When I told an English friend that I was going up a mountain to see the best birds in the world, there was a moment's pause: “Do they get penguins up there?” he asked, with the astonished air of someone who knows nothing of ornithology.
Penguins, I admit, have many claims to being the best birds in the world: they are friendly, curious, and comical. But Alpine choughs, my friends on the mountains, do aerobatics for fun – they seem to be bursting with joy at their abilities in the air. They also do not stink of fish.
Choughs are glossy black members of the crow family, are about the same size as a jackdaw or magpie, and have yellow beaks.
High altitude attitudes
They survive in the thin air of high altitude, and they share the qualities of many mountain creatures – and people: toughness, adaptability and that joy in life. They live across Europe's high places, and into Asia as far as the Himalayas.
Mountains – proper mountains – lie just an hour's journey from the centre of Munich by public transport. Getting there on a regional train costs less than lunch – a family ticket for €25 and another €20 to get up the Wendelstein mountain.
It took less than two hours to get from Munich to the summit at 6,000 feet, or almost 2,000 metres above sea level.
Pick a day with good weather as we did, and the views are stunning.
Peaks rise, range after range, ever more impressively, ever more whitely into the distance. Clouds and summits merge in meringue shapes below a sky that has a blueness against which you will compare every other blue you will ever see.
It is a popular site for tourists, and for weddings. And while the groups of wedding guests showed a certain bravery in their short dresses and lederhosen at such altitude, they had nothing on the choughs – Alpendohlen in German.
Looping the loop, and trimming their glossy black wings, they soar across crags and precipices to land with precision close to offerings of food.
Vigilant but hungry
They eat just about anything, including the chips and bits of sausage held out by diners. But I had come prepared with apples and bread, and finding a relatively quiet space near the summit, I spread them out to lure the choughs in.
Their bright black eyes shine ever vigilant, even as they bow to take the food. Crumbs are eaten where they lie, larger morsels taken to a nearby vantage point, away from competitors and people.
These birds helped restore my joy in life when I encountered them while recovering from a brutal time working as a journalist in Iraq. On a previous, winter trip up the Wendelstein, when every surface was covered in sheets of ice, the choughs skated around my feet for the biscuit crumbs I scattered for them.
And they treated me to an aerobatic display of unrivalled daring and complexity. It seemed to me that there was no benefit for them other than the fun they got out of it. For me, for that, they are the best birds in the world.