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THE BIRDS OF THE AIR
I think it is rather a pity that no naturalist has studied the birds of German East Africa in the intimate and friendly spirit that many men have done at home. It has been said that the bright plumage of Central African birds is given them as compensation for the charm of song that is a monopoly of the European bird. That this is the case in the damp forests and swamps and reed beds along the Rufigi and other big rivers, there is no doubt. Gaudy parrots and iridescent finches flash through the foliage of trees along the Mohoro river, monkeys slide down the ropes formed by parasitic plants that hang from the tree branches, to dip their hands in the water to drink; only to flee, chattering to the tree-tops, as they meet the gaze of apparently slumbering crocodiles. Great painted butterflies flit above the beds of lilies that fringe the muddy lagoons, the hippopotamus wallows lazily in the warm sunlit waters. Here, it is true, is the Equatorial Africa of our schoolboy dreams; and the birds have little but their glittering plumage to recommend them.
But we are apt to forget that the greater portion of Tropical Africa, certainly all that is over five hundred feet above the sea, which constitutes the greater part of the country with the exception of the coast region, is not at all true to the picture that most of us have in our minds. For the character of the interior is vastly different: great rolling plains of yellow grass and thorn scrub, with the denser foliage of deciduous trees along the river-banks. Here, indeed, you may find sad-coloured birds that are gifted with the sweetest of songs. In the bed of the Morogoro River lives a warbler who sings from the late afternoon until dusk, and he is one of the very few birds that have that deep contralto note, the "Jug" of the nightingale. And there are little wrens with drab bodies and crimson tails that live beside the dwellings of men and pick up crumbs from the doors of our tents, and hunt the rose trees for insects. In the thorn bushes of higher altitudes are grey finches that might have learnt their songs beside canary cages. The African swallows, red headed and red backed, have a most tuneful little song; they used to delight our wounded men in hospital at Handeni when they built their nests in the roofs of this one-time German jail, and sang to reward us for the open windows that allowed them to feed their broods of young.
In the mealie fields are francolins in coveys, very like the red-legged partridge in their call, though in plumage nearer to its English brother. There, too, the ubiquitous guinea fowl, the spotted "kanga" that has given us so many blessed changes of diet, utters his strident call from the tops of big thorn trees. The black and white meadow lark is here, but the "khoran" or lesser bustard of South Africa, that resembles him so much in plumage on a much larger scale, is absent. The brown bustard, so common in the south, is the only representative of the turkey tribe that I have seen here. Black and white is a very common bird colouring; black crows with white collars follow our camps and bivouacs to pick up scraps, and the brown fork-tailed kite hawks for garbage and for the friendly lizard too, in the hospital compound. One night, as I lay in my tent looking to the moon-lit camp, Fritz, our little ground squirrel that lived beneath the table of the mess tent, met an untimely fate from a big white owl. A whirr of soft owl wings to the ground outside my tent, a tiny squeak, and Fritz had vanished from our compound too.
Vultures of many kinds dispute with lion and hyaena for the carrion of dead ox or mule beside the road of our advance. King vultures in their splendour of black, bare red necks and tips of white upon their wings, lesser breeds of brown carrion hawks and vultures attend our every camp. Again the vulture is not so common as in South Africa, for here it is blind in this dense bush and has to play a very subsidiary part to the scavenging of lions and hyaenas. Down by the swamps one evening we shot a vulture that was assisting a moribund ox to die. True we did not mean to kill him, for we owe many debts of gratitude to vultures; but, to my surprise, my native boy seemed greatly pleased. Lifting the big black tail he showed me the white soft feathers beneath, and by many signs appeared to indicate that these feathers were of great value. Then I looked again, and it was a marabou stork. My boy, who had been with marabou and egret poachers in the swamps and rice-fields of the lower Rufigi, knew the value of these snowy feathers.