Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Birds' Nests—Sports of Boyhood

On the 6th[1] we came to Sayyidpur, ten miles, over an undulating country, with a fine soil of decomposed basalt, reposing upon syenite, with veins of feldspar and quartz. Cultivation partial, and very bad; and population extremely scanty.


We passed close to a village, in which the children were all at play; while upon the bushes over their heads were suspended an immense number of the beautiful nests of the sagacious 'bayā' bird, or Indian yellow- hammer,[2] all within reach of a grown-up boy, and one so near the road that a grown-up man might actually look into it as he passed along, and could hardly help shaking it.


It cannot fail to strike a European as singular to see so many birds' nests, situated close to a village, remain unmolested within reach of so many boisterous children, with their little proprietors and families fluttering and chirping among them with as great a feeling of security and gaiety of heart as the children themselves enjoy.


In any part of Europe not a nest of such a colony could have lived an hour within reach of such a population; for the bayā bird has no peculiar respect paid to it by the people here, like the wren and robin-redbreast in England. No boy in India has the slightest wish to molest birds in their nests; it enters not into their pastimes, and they have no feeling of pride or pleasure in it.


With us it is different—to discover birds' nests is one of the first modes in which a boy exercises his powers, and displays his love of art. Upon his skill in finding them he is willing to rest his first claim to superior sagacity and enterprise. His trophies are his string of eggs; and the eggs most prized among them are those of the nests that are discovered with most difficulty, and attained with most danger. The same feeling of desire to display their skill and enterprise in search after birds' nests in early life renders the youth of England the enemy almost of the whole animal creation throughout their after career.


The boy prides himself on his dexterity in throwing a stone or a stick; and he practises on almost every animal that comes in his way, till he never sees one without the desire to knock it down, or at least to hit it; and, if it is lawful to do so, he feels it to be a most serious misfortune not to have a stone within his reach at the time.


As he grows up, he prides himself upon his dexterity in shooting, and he never sees a member of the feathered tribe within shot, without a desire to shoot it, or without regretting that he has not a gun in his hand to shoot it. That he is not entirely destitute of sympathy, however, with the animals he maims for his amusement is sufficiently manifest from his anxiety to put them out of pain the moment he gets them.


A friend of mine, now no more, Captain Medwin, was once looking with me at a beautiful landscape painting through a glass. At last he put aside the glass, saying: 'You may say what you like, S—, but the best landscape I know is a fine black partridge[3] falling before my Joe Manton.'


The following lines of Walter Scott, in his Rokeby, have always struck me as very beautiful:-


As yet the conscious pride of art

Had steel'd him in his treacherous part;

A powerful spring of force unguessed

That hath each gentler mood suppressed,

And reigned in many a human breast;

From his that plans the rude campaign,

To his that wastes the woodland reign, &c.[4]


Among the people of India it is very different. Children do not learn to exercise their powers either in discovering and robbing the nests of birds, or in knocking them down with stones and staves; and, as they grow up, they hardly ever think of hunting or shooting for mere amusement. It is with them a matter of business; the animal they cannot eat they seldom think of molesting.


Some officers were one day pursuing a jackal, with a pack of dogs, through my grounds. The animal passed close to one of my guard, who cut him in two with his sword, and held up the reeking blade in triumph to the indignant cavalcade; who, when they came up, were ready to eat him alive. 'What have I done', said the poor man, 'to offend you?' 'Have you not killed the jackal?' shouted the whipper- in, in a fury.


'Of course I have; but were you not all trying to kill him?' replied the poor man. He thought their only object had been to kill the jackal, as they would have killed a serpent, merely because he was a mischievous and noisy beast.


The European traveller in India is often in doubt whether the peacocks, partridges, and ducks, which he finds round populous villages, are tame or wild, till he asks some of the villagers themselves, so assured of safety do these creatures become, and so willing to take advantage of it for the food they find in the suburbs. They very soon find the difference, however, between the white-faced visitor and the dark-faced inhabitants.


There is a fine date-tree overhanging a kind of school at the end of one of the streets in the town of Jubbulpore, quite covered with the nests of the bayā birds; and they are seen, every day and all day, fluttering and chirping about there in scores, while the noisy children at their play fill the street below, almost within arm's length of them.


I have often thought that such a tree so peopled at the door of a school in England might work a great revolution in the early habits and propensities of the youth educated in it. The European traveller is often amused to see the pariah dog[5] squatted close in front of the traveller during the whole time he is occupied in cooking and eating his dinner, under a tree by the roadside, assured that he shall have at least a part of the last cake thrown to him by the stranger, instead of a stick or a stone.


The stranger regards him with complacency, as one that reposes a quiet confidence in his charitable disposition, and flings towards him the whole or part of his last cake, as if his meal had put him in the best possible humour with him and all the world.


Notes:


1. December, 1835. The name of the village is given in the author's text as Seindpore. It seems to be the place which is called Siedpore in the next chapter.


2. The common weaver bird, Phoceus baya, Blyth. 'Ploceinae, the weaver birds. . . . They build nests like a crucible, with the opening downwards, and usually attach them to the tender branches of a tree hanging over a well or tank. P. baya is found throughout India; its nest is made of grasses and strips of the plantain or date-palm stripped while green. It is easily tamed and taught some tricks, such as to load and fire a toy cannon, to pick up a ring,