It was a cold cold morning in the oak and rhododendron forests of Sho-kharkh in the western Himalayas. Everything was still on the north-west slope of the mountain. Absolutely still. The warmth of the rising sun was a couple of hours away. I had hiked an hour up this mountain to record bird foraging behavior in the winter. But there were no birds stirring. Just the distant mournful calls of the hill partridge. I was covered from head to toe in multiple layers of down and wool and yet I was freezing. Why did I think birds would be active at this time? Why was I not in my warm bed? Why did I start so early? But these tiny birds hadn't eaten anything for over 14 hours through the frigid winter night. They must be starving! Nothing made sense. Did I mention it was freezing?
Then the fainest bird chip above me, I exposed my ears from under my beanie to hear better, staring up into a huge spruce that dwarfed the trees around it. A tiny bird weaved through the needles. It was a goldcrest, an olive green bird with a flaming yellow-orange stripe on its head. I started taking notes. But my fingers would go numb in seconds! The bird weighed about 6 grams. I weighed more than 60,000 grams! How was the bird going about its daily life in the cold? It was incredible! "Need to look up how birds stay warm", I scribbled in my notebook. The way the life of a scientist goes, it would take me 4 more years to get back to this question. But I am there now. Studying how goldcrests survive some of the harshest environments in the world.
I am an Indian avian biologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I am interested in how birds survive extreme weather especially on mountain tops. In this blog I will be writing about my research on bird feathers as down jackets! Here's a quick video to introduce you to my feather research.