At the time this happened, we were fairly new to Delhi (as I was to birding too). We had just settled down in Civil Lines in north Delhi, and were looking for a place to walk the dog. Acquaintances and friends suggested the “Ridge” which was nearby — and hastily added that we must never go there because we could get our throats slit. So we did (go to the Ridge, I mean, not have our throats slit), and that first walk was an eye-and-ear-opener in more ways than one.
It was the first halfway-decent thing that Delhi seemed to offer: a green, secretive city forest with mysterious trails winding into the interior. We got there late one monsoon evening, and soon lost our way amidst the many identical-looking paths. Bambi, our boxer, loved it and eagerly nosed ahead. We came to the humped bridge crouched over the infamous Khooni Khan Jheel, which it is said,was dyed red with the blood of all those who were murdered here during the rebellion of 1857. It has also harboured the ghosts of star-crossed lovers who had drowned themselves in its deep, glinting waters. In the gathering gloom, the waters gleamed black and pewter and a bluish vapour hung low over it. Bamboo clumps soared above, whispering and rustling, as if exchanging dark secrets, and the far side was clotted with thick monsoon foliage.
Out of this gloom, came a hollow echoing call, increasing in volume and frequency: “Coup-Coup-COUP-COUP-COUPCOUP!” quickly answered by another coming from a little distance away. The calls echoed into silence and suddenly were repeated again, louder and more menacing. We quickened our pace; the only saving grace was that Bambi was completely unfazed by the calls and took no notice — she was, otherwise, quite a chicken-hearted soul.
“God knows what kind of wild beasts these Delhizens keep here!” we muttered, “maybe they let them loose after dark!’ Of course, we continued to walk on the Ridge (albeit much earlier in the evening) and I was often birding there on Sunday mornings. And then I saw it: it had hopped out of the undergrowth towards one of the feeding bowls set out. Larger than but quite like a jungle crow, except that its cloak-like wings were a deep russet, and it had a long black tail held horizontally like that of a pheasant. Otherwise it was black: an inky, glossy black with tints of metallic green. It hopped out ghoulishly, and then appeared as if it was about to be sick.
“Coup-Coup-Coup,” it hawked. Then, I looked into its eyes and blanched: bulging, red globules, the sort of eyes a horror or monster movie make-up artiste would drool over. The horrifying apparition skulked and hunched its way around, obviously reluctant to spread its russet cloak and fly. It was, of course, the coucal, or crow-pheasant, and incidentally, belonged to neither the crow family nor the pheasants, possibly much to the relief of both clans. It came from the cuckoo family, but it was not a parasitic cuckoo, and so did not lay its eggs in the nests of harassed babblers and crows, and leave the parenting up to them.
What it did was much worse. It went a-courting during the monsoons, making this ghoulish noise, the gents doing a grotesque strutting number while chasing the ladies in and out of the undergrowth, who, in turn, would coyly pretend to flee. Then they built their own home, deep in the foliage, out of grass and twigs, shaped, it is said, like a rugby football. Here, the lady laid her eggs (the ladies are larger than their partners) — and then they went out a-hunting:
For hatching eggs, nestlings and other small birds, most of whom, also would have been bringing up families at this time of the year because of the bounty of insect protein available now. I strongly suspect this is why most baby birds make no fuss whatsoever at feeding time and open their mouths wide the moment their parents return from a shopping trip. Their moms would just have to say: “Now eat up these worms and spiky dragonflies like good little birdies or I’ll call the coucal bogey-bird uncle! Listen, you can hear him!” No fuss thereafter. Despite this, dozens of bird families are struck by tragedy at the beaks of these hulks and there is a methodical menace about the way they move through the bushes and trees, searching for their tiny-tot victims.
The coucal does vary this diet with such appetising fare as lizards, crickets, cockroaches, snakes, mollusks, bats, mice and frogs, actively seeking them out in the undergrowth, and occasionally, flaring open its russet cloak over its head, to give its quarry the willies and cause it to break cover in panic.
The coucal is partial to groves, large gardens, fields, wooded areas et al and seems to prefer hopping to flying. It’ll hop its way up a tree and plane down a long distance away. All you will suddenly hear is that resonating call, “coup-coup-COUP!” Yes, the Khooni Khan Jheel on a glowering monsoon evening would be the perfect habitat for this creature. As would the halls and galleries of Count Dracula’s Castle.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist, and birdwatcher.