male and the female, "talking", greeting each other, courting.
Their four to seven white, elongated eggs lie without any lining beneath them. When the year is plentiful in regards to mice, then there are more eggs, up to 12-18. The female begins to incubate them starting with the first egg, as do almost all of the owls. The male feeds her.
After a month the first chick hatches: still blind, its eyes open only on the eighth day. For two weeks the mother stays with the owlets as they squirm beneath it. And then they, like pups, crawl to one each other, and warm themselves as a group. Two months will pass without incidents - they will fly out at night to hunt mice, voles, shrews, frogs and insects. The adults help them for four weeks, don't abandon them.
The young barn owls usually settle not far from the places where they grew up. But there are exceptions: some that were hatched in Germany flew to Spain, to USSR, and one young barn owl was found over 1380 km away from its native nest. The barn owls aren't migratory birds: they don't fly south in autumn and are very attached to their nesting sites. But some, during the hungry years move to different areas, leaving to a distance up to 500 kilometres away from home. Many of them, however, remain there and die during harsh winters.
The barn owls are a separate family from the rest of the owls. There are 11 species of them. The ordinary barn owl and its multiple subspecies lives in both Americas, in Africa, everywhere in Western Europe except for Scandinavia, in Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, in India, Indochina, on some islands of Indonesia and in the entire Australia. In these different countries it lives in the steppes (where it nests on the ground), and in the savannas, and in the dense rainforests.
April. Snow still lies in forests, ravines. And in the open spaces, in forest clearings - steamy, warm ground. The first spring flowers - blue scillas, dark blue pulomanaria with a reddish tinge. Lilies-of-the-valley... No, there is not any lilies-of-the-valley yet. Conversely, the golden tussilago is on every bare hillock.
Let us go deeper into the boreal, coniferous forests and maybe on a pine we will see a big black bird, strange looking, red-browed, bearded.
...The capercaillie stretched out its neck. It was wary. In fear it took off and heavily flew over a swamp. The forest's twilight hid it. And all around was something out of a fairy tale. On the ground there was moss and more moss, sphagnum, bog growing. There were cranberries on the moss, swamp rhododendron and eriophorum. Feeble pine trees indecisively had surrounded the bog. The gloomy fir trees frowned in a forbidding sort of way. Bigger pines rustled their needles in alarm. Fallen trees and rot, stumps and logs.
The rusty ooze slurps. Tussocks give way. The rotten moss of the disturbed bog lines in a brown path the pale grey of the fen.
vWe are going further into the forest, into the very heart. The sun sets beyond the woods. The twi-light quietly deepens. The neighbourhood grows black.
...And suddenly in the depth of the night, in the darkness - some sort of clicks, cracking of the wooden timbre - 'tk-tk-tk'. Strange sounds...
Again a pause and no clicks. The neighborhood is quiet.
Clicks again. The clicking speeds up and - as if someone used a match to quickly tap on a matchbox - crackling. And it is followed by what the hungers call 'creaking' - quiet short scratching, the sound of a knife being sharpened on a whetstone. The fans of one of the best hunts in the world patiently wait for it. They wait, so that under the cover of this 'song' they will do two-three big jumps (and better yet - one big one!) and freeze as the last sounds of the 'creaking' fade away.
...The sun rises quickly. The grey shadows of bushes and trees drown up to their waists in grey fog. The capercaillie sings loudly and seemingly very close by. The early sounds of its song: 'Tk-tk-tk' - are a warm-up. The clicks come more and more often. The rhythm speeds up and suddenly the bird's syncope molded into one brief creak.
Thus, jumping, freezing in the middle of a step, racing forwards over all obstacles, the hunter moves closer and closer to a tree on which, fanning out its tail and stretching out its fluffed-up neck, sings a bird that is drunk on spring. Overwhelming, tirelessly, unstopping, it sings on and on the ancient song of the forest depths. Suddenly - a loud shot, a second-long pause, the cracking of broken branches and a dense 'ty-ttt!' The heavy bird fell. It fell into the moist moss, barely seen in the morning gloom.
The capercaillies sing all mornings long, through the entire spring, in the immense Eurasian forests. In a passionate ecstasy, in the culmination of their songs, which is called creaking, they grow deaf for a while. During these fleeing moments a hunter must move two-three steps forwards to the bird. And freeze, even on one leg, before the capercaillie 'creaks' again. When it does not 'creak', it hears everything...
...It is already bright... The hunters left the forest for the wide, but pale, meadow. The withered last year grass. The hunters came out and hid ASAP, peeking from behind a bush. When they were approaching the clearing, the forest was filled with strange sounds, which were already heard from afar. And now they grew stronger, melded into a multi-voice and friendly muttering. Sometimes it was interrupted by seemingly individual sounds 'Chu-fee!' And more muttering.
There, in the depths of the meadow were some small black figures on the ground. The black grouses were leking! There were many black grouses: ten, twenty, and maybe even more. Some were occupied by muttering, lowering their necks to the ground and spreading out their tails. Others cried-out 'Chu-fee', jumping up and flapping their wings. Still others, meeting each other in those jumps, crashed breast against breast. The brows, swelled with blood, glowed scarlet on the black bird heads, the white undersides of the tails flashed in the slanted rays of the sun. In short, the lek was at its peak.
Before dawn the black grouses fly from all over the neighborhood onto the remote meadows, forest swamps, and quiet forest clearings. The sun will rise, and they still keep on and on singing the serenades to the feathered ladies. They can have fallings-out, sometimes fights as well.
And where are those, for whose sake all this was underdone? Where are the hens? They are not seen among the singers. They are not far away, but not nearby either. Brown, subdued, not noticeable among the bleak colors of the meadow, slowly they walk about 30 m away from the nearest males. They will stop, then lazy move again. Humbly, and seemingly obliviously they walk around the edges of the lek. Peck at something on the ground. This is an inducement for the singers. Similar to our applause. When noticing the pecking applause, the cocks lek more enthusiastically.
The hunters build shelters on the leking grounds beforehand. They hide in them during the night, and shoot black grouses in the morning. And now, when it is day, it is hard to approach them.
One could go around the forest, shooting hazel grouses, but now such hunting is forbidden: the hazel grouse is a monogamous bird, lives with a single female, takes care of the chicks. In spring, and in some places - during autumn too, the hazel grouse will quickly arrive at the artful whistle of a good lure. It will sit on a nearby branch or will run on the ground, strangely unafraid, rather incautious. You do not even need to hide from it, not really: you can shoot almost directly. If you miss - you can lure it again; it will fly more than once, tricked by the treacherous call of the lure.
The capercaillie, the black grouse, the hazel grouse are our forest birds. They look different, but their lives are similar. In the spring they lek, each in their own fashion. The mating season ends - the males moult, hiding in far-away places. The female incubates - in a pit beneath a bush - from 4 to 15, but usually 6-8 eggs. The male hazel grouse sleeps and feeds not far away from the nest. When the chicks hatch, it does not abandon them either.
The chicks of the black grouse and the capercaillie are taken care of by the females alone. Their offspring feed on insects at first. Hazel grouse chicks at five days of age, black grouse - at one week, and capercaillie - at ten days of age can flutter not too far away from the ground. Five to seven days later they sleep in trees. Even capercaillie chicks, at one month of age, are good fliers. In September, the young black grouse males live already on their own, but the females still live with their mum. The capercaillies gather into small flocks: females with females, males with males - and feed in autumn on aspen leaves. They live thus during the winter too. The black grouse flocks are mixed: both males and females are there.
The winter food of black and hazel grouses - buds and seeds of alders, birches, aspens, willows, juniper berries. Of the capercaillies - the needles of pines, firs, cedars, more rarely - spruces. They spend the nights in snow. From a tree, or straight from the air they fall into a snow pile, will walk a bit beneath the snow (for the black grouses that can be quite a lot - 10 meters), settle down and go to sleep. During snowstorms and frost they spend days there. There is no wind and the temperature is warmer by ten degrees than it is on the surface. If a thaw is followed by a strong frost and icy crust covers the snow over the birds, it happens that they perish, unable to escape.
In the spring there is the mating season once more. However, during the fall, sometimes even in winter the old males of the black grouse and the young capercaillies lek. The hazel grouses 'squawk' too, breaking into pairs in spring. Together, as a pair, they migrate all winter long over the territory of both the male and the female. The autumn leks are fake; they are not followed by any breeding. And what is the reason behind them then is not quite understood.
