India’s Ranthambhore National Park is an extraordinary place. Maintained as the private hunting preserve of the Maharajahs of Jaipur, in 1980 the Indian government declared the 392 km² (151 square miles) area a National Park, dedicated to the protection of tigers. This effort to preserve Rajasthan’s wild tigers has resulted in the creation of a habitat that supports not just the tiger and it’s prey, but an entire ecosystem.
I traveled for many miles to visit this ecosystem in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Royal Bengal tigers of Ranthambhore. While searching for the majestic cats I was fortunate to find myself surrounded by many other species of wildlife. Some beautiful, some spectacular, some fascinating but one of the most over-looked species was the ever-present Rufous treepie.
A member of the crow family and a colourful cousin of the black and white Eurasian magpie, that I am so familiar with, this striking bird grows up to 50 cm (19 inches) of which up to 30 cm (12 inches) is that splendid tail. The bird looks like it was cut from the left-over cloth that was used to make the park’s tigers, with its burnt amber body and black and white slashes like the stripes of the cat that it watches over.
Tiger spotting is a noisy, bone-shaking, nerve-jangling and dusty experience. We are rattled around like dried peas in a tin, over rough terrain in poorly maintained jeeps. During my safari, long periods of driving were punctuated by rest stops in open areas of the park. From the moment the driver killed the engine, the Rufous treepie, with its raucous squawk, was a constant companion. I unfurl my legs and clamber out of the Jeep nervously, in the hope that there are no big cats near by. The treepies appear from nowhere. It seems that each member of the party has a treepie for companionship, looking for scraps or crumbs.
The guide holds up his hand with a few snacks in his palm and within moments a treepie hops on to his outstretched hand and helps itself to a feast. We all do the same and within moments I feel the sharp needles of treepie claws on the ball of my hand and the prickle of a hooked beak plucking at biscuit crumbs. The bird feels incredibly light on the hand.
Like most members of the crow family, the Rufous treepie will eat pretty much anything, from fresh fruit to carrion and will even catch and kill baby birds and lizards as well as insects. Despite their taste for small amounts of farmer’s fruit, these birds are always forgiven due to the quantities of insect pests that they devour.
The Rufous treepie is common across India and much of south Asia and has a listed conservation status of least concern. Like the Eurasian magpie in the United Kingdom, it appears that being highly intelligent and an opportunistic feeder has been a recipe for success in the treepie’s ability to live alongside humans.
When it comes to wildlife, India has an embarrassment of riches. The Rufous treepie is not the most spectacular, the grandest or the most ornate. But it is a beautiful and confident little bird that engages on a personal level with people, and I will certainly seek them out if I have the opportunity to visit India again.
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