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Licked into shape

Statesman News Service |

Often in the past I have seen very young gaur calves, obviously only a few days old, some of them a most attractive golden fawn and others a light Vandyke brown to a deep umber in colour, but it was in September last that I saw a newborn calf for the first time.

For some years now I have been studying the herd behaviour and breeding cycles of gaur; this is no place to detail my observations on these points, but I may say that gaur are more given to moving about in associations of two or three herds (together for the time being) than has been recorded, and that their breeding seasons are more extensive. Well, in September I was in the Mudumalai Sanctuary, and was especially keen on getting in touch with a large composite herd of 39 gaur, which was in a fairly open jungle featuring natural growth of teak. One morning, following the tracks of the herd on elephant back, I came upon the gaur standing scattered in a three-acre patch of jungle overgrown with young Anogeissus trees. 

It was difficult to see the herd clearly because the obscuring, pole-like, pale-barked tree trunks were in the way, but flanking the cover I saw a very dark young cow, with a shaggy throat, standing at the outer edge of the Anogeissus patch. She was staring apprehensively at us but stood her ground, and I had our elephant halted at once, facing away from the cow. She put her head down, but not to graze in the ground glass of my camera, through which I was observing her. I could see that she was licking something on the ground, hidden by the grass. It is extremely difficult to keep any object clearly in view when one has the lens of a hand-held Reflex pointed behind one — the image tends to wobble a lot. However, I resisted the temptation to turn my head round for a better look and soon I knew what that cow was licking so assiduously. It was a newborn calf that had been lying in the grass, and which now rose unsteadily to its feet.

The cow walked away, followed on erratic feet by the infant, and after a few minutes she came to a halt on open ground. It was now possible to have a really close look at the calf from about a hundred yards away, for the intervening distance allowed me to exchange the camera for a pocket telescope.

The smooth, silky coat of the calf still glistened from the newness of its birth. Of course, I could not say precisely how long ago it had been born, but it was not very long — at an educated guess I should say it was from three to four hours old. Its gait was unsteady and headlong and  I was reminded, irresistibly, of Christopher Robin going hoppity-hoppity-hoppity-hoppity-hop! But being so much younger than the child, it was even more wobbly on its legs.

It was a dusky brown in colour, with just the hint of purple in the sheen on its coat. It held its back somewhat hunched — and I do not mean by that that its dorsal ridge was already perceptible, as it was — at times, especially when keeping up with its mother, the back was held arched, suggesting a spinal weakness. The cow encouraged it to suckle, licking it all over its body with long, steady, rhythmic strokes of the tongue, a regular massage with the tongue.

My dictionary tells me that the phrase "lick into shape" comes from the belief that the she-bear gives form to her amorphous young by licking them. I do not know what truth there is behind the belief, but the tongues of gaur cows (and even domestic cows) do serve to stimulate their feeble, newborn calves. The sustained, strong licking that the infant gets differs only in degree from the affectionate licking of the rumps of weeks-old and months-old calves when they suckle — however, it is much more sustained for the first few days after the calf’s birth, and is indulged in even when the infant is lying down to rest. Apparently this strong, rhythmic licking serves to stimulate circulation and tone the infant muscles, and not merely to clean or offer tender tactile comfort. Of course it also serves to clean.

During the three days for which I was able to watch this composite herd, I noticed how quickly the infant was licked into shape. On the first day of its life the calf lay down repeatedly, flopping down to lie hidden in the grass after following its mother for a hundred yards or so, and the cow would then mount guard over the invisible calf. Throughout that day the cow kept a little to one side of the herd and was never more than two yards away from her calf, she confined her movements to that tree-grown patch of jungle and it was significant that a detachment of the herd (consisting of old cows and a few grown calves) stayed by her side right through, though the main body of the herd (led by two big bulls) wandered far around.

On the second day, the cow was running with the herd and the calf was patently much stronger on its legs and lay down less often, and suckled more frequently, and its back seemed much stronger now and was no longer held hunched. By the third day the cow was no longer keeping so constantly close to her calf, and the youngster was now able to run freely, though it had not still reached the stage of bounding around in sheer animal spirits as older calves do.

I have long wanted to know if the “horn-buds” conspicuous on the heads of very young gaur calves show at birth — they do. And to judge by this one infant that I saw, the calf looks darker soon after birth than it gets to be next day. It seems to need plenty of rest the first day of its life, though it is able to move about quickly on wobbly legs soon after birth, and even the next day it doesn’t run about more than it needs to I was also curious about one or two other things, but being anxious to do nothing that might cause the mother anxiety, I did not try to get close to her little one, even when it seemed safe to do so.

this was published on 24 february 1963 in the sunday statesman