There, where in spring the black grouses lek not far away from the capercaillies, interbreeding occurs. The hybrids look more like the capercaillies, not anyone can separate the two, but they go to lek with the black grouses. They are stronger than the black grouse cocks are and they lek more intensely, more passionately and enthusiastically. The voice, however, is slightly similar to the capercaillie's. They will chase away all of their competition from the meadow, 'furiously' chasing every male that they will see within at least 300 m. At first it was thought that these bastards, just like many other interspecies hybrids, are infertile. As a matter of fact they are not: they produce offspring with both parent species. Better, than the capercaillies, they survive in modern, thinly spread, forests of Europe. Therefore they are distributed in places where they want the capercaillies to live once more, for example in Scotland.
Few of the capercaillies remain in Europe. In former West Germany, for example, according to the estimates of 1964, only 6002 were left! Black grouses numbered 14,708; hazel - 4120. An unhappy statistic. In the north of European Russia, at the end of the 19th century, 65 thousand capercaillies were shot annually. Now - only several thousand.
Not all of the capercaillies were shot in the Pyrenean Mountains. In some places they survive in Alps, Carpathians, Balkans, Scandinavia, and in the east the capercaillies live in the boreal forests down to the Transbaikal area and the Lena River. Beyond the Lower Tunguska River and the Baikal Lake, all the way to Kamchatka and Sakhalin lives another capercaillie - the black-billed. It is smaller than the common capercaillie is, has a black bill. The common species has a white bill. The mating song - 'simple clicking, which briefly becomes a short trill'. It does not grow deaf like the common capercaillie during the singing; it just hears a bit worse than the usual. The hen of the species is darker colored and lacks a rusty spot on the crop. The hens of the black grouse and common capercaillie, to tell it to those who do not know, are greyish-brown. Among the hazel grouses the males are greyish-brownish-mottled as well, only a dark spot under the beak differentiates them from the females.
The territory of the hazel and black grouses is almost identical with the capercaillie's, only more spacious in the south, as it encompasses the forested steppes, and in the east reaches the Ussuri (in the hazel grouse's case - up to the Primoryie and the Sakhalin).
In the Caucasus, in the alpine and the subalpine zone, lives the Caucasian grouse (its' tail lakes white underparts and has a less lyre-like bent). It has a different lek.
'During the leking the cocks either sit calmly, or, lowering their wings and raising their tail almost vertically, jump upwards... while turning around in 180 degrees. The jump is accompanied by a particular clapping of the wings... Usually the lek is silent... Sometimes the cocks snap their beaks or emit a short wheeze, similar to a muted and soft cry of a corncrake' (Professor A.V. Mikheev).
From the Transbaikal area to Primorye and Sakhalin, alongside the hazel grouse, live the Siberian grouse - not very meek, bigger and darker. They are similar to the hazel grouse.
Milliards of chickens feed the humanity with meat and eggs. West Germany alone used to re-ceive 75 milliard eggs from 13 million laying hens. On the average that is 126-200 eggs each (the record was 1515 eggs in 8 years). 80 million chickens of other breeds are annually fed and slaughtered for meat. Chickens are everywhere, on farms around smog-covered cities, and in the native America, African, Papuan villages lost in the depths of forests. Can it be possible to count how many of them (the estimate is no less than three milliard) there are and what are their shared and individual egg-laying ability? Yet the productivity of the wild ancestors of the chicken is known - 5-14 eggs in a year. The bird breeds of all ages and people have done a great job.
The wild chickens, basically, are pheasants with combs. Their place in the scientific system of the bird world is somewhere between the monals and the silver pheasants. They, undoubtedly, are not as typical as their relatives are, but remain within the overall limits that unite all birds of the pheasant subfamily.
'The direct ancestor of all domestic chickens' breeds is the red jungle fowl that lives even in our times in damp and dry, mountain and lowland forests - from the Himalayan Mountains, East In-dia, throughout all of Indochina, Myanmar and south of China to Sumatra and Java. It is very similar to domestic roosters of fiery ('wild') coloration. But it is smaller in size, about that of a black grouse. It cockadoodles! Only the last part of 'cock-a-doodle-doo' is short. During winter they live in flocks. In spring the roosters live separately in their private estates, gathering about five hens around them.
