In my book, the word often predates the bird. So the first time I came upon ‘chough’ I thought it was a dictionary entry for an act of expectoration by one with a North Indian surname. It would be a few years before I got the hang of what it was really (a bird; a corvid: specifically, one related to crows), a few years more before I learned how the word was said (rhymes with tough and not with though), and very many years before I’d actually see one in feather and flesh.
Now, the chough is not a hard bird to identify. There are two species and their very straightforward names give away their very straightforward appearances. The Red-billed Chough or just Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) has a long, slender, slightly down-curved bill that is a bright post-office red. And the Yellow-billed Chough or Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus) has the same appendage, though less pronounced, in the colour of a Malta lemon. The rest of the bird (both species) is a joyless, unremarkable, glossy, corvine black.
Yet, like most corvids — a family that includes jays, tree pies and nutcrackers — choughs are intelligent and full of mischief and character, and therefore entertaining to watch. If only one got a chance to watch them.
My first chance to see a chough went a-begging. In the stormy spring of 2007, walking along a part of the Curzon Trail toward Ali Bugyal in the outer ring of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve in the Garhwal Himalaya, I was urged to keep my eyes peeled for them. They lurk about the slopes, I was told by veterans who had walked many a Himalayan trail, and plunge down vocalising mellifluously when startled. Their call resembles a gruff, throaty, somewhat singsong chuff-chuff and so it emerges that whoever christened the bird must have done so seized by onomatopoeia.
They were mighty common birds, I was informed, and we’d soon grow tired of the plenitude with which they’d accost us as we walked. In the shrubbery I crept up on a Kaleej Pheasant. Then, in the sky, a Lammergeier. Remarkable finds for a first-time birder in the Himalaya, but the choughs were AWOL. Fret not, they’re right round the corner, I was assured. A few hours after I was fed that hopeful promise, the skies darkened and our party was beset by a shower of hail. It didn’t help to be reminded at this juncture of a discomfiting historical fact: It was a few miles further on this very trail, en route to the glacial lake of Roopkund, that a 9th century hailstorm far more terrible than this felled a party of 300 pilgrims along with Raja Jasdhaval of Kanauj and his pregnant queen, their porters and animals. Their bones and skulls, some gouged with fist-sized holes, remain to this day. As if that portent wasn’t sufficient, I was burning with a fever, weighed down by inflamed tendons in both knees, and hallucinating wildly from a spell of mountain sickness brought about by the sudden gain in altitude, the drop in oxygen and my painkiller-addled debilitation. In that state, I saw and heard many things but I cannot for the life of me recall if a chough was among them.
In 2012, while our Green Ogre party was camped in a charming glade near Dhel Thatch in the Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, we spied choughs on two occasions, and both times in overhead flight. We argued till nightfall whether they were Red-billed or Yellow-billed Choughs, and continued bickering the next morning until we grew bored of each other and the subject. While it was well to smugly tick off ‘Unid chough’ on our checklists, the whole business left an unsavoury, unsatisfying aftertaste. What good was a checklist entry if it wasn’t anything to crow about?
The good thing about choughs is that they are generously distributed in the northern hemisphere. From Spain through northern Africa, the Pyrenees and the Alps, they occur everywhere. I’ve read that Red-billed Choughs can be seen in Britain and northern Ireland, too. In August 2013, I happened to be in Switzerland, in the northeastern canton of Appenzell bordering Liechtenstein and Austria, which lay across the curling Rhine that sliced the country evenly into hunks of grass-green and stone-grey. From the town of Appenzell we took a bus to a cable car station, and enjoyed an aerial ride to Hoher-Kasten, a point of vantage in the Alpstein massif.
I remarked to an alpinist I met on the bus at how much this alpine landscape resembled the bugyals of the Himalaya. Hoher Kasten has a monstrous radio tower, an observatory and a cluster of variegated research field stations. Better still, it has a revolving restaurant where we were plied with meat preserves and cheeses, and plenty of wine and lager. Did I say revolving restaurant? Yes, it revolved very, very slowly. So slowly that you’d look up suddenly from your plate and wonder if the wine had something to do with what was now outside the window. On a clear day, that is. Quite unlike the day I was there. From the ceiling-to-floor glass windows of the revolving restaurant we eyed what should have been the glorious view. It was a pale, vitreous white with fog and incipient rain. When it did clear occasionally, we spied birds – mostly swallows and martins, then some accentors. All too far away to be identified properly.
And then, out of the murk appeared a shape dark and brooding. I had an Edgar Allan Poe moment but this wasn’t a raven, nevermore, but its affable alter-ego. The mist cleared to reveal a hunky black bird with a relatively compressed head that ended in a curious yellow bill. It shook off the moistness of the fog that clung to its bearded throat and perched on the guardrails around one of the viewpoints. It chuckled gaily to itself and attempted to make conversation with these foreigners in what seemed to be a corvine dialect of Swiss German. It hopped on the railing and rasped a litany of throaty syllables. Actually, it sounded more like a security guard’s walkie-talkie burbling to itself but you really couldn’t tell the difference unless you were an expert linguist, which I admit I am not. I was surprised at how bold the bird was, and how it inched confidingly from its perch on the cable towards the party standing on the lookout enjoying the view. It squatted there, blinking self-assuredly and soliloquizing pleasantly like an adorable old lady yielding to a fit of dementia. And then, finding no one interesting enough to gossip with, it disappeared into the fog that now engulfed us.
As for me, I was mighty chuffed.