Crows, but not quite…

I saw these crows for the first time in the Himalayan mountains above Manali, almost 20 years ago. Even back then, they seemed interesting. But, it was only much later, when I came to work in the valley of Spiti in Himachal Pradesh that my liking for them turned into a deep happy relationship.

They are called choughs (pronounced chuff!) – a name presumably derived from their calls. But, if I were to give them an alternate name, it would be ‘sweet crows’! Yes, these crows of the high altitudes not only sound sweet, they also look beautiful.

You may exclaim “Beautiful crows?!”and I would reply, “Yes, of course!” They have bright yellow/orange beaks and orange legs contrasting with a glistening black body. Perhaps you too like some animal or bird very much? This unique capacity of humans to share such a bond with all of nature and Mother Earth is termed biophilia – affinity for life — by E.O. Wilson, a famous and renowned conservation biologist.

Coming back to the choughs, they are simply adorable. From their acrobatic manoeuvres in the sky to their clumsy walk, to the apparent boldness with which they approach people, to their quarrels, squabbles and efforts foraging for food along small mountain streams — all are done with an air of confidence and grace.

I have spent hours watching them feed near our campsite (at the altitude of 4,500 m) in the Spiti valley. They do a thorough and systematic search in the small stream nearby for worms and insects, moving away towards the bank after a while and then coming back to the stream again.

There are two species of choughs in the Indian Himalaya – the Yellow-billed Chough and the Red-billed Chough. The former are smaller and more gregarious, often forming flocks of more than 150 birds, ascending on warm air currents in a circular, vortex-like fashion (known as bowling ) till they almost turn into tiny dots – and then suddenly disperse, as if they have decoded something or attained spiritual enlightenment!

They find us as soon as we start pitching the first tents for our camps and remain with us, most often around the small, temporary garbage pit where kitchen waste and other refuse is dumped. They do not approach with any hesitation or doubt, rather they arrive with a feeling of ownership. And their confident steps accompanied by their cheerful calls always lead them into the kitchen, or to the storage tent! If one is not watchful, food slowly begins to go missing!

A Buddhist monk, who is part of our field staff, offers a pat of butter to the Gods to keep us safe. Of course, it is quickly devoured by these marauders. Finally when we wind up camp after 15 – 20 days, they invariably come to bid adieu and clear the remaining food waste. I make it a point to say goodbye.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 4 July 2012.

Photo credit: High Altitude Programme, NCF