Two species of wild chicken of India and Sri Lanka are similar to the red jungle fowl in appear-ance and habits. They are coloured, however, differently. All hens lack combs and earrings. The fourth species, the drop-tailed jungle fowl from the island of Java differs that it lives monoga-mously as a couple, does not cock-a-doodle, but cries a piercing 'Cha-a-ak!' Its comb is without notches on top. In everything else it is identical to the others.
The peafowl (who does not know it?) has chosen to live in the green hills of India and Sri Lanka. These royal firebirds emerge in small families, in unrelated companies, from the jungles onto the cultivated fields of the peasants. If they are flushed from there, they quickly retreat into the bushes. They will fly only when the pursuit is almost upon them.
They are pursued only by the Muslims, Christians and pagans. All of whom practice Hinduism are forbidden from abusing the peafowl. Near the settlements, where the religious customs pro-tect them, the peafowl feed fearlessly on the rice fields. In the heat of the day they are asleep or are bathing in the dust alongside the jungle roads. They sleep on the trees, chosen for more than just a single night, sometimes - right in the villages.
The peafowl is sacred to god Krishna. Not just for beauty, but also for its' great service.
The cat-like cry of the peafowl, 'meow' in India is 'translated' as 'minh-ao', which means, 'rain is coming', or, more precisely, 'rain, come!' Indeed, before the thunderstorms and the monsoons the peafowl are especially talkative, 'meow' a lot. Their mating season comes during the rains. And well, it appears as if the peafowl bring forth the rains with their cries. For people, whose livelihoods depend on the harvests from the thirsty fields, this means a lot.
Tigers, leopards stalk the incautious in the jungles around the fields and villages. If you are walking upon a road, herd the livestock or gather firewood, you must always remember about the dangerous neighbours, be on alert. You must listen to the voices of the jungle. The langur, the muntjac, according to some sources also the peafowl are the main informers: by their alarm calls they warn all, who are mortally interested in this, about the proximity of the tiger and the leopard.
The snakes are the second, if not the first, danger of those places. And here the services of the peafowl are unmatched. They kill and eat many of the young cobras. They clean the entire neighbourhood where they settle from such sort of snakes. Intelligent people love and protect the peafowl because of this.
The peacock leks as if it is aware of its unmatched attractiveness. It does not run or lose its' head, as the domestic rooster when it courts hens. The peacock waits, posing off, waiting for the peahens' arrival and respective attention.
The peacock's harem is small: two to five peahens that are as crowned as the peacock itself is. But the wedding invitation that they are allowed to see, is royally majestic.
The peacock's tail, spread like a hundred-eyed fan, lures them under the peacock's banner, as if it was a victorious flag of an old veterans' company. A firework of gems... A rainbow cascade... An enchanting rabidity of colours! Magical dreams of the beautiful birds of the lost paradise... (What else can be said?) There is a clear excess of comparisons, but they do not provide an understanding about that incomparable show that the bird, after spreading its tail, gave on a forest clearing.
The peahens, 'accidentally' at first, appear at the enchanting show, obedient to the cat-like call of the male. Supposedly callous, they peck away at something non-existent on the ground. The peacock is unshaken. It magnificently poses, demonstrating the luxurious tail, 'only some movements of the neck give away its' alarm'.
Then, deciding that the feminine coquetry was given its due and its measure was reached, the male suddenly does an abrupt turn and shows to the dames... the unimpressive hind side.
The peahen appears to have come to its senses and to see the hundred-eyed magnificence, it runs in front of the peacock. But the peacock, shaking all of the feathers with a loud rustling and noise, mercilessly bans the female from the astonishing sight. In short, the male turns backwards to the female once more.
The rainbow 'eyes' on the tail have seemingly put a spell on the female; the peahen once more runs from the back to the front. A new 180-degree turn puts the female before what she had early fled from.
And so it goes on for many turns. Until the peahen lies down before the male after bending its' legs. Then, furling the 'banner', the peacock 'meows' in victory and the final stage of the mating ceremony takes place.
The female hatches three to five eggs by itself. The nest is an indentation among the bushes barely covered by dry grass, rarely it is above the ground, in a fork of big branches, in abandoned nests of birds of prey or on old buildings. The female covers its chicks with the tail, as the argus pheasant does, or keeps them close to itself.
'They grow slowly, the crown feathers begin to appear after a month, and the young cocks receive the full tail only at almost three years of age. By the sixth year of age the tail feathers elongate to 160 cm'. (S. Ratel)
4000 years ago the peafowl, introduced from India, already lived in the gardens of Babylon and other kingdoms in the valley of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Later, the pharaohs of Egypt, the kings of Halicarnassus, Lydia and of the other kingdoms and satrapies of Asia Minor paid a lot for the peafowl - the best decoration of their palace gardens. After Alexander of Macedon and his 30,000 Greeks passed, winning every battle, 19,000 km from Hellespont to India, they brought many peafowl to Greece, alongside many other 'trophies'. From Greece they came to Rome. There they were bred in spacious coops. For the Romans, practicality always won over pure aesthetics: they not so much adored the peafowl; rather they roasted and ate the foreign firebirds after plucking them. By the end of the II century, there were more peafowl in Rome than quails, and because of that, according to Antiphanes, 'their prices fell greatly'.
In the medieval chronicles of Western Europe the peafowl were mentioned, but in general there were few of them, until the XIV century. But the peafowl was served as a rare treat on the cele-bratory events. Back then, what wasn't eaten with a great appetite and joy: stiff swans, even stiffer nightingale tongues, herons, cormorants, lynxes, dolphins... One does not even have to mention wisents, boars, and deer.
This was all about the blue, or common, peafowl. There is another species in Myanmar, Indochina, and Java. The Javanese peafowl. Its' neck is not purely blue, but blue-gold-green. Its head bears not a crest of feather stems, fluffy only on the end, crown-like, but a slim bunch of feathers, rather like a plume of the cavaliers' helmets. Therefore, the first species can be called 'crowned', and the second - 'plumed'. It is cautious, easily frightened, and aggressive. In the aviaries, parks and zoos the 'plumed' peafowl is hard to take care of: they cruelly fight with each other and terrorize other birds. They attack people! Cocks and hens. They strike with their spurs and beaks. They weigh 5 kg and these birds are quite strong. The Javanese peafowl 'present a serious danger to the visitors of the parks'.
Their cry is not melodious 'meowing', but a 'loud, trumpeting 'kia, kia!' that is heard primarily in mornings and evenings'. And also a loud, trumpeting 'ha-o-ha!' The alarm cry, a warning to the other peafowl and everyone else who understands, is 'Tak-tak-kerr-r-r-r-oo-oo-ker-r-r-roo', as if someone is knocking two bamboo sticks against each other. If you happen to be in that place, then remember in case if you hear such 'knocking' in the rainforest: maybe a tiger or a leopard is stalking in the bushes.
Are there any more species of peafowl? Until 1936, the experienced ornithologists would reply with a 'no'.
In 1913, the New York zoological society sent an expedition to Africa under the leadership of Herbert Lang. His aide was a young scientist, Dr. James Chapin, who was named by the Congo-lese 'Mtoto na Langi' (Son of Lang). The scientists wanted bring live from Africa a sylvan 'giraffe' - the okapi, discovered in 1900 in Eastern Congo.
But it proved not so simple to capture the anti-social inhabitant of the jungle. Two very young okapis that the expedition managed to catch after many adventures, died soon afterwards. The expedition returned to America in 1915 without okapis. However, the scientists had gathered other valuable collections in Africa, including the headdresses of the native hunters, decorated with beautiful feathers. The feathers belonged to different birds. Gradually, Chapin established to which species the feathers belonged. One big feather remained, but as to whose it was, no one knew. It was examined by the greatest specialists and experts of the tropical birds, but the mys-tery still remained unsolved.
21 years later, Chapin arrived in Belgium to finish his work on the birds of Africa in the Congo Museum. Looking through the local collection of birds, Chapin accidentally discovered a cupboard forgotten by everyone in the dark corridor, where specimens of little interest were kept. He found two dusty stuffed birds in the cupboard's upper shelf - they were completely unusual, with feathers similar to the striped feather from the Congolese headdress, which has flustered the American ornithologists. Chapin hurried to look at the labels: 'young common peafowl'.
Common peafowl? But what Congo has to do with it? The peafowl - even students know this - do not live in Africa.
Chapin wrote later: 'I stood as if I was thunderstruck. Before me lay - I understood that immediately - the birds, to whom my ill-fated feather belonged'.
He discovered that shortly before WWI, the Congo Museum received small collections of animals from other Belgian museums. Mostly they were stuffed specimens of well-known African birds. But this pair belonged, as decided by the museum's staff, to young Indian peafowl. And since the peafowl do not have anything to do with Congo, the pair was abandoned like useless rubbish.
One fleeing glance was enough for Chapman to ensure that they were not peafowl, but completely unknown birds not just of a new species, but of a new genus as well. Without an argument, these birds were close to the peafowl and pheasants, but represented a completely new variety of theirs.
Chapman called them Afropavo congensis, which, translated from Latin, means 'African peafowl from Congo'.
He did not doubt that he will catch the birds where their feathers were acquired. Plus, one of his acquaintances, who served as an engineer in Congo, told him that in 1930 he hunted in the jungles of Congo for some unknown 'pheasants' and ate their meat. From his memory, the engineer sketched a drawing of his game. From the drawing it became clear that he was talking about the African peafowl. In the summer of 1937 Chapman flew to Africa. Meanwhile, the news of the discovery of a new genus of big birds - for the first time in many years! - quickly went around the world. It reached the shores of the great African river too. When Chapman landed in the city of Stanleyville on the shores of Congo, he was already awaited by seven species of African pea-fowl, already acquired by the local hunters in the neighbouring jungles.
A month later, Chapman saw a live African peafowl with his own eyes. A big peacock flew from the undergrowth with 'a deafening flapping of the wings'. Chapman's guide Anjazi shot at the bird but missed. Two days later Anjazi rehabilitated himself: he shot the 'deafening' bird.
Chapman found out that the birds discovered by him are well known to the Congolese: they called the birds' itundu or ngove. These are quite common inhabitants of the great rainforests from the Ituri River at the extreme northeast of the country and to Sankuru River in the center of the Congo rivershed.
The African peafowl lacks an astonishing tail: it is not long. There are not any rainbow 'eyes' on the feathers either, only some have black, opaque, round spots at the end of the edge feathers. But the bird nape is 'crowned'. The naked skin on the head is greyish-brown, on the throat - orange-red.
The African peafowl live as a single couple. They are monogamous.
The African peacock and peahen are inseparable day and night. Next to each other or close by they peck the fallen fruits. At night, to escape the leopards, they sleep on top of giant trees. At night the males' loud cries 'Rro-ho-ho-o-a' are heard for a mile. 'Govi-i', 'Gove-e', the females echo.
They rarely enter forest clearings. Unless they are next to a village where are fruit trees grown by people. There the birds are caught in nooses. The feathers are used in decorations, the meat is eaten. (Or the birds are sent live to a zoo.) It is hard to catch these peafowl in jungle depths.
The nests are on tall stumps, in the cleaves of storm-broken trunks, in moss-covered forks of branches. There are two-three eggs. The female does the hatching. The male is standing close-by - at the guard duty next to the nest. Its' alarm call resembles the 'clucking' of an alarmed mon-key. The nesting female immediately undertakes necessary actions. It sinks lower to the 'roost'. It hides the head under one of the wings. It is hard to notice the bird then, on the lichens and mosses, upon which it directly hatches the eggs.
26-27 days later the African peachicks hatch. The impatient father waits below. They hide for two days, gathering their strength under their mother's wings. Then they jump down to their father, as it summons them in a loud voice. That night they sleep on the ground, under their father's wings. And then - some with the father, some with their mother on low-growing branches, where (at four days of age!) they can fly to. For six weeks they live with their parents and then they go to live in their sylvan world on their own.
The argus pheasants are links between the pheasants and the Asian peafowl. The African peafowl links the peafowl with the guinea fowls.
They have blue or red baldheads with fleshy outgrowths, 'bluish' bare necks (red in the forest-living species), and white dots are spread like beads over the entire plumage. These dots supposedly appeared from the plentiful tears spilled by the sister of legendary Meleager when he died from the far-reaching gold arrow of Apollo. After weeping all of her tears, the inconsolable sister of the fleet-footed hero transformed into a guinea fowl.
However, two species of forest-living guinea fowls have spilled, apparently, few tears: they are spotless or almost spotless. They are the white-fronted and the black guinea fowls. The jungles of West Africa are their homelands. They live demurely. We know little about their habits. In small flocks they wander on the ground, pecking fallen fruits. When one finds anything tasty, immediately everyone rushes to it, and try to push it away with their legs or shoulders. Soon, everyone is pushing, like a disorganized crowd for tickets at a movie cinema. The strongest bird gets the food. It is not a fight, but a struggle for supremacy. They do not use the sharp beaks: they could seriously hurt their naked heads.
The red colours on their heads, the white on their chests are the signal signs. When orienting by them, the birds find each other in the jungle gloom.
There are four more species of guinea fowls in Africa (one of them is also found on the south of Arabia). The crested guinea fowls, in general, are sylvan birds.
The helmeted, or common, guinea fowls are the inhabitants of the steppes and the savannahs. The domestic guinea fowls, bred even by the Romans in their coops are their descendants. In the Middle Ages the guinea fowls, apparently, did not live in Europe. Later the Portuguese brought them here once more. Having turned feral, they now live also on Madagascar, on the Mascarene, Camorra, Antilles islands.
The biggest are the vulture guinea fowls (the dry steppes of East Africa, from Ethiopia to Tanzania). 'Bald', crestless and unhelmeted heads, with strongly curved at the tips beaks, they resemble the heads of birds of prey. The long black-white-blue feathers stream down the bottom end of the neck, the shoulders and the chest. The middle keel feathers are elongated in a thin bunch and are curving slightly upwards at the tips.
They are gregarious, like the other guinea fowls. Just like them, they spend the nights on trees. When startled, quickly flee into prickly shrubs. They are poor flyers.
Pheasants are not native to America. Those that live here were introduced in the past. Wild turkeys represent the pheasant family in USA and Mexico. But here they are exterminated almost everywhere. It is rare now to see their spring leks.
The breasts is bulging forwards, heads leans backwards, the tail is wheel-like, the bare neck, head and the meaty 'wattle' on the foreheads shine like a sapphire - here's how the female turkeys behold the courting male. Solemnly walking and stopping, they gaze upon the male haughtily from the edge of the clearing. And the latter meanwhile just brushes and brushes earth with its wingtips and mutters: 'Gobble-obble-obble'. That is why one of local names of this bird is the 'gobbler'.
Should another 'gobbler' arrive here, there will be a fight. The weaker contender, feeling its strength vane, will fall prone and will submissively lay its neck to the ground. A submissive poise. If it will not do that, the victor will kill it. Otherwise, it will walk around the loser, vengeful and terrible, but it will not touch the other bird. (The peacock instincts' do not recognize this poise at all; it is just comfortable to attack. Therefore, in the aviaries, the peacocks kill the turkeys who submit to them.)
The female turkeys nest under cover: under a shrub, in the grass. The 8-20 eggs are incubated for 4 weeks. Sometimes collectively. Once, three females were flushed from a shared nest. 42 eggs were counted there!
The females lead all of the hatchlings together too: 2 mothers and their nestlings mixed together. After two weeks the young turkeys already spend the night on trees under their mother's wings. They stay with her for the autumn and winter. In winter many of the families form flocks. The males live separately, in masculine companies.
'The turkeys prefer running to flying and when the ground is covered with melting snow, they escape from their pursuers on foot. Audubon chased the turkeys on horse for several hours and wasn't able to catch them' (Alexander Sketch).
For its speed the turkey received the scientific name of 'meleagris', in honor of the fast-footed hero of Greece - Meleager of Calydon.
Another wild turkey, the oscillated, lives in the jungles of Honduras, Guatemala and the south of Mexico. A female was caught in 1920. It was brought to London, but its' cage fell into Thames and the rare bird drowned.
Some time ago the oscillated turkeys bred for the first time in one of California's zoos. (Via artificial insemination from a lame male!) Now those turkeys may be more plentiful in the zoos that in the wild, in the jungles of Yucatan, the only place where they live, and are very rare. Breeding in captivity, possibly, will save this species from extinction.
The oscillated turkey is similar to the common one, but is smaller, lighter, the same bluish tones are located on the bare skin of head and neck, the tips of the tail feathers are blue and black eye spots, similar to those of a peacock.
Snowcocks are children of the mountains. This statement is ambiguous. If there were no Caucasian, Himalayan, Altai, and other Central Asian mountains, then the snowcocks would not exist on this planet either. When millions of years ago, mighty upheavals of earth squeezed, bent and rose high all of those stones above the valleys, the mountains were born. An age after another the ancestors of the snowcocks inhabited them, going higher and higher. Finally, they reached the cloud-covered mountaintops, where few birds and few beasts are found. Usually the snowcocks live more than 2000 m above the sea level, and even greater heights, four to five thousand m are their usual homes. Only in wintertime do the snowcocks go to the alpine zone, to the border of the mountain forests.
A snowcock is bigger than a black grouse. In general, it looks like a grouse. Its running is fast, maneuverable. Its' flight is surprisingly fast and dexterous. With a cry a snowcock takes to the air, its powerful wing flaps send it flying like a missile. Then it glides and sharply descends be-hind a bump or a cliff.
At dawn, the snowcocks cry a lot. At first, one of them roughly 'giggles' or 'chuckles', for five minutes without a break. The others second it. The subservient echo spreads throughout the ravines and mountainsides the interactions of many voices, multiplying the choral sound.
The melodic whistles of the snowcocks, other songs and cries, especially in the mating season, liven the oppressive silence of the deserted highlands.
'The male's mating song is quite complex and consists of three parts, with the shared continuity of about six seconds... males don't participate in incubating and don't take care of the offspring in the future' (professor A.V. Miheev).
These are the Caucasian species. Scientists write differently about the Himalayan and Tibetan snowcocks. If a danger occurs, the male snowcock whistles loudly. The female hides on the nest and it leads the enemy away with a distracting maneuver. The snowcock family, led by the father, travels in a group. They swing their tails up and down, as if encouraging themselves. The chicks mature and the neighboring families unit.
he Caucasian snowcocks, (there is about half-a-million of them) live nowhere, but on the main mountains of the ridge, after which they are named. Four other species of snowcocks have spread through Asia's highlands - from Turkey to Sayana and Mongolia.
The rock partridges or Alectoris have a distinctive cry 'ke-ke-lek'; still, they have other cries too. Four species live in the mountains of northern Africa, Europe, and Asia. They are acclimatized in England and USA.
The plumage is mottled: ashy-grey 'with a pink tinge'. On the sides - black-brown-white stripes, on the throat - a light spot, framed with a black band. They run quickly in deep ravines, on stony mountainsides, even among the deserts.
'The female of the Alpine rock partridge usually makes two nesting holes at a distance of about 100 m and lays into each from 9 to 15... eggs. Already, the great Greek scientist Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) knew that one of the clutches is incubated by the male' (S. Ratel).
A division of parental responsibilities that is very unusual for birds!
About the activity of the males of our rock partridge species scientists have a different opinion: 'The incubation is done by the female. As for the male's participation in it, then there is no precise data about it' (Professor A.V. Miheev).
The grey partridge lives in sparse forests, sylvan steppes, European steppes, the south of west Siberia, Kazakhstan, (from Scandinavia and the White Sea in the north-west to Caucasus and northern Iran in south, eastwards to Tuva).
The sign that differentiates the grey partridge from the other, similar grey-brown birds is the rusty brown, horseshoe-like spot on the belly. However, in the females, it is less distinct or it is downright absent.
The life of the grey partridges is simple. In autumn and winter, they migrate in flocks. In spring, early in the morning, the males cry sharply, briefly on their nesting territories, while sitting on hills. They invite the females. They are monogamous. When a female approaches the male with an open beak, spreading the plumage out, with a grouchy 'cuckling', without any especially fancy poses, courts the female.
Somewhere out of the way, in the cereals, in shrubs alongside ravine sides, in the forest under-growth the female incubates one or two dozen of grey-brown-olive eggs. (A very fertile bird has a record: 26 eggs!) The male is close to the nest. Maybe it even incubates, according to some data. If so, then among the game birds this will be the fourth exception from the main rule, the other three are the hoatzins, the alpine rock partridges and the Virginia quails. Both male and female raise the chicks.
In areas, where winters are very snowy, (northeast Europe, west Siberia) grey partridges leave in winter for the west, Germany, and south - Ukraine, Transcaucasia, Central Asia.