Looking at the moon

There’s an old and widespread story of how Chukar partridges (Alectoric chukar) keep gazing at the moon, in a case of unrequited love. The sighting of a pair of Chukar gave me a lifer as we came down from the 5.5 Kms high pass of Khardung La towards Leh, two kilometers below. The male held this moon-gazer’s pose as long as we stopped to watch, while the female foraged. My guess is that he was on the lookout for other males. During the summer’s breeding season the birds, which are otherwise gregarious, have been seen to turn territorial. Once the incubation of eggs start, the male is said to leave (although there could be a conflicting report). You can see from the photos here that the male and female are very similar in size and shape. This lack of sexual dimorphism in birds usually happens when the parents take turns in the rearing of young. So I guess there is more dependable knowledge of the breeding behaviour of Chukar which I haven’t come across.

I was sure that there were pheasants and partridges to be seen around Khardung La, so I’d kept a keen eye on the passing slopes. As a result, I saw my first pair of Chukar at an altitude of slightly less than 4.5 kms. They are not birds of extremes. In fact their natural range seems to extend in a wide band stretching from the east of the Bosphorus to the the Pacific coast of China, with a finger reaching down to the Sinai peninsula in Africa. Breeding populations have been established in Europe (where they corrupted the gene pool of closely related species) and North America. It’s actually quite a feat of bad luck to have missed then around Dehra Dun, Haridwar, and Naini Tal, where they are easily visible. But this sighting at least moderated my disappointment at not seeing snowcocks in Leh. It also puzzled me to see a pair this late in summer. Hatching an egg takes less than a month, but I would have expected fledging the chicks to take a couple of months at least. By then it would be mid-October, and cold enough to make foraging hard at these heights.

Because of their wide availability they have been widely hunted in the past. So I was surprised to see that there are continuing studies of the histology of these birds with new discoveries being reported even now. There have been studies of the population genetics of Chukar from China, and of climatic effects on their size from Israel. But the oddest study I came across was of their electrocardiograms (ECGs) from birds which were awake. What I could see from this was that their heartbeats would be considered unthinkably abnormal for humans. But in the absence of data from other birds, I wonder what one can conclude from such a study. Still, knowledge is knowledge I suppose. Who knows how it could be used in the future.