Nature has distributed its beauties equally, from biodiversity-rich tropical rain forests and coral reefs to barren deserts and alpine regions. It is for us to find and enjoy these splendours. In the Western Ghats and parts of Central Indian forests, we have the deep-blue Malabar whistling-thrush (Myophonus horsfieldii), well-known for its melodious song. Its counterpart, the blue whistling-thrush (Myophonus caeruleus) of the Himalayas, is larger, with a deep yellow bill. It can also defeat any songster in the singing competition. Still higher up, on the interface of forest and subalpine regions, we get the purplish-blue grandala (Grandala coelicolor), a single member of the genus. A grandala cannot compete in music with the two mentioned species. Still, its royal blue apparel, black wings, black-tipped tail, and flocking behaviour mesmerises anyone lucky enough to see these cheerful birds.
Like rare blue diamonds, priced higher than other diamonds (except the red), the grandala is a gem of a bird. Fortunately, they are not rare and are quite widely distributed in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and China. BirdLife International, which annually assesses the conservation status of birds for the IUCN Red List, considers it of “Least Concern”. Its breeding and resident range could be 2,770,000 sq km.
In summer, flocks of grandala can be seen between 3,900 and 5,500 m, where they breed on sharp cliffs and forage around rocky slopes and stony alpine meadows. Winter brings them down to 3,000-3,960 m, sometimes as low as 2,000 m in a severe winter.
Wherever they occur, they delight people with their dazzling blue colour, jovial habits, and large restless flocks. Grandala is a social bird — it is difficult to see a single bird – and whatever it does, it does it with its companions. Feeding on insects, fruits, berries: all activity is shared. A gregarious flock feeding on a large fruiting tree or a large bush looks like a blue diamond shop. Though the females and immatures are brown with white streaks all over the head and underparts, and weak white bars on the wings, the metallic blue shining gloss of males vivify the flock.
In the breeding season, from May to July, between 3,900 and 5,000 m, the birds choose holes and boulders in vertical cliffs to make their large nests of sticks, dried herbs, moss and feathers. The nest chamber is soft and silky, ready to receive two white eggs. The eggs are greenish-white and marked all over with reddish-brown blotches and purplish secondary markings. We know very little about the incubation and chick-rearing periods, but the chicks are mainly fed insects gleaned from meadows and grasslands.
In India, the grandala is found in the Himalayas from Kashmir (Kishenganga and Liddar valleys), Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand through Nepal, Sikkim, and east to Arunachal Pradesh. They are primarily found in mixed-sex flocks, including juveniles, but adult male flocks have been reported just after the breeding season ends. Females and juveniles move separately, but not for long. By early winter, mixed flocks are visible, but surprisingly, mixed-species flocks are uncommon. Grandala likes to move around with their own species members.
A flock of a few hundred blue males, with their drab females and juveniles, wheeling around in a mist-laden valley creates a hypnotic effect. Suddenly the whole flock festoons a large, bare tree, creating an impression that it is suddenly in bloom. As Dr Salim Ali mentions, “Every little while, for no apparent reason, the swarm would suddenly take wing, circle aloft and tumble again into another tree…”. This will go on for some time till the restless birds decide to move to other valleys.
Perhaps Sikkim is the best place to admire these birds, as large flocks are seen in winter. Ms Usha Lachungpa, Sikkim’s most experienced ornithologist and Retd. Principal Chief Research Officer, Forest, Environment & Wildlife Management Department, Government of Sikkim writes, “Grandalas are perhaps the most glamorous of flocking birds in higher altitudes of North Sikkim with the stark contrast between the electric blue males and brown females with their prominent wing bar. Especially seen in large flocks, pre-winter, these birds are a great draw for bird tourism these days.”
Despite the fact that grandalas are common and found in some of the most beautiful areas of the Himalayas, no scientific study has been done on them. Except for the generalities based on old natural history descriptions by British ornithologists, we do not know their migratory movement, breeding ecology, food habits, and status. Hopefully, some young Indian ornithologist will take up a detailed scientific study. The bonus will be the glorious vistas of the Himalayas.