From researching and writing about them to uploading a YouTube video and simply bird-watching, Chennai-ites relate their association with the bird that thrives on its relationship with humans
In his wonderful book Mazhaikalamum Kuyilosaiyum, naturalist M. Krishnan pays handsome tribute to house crows for their ability to make a successful living in our midst. Instead of branding them thieves and destructive elements, give them credit for their sharp-minded ways and experience, he says. They are smart, know how to escape danger, chase away other flocks, notice objects (stone) in people’s hands, detect poison in left-over food and resin in a slippery bamboo. They have different sounds for calling for food, warning of danger. They are adapters.
In Perambur, they wait on a culvert wall for Mahesh to feed them “mixture” by hand; when he does, Jyotika flies up to perch on his shoulder. “I made friends with her and now she brings 40 to 50 of her clan,” he says in this YouTube clip. Outside my kitchen, they line up at 7 a.m. for pieces of roti. In bustling Chennai, crows proliferate — making the right to scavenge and survive their own.
Feed them or not (house crows have a greyish necklace, jungle crows are all-black), you can’t ignore them, says advocate / naturalist Santhanaraman. Crow stories are some of the first we hear growing up. We watched elders offer morsels of food to them before they ate, invited them for coloured balls of rice on the day after Pongal, learned that the God of Fate flew on a crow. Our folklore has songs, jokes and proverbs about them. We also associate crows with ancestors.
“Crