The Greater Caucal or Crow Pheasant

Uday Kumar Varma

The Bird from Paradise

The term Paradise Bird is a misnomer. The actual paradise Bird has little to do with paradise nor it is even a bird. Yet in popular perception so steeped is its legacy with sentiments of luck and good tidings, that the bird is commonly referred to as Paradise Bird. This remarkably attractive bird began its journey on this planet as a native of New Guinea. It is now classified as a tropical Australasian bird, the male of which is noted for the beauty and brilliance of its plumage and its spectacular courting display. So, what we commonly believe and call as Paradise Bird is merely a type of crow, which should be correctly described as The Greater Caucal or Crow Pheasant.

But it is a majestic bird. In India it is believed that sighting this bird bring good luck. It is also called by other common names like ‘Bhardwaj Pakshi’ and in Coorg, Karnataka it is known as Chembuka.

But to say that the Crow Pheasant is not beautiful will be being unfair to both the bird and the word beautiful. It is, in its own right, indeed a very beautiful bird, who catches your eye and attention both on account of its bright orange feathers and its unmistakable call. As it sunbathes in the mornings mostly singly or at times in pairs on the top of vegetation with their wings spread out, the sight is as captivating as it is calming. Almost totally territorial, it is most active in the warm hours of the morning and in the late afternoons.

It’s both graceful and majestic, graceful as it saunters across grassy patches or rummages through bushes. Majestic in appearance with a look opulent and enchanting.

The Real Paradise Bird

The real bird of paradise – Strelitzia reginae – a native of South Africa, is actually a flower, regarded as the ultimate symbol pf paradise and freedom. Due to its tropical nature, this flower also symbolizes freedom and joy. Although birds of paradise are best known for their bright orange and blue colours, their flowers are occasionally white also. The epithet of paradise bird bestowed on it is not entirely undeserved because in the hot regions where it grows, birds use its sepal as a perch that makes the flower open in an enticing manner and given its bright and brilliant and bewitching colour of orange and blue, presents a spectacle of joy and beauty.

The Real Bird

The real bird known as greater coucal or crow pheasant (Centropus sinensis), is a large non-parasitic member of the cuckoo order of birds, the Cuculiformes. A widespread resident in the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia, it is divided into several subspecies, some being treated as full species. They are large, crow-like with a long tail and coppery brown wings and found in a wide range of habitats from jungle to cultivation and urban gardens. They are weak fliers, and are often seen clambering about in vegetation or walking on the ground as they forage for insects, eggs and nestlings of other birds. They have a familiar deep resonant call that never fails to attract attention.

It is a large species with an average length of 48 cm. The head is black, upper mantle and underside are black glossed with purple. The back and wings are chestnut brown. There are no pale shaft streaks on the coverts. The eyes, perhaps the most striking feature of its aspect, resemble and shine like a pair of bright red rubies, at once attractive and intriguing.  A long and straight hind-claw characterise the species.

There are several geographic races and some of these populations are sometimes treated as full species. Rasmussen & Anderton (2005) suggest that one of its races parroti, mostly found in peninsular India may be a full species. Another race, intermedius of the Assam and Bangladesh region is smaller than the nominate race found in the sub-Himalayan zone. The sexes are similar in plumage but females are slightly larger.

Distribution

The principal or nominate race is found from the Indus Valley through the sub-Himalayan and Gangetic plains to Nepal, Assam and the Bhutan foothills into southern China (Guangxi, Zhejiang, Fujian), race parroti in peninsular India, race intermedius in Bangladesh, race bubutus in Malay, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Bali, race anonymus in Phillipines and race kangeangensis in Kangean islands.

Courtship, Breeding and the Young

Greater coucals are monogamous. The breeding season is chiefly between June and September.

The courtship display involves chases on the ground and the male brings food gifts for the female. The female lowers her tail and droops her wings to signal acceptance.

 The nest is built mostly by the male over about three to eight days. The nest is a deep cup with a dome in dense vegetation inside tangles of creepers, bamboo clump or Pandanus crowns. They can be built as high as 6m above the ground and the typical clutch is 3–5 eggs.

The eggs (of size 36–28 mm weighing 14.8 g) are chalky white with a yellow glaze when laid that soon wears off. Both the male and the female take part in nest building. They lay 2 to 4 eggs that hatch after 15–16 days of incubation. The chicks take 18–22 days to fledge.

In conformity with the general impression about cuckoos, nests with eggs are sometimes abandoned or more significantly, marauded by the Indian jungle crow (Corvus macrorhynchos culminates).

The young when hatched have black skin and white hairy feathers (termed as trichoptiles) forming a fringe over the eye and beak.  The centre of the belly is pinkish and the upper mandible is black with a pink edge. The iris is brown, gape yellow and feet dark brown-gray. The juvenile of race parroti is unmarked dull black on the underside (contra barred in the northern races) and much darker, dusky chestnut on the wings. Race bubutus found in Southeast Asia has a distinct call. Individuals from the Western Ghats are very similar in size to the lesser coucal Centropus bengalensis but the latter has a stubbier bill, shorter tail, wing tips extending beyond the tertials and a chestnut wing lining, dark eyes and a tail with green/bronze sheen.

Food

Few among the ilk of cuckoos are as voracious an eater as the greater coucal. It devours insects, caterpillars, snails, even small vertebrates like the Saw-scaled vipers. It has been seen deftly lifting lizards from the ground in one swoop. They are also known to eat bird eggs, nestlings, fruits and seeds.

They also feed on the toxic fruits of Cascabela thevetia (Yellow Oleander).

Their eating habits once affected oil palm cultivation to an extent that they had to be declared a pest and were accordingly dealt with. The fleshy mesocarp of palm oil fruit proved too irresistible for them.

Cultural Connotations

If the bird is remarkable for its appearance, agility and grace, it’s unique cultural perch also offers it a special niche. Commonly taken as a harbinger of good omen, its sighting gladdens the heart and boosts the spirit.

Its call, distinct and louder than the call of its other avian brethren, is also associated with superstitions. The calls are a booming low coop-coop-coops lustily repeated with variations. Often they present a duet, and when duetting, the female has a lower pitched call. Other calls include a rapid rattling “lotok, lotok …” and a harsh scolding “skeeaaaw” and a hissing threat call. The deep calls are associated with spirits and omens.

Apart from being regarded as a bird that brings good omen, its body and flesh has also evoked experimentation. In early days of Raj, the rookies who came to India, took it for a pheasant, sought after for its delicious flesh. However, the fact that its flesh was evil-flavoured and most distasteful, the temptation to shoot it was quickly dispelled. And to labour the point of its acrid taste, it was nick-named ‘Griff’s pheasant’.

But in some parts of country side, the flesh was believed to cure tuberculosis and pulomonary ailments, a belief that does not sustain anymore.

Poetry

And a poem that brings in memories of a lore that was passed on to me in my childhood. Sighting this bird brings in good luck, was what my grand-mother used to tell us. I believed it without questioning. And till today the belief remains un-lied.

The Bird from Paradise

Often,

You appear in my dreams

Offering flitting glimpses

That refuse to linger

But endure till

I wake up!

Your thick-set body

The glistening chestnut-brown

Wings that never fail to

Reflect a luminous image

Of grace and strength!

Your ruby-red eyes

Shine like burning ambers

And bestow upon

Your regal aspect

A benign incandescence!

Slow but sure

Swift, agility so grand

In stealth and camouflage

Rummaging in bushes

Or clear expanse of a grassland!

A frame that defines

A masculine beauty beyond surpass

A gait that captures grace and panache

Short flights, occasionally taken

In languid labour alas!

I soak your image

Store it in my inner mind

Blurred but not lost

And that which reappears

Clearly, as dreams rewind!

The following morning

Invariably the day

Is spent in delight

I receive news and messages

That bring in only happy tide!

And then I remember

My grandma’s words

“It’s Bird from Paradise

And when you see it

It brings you good luck and delight!”


The author, Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.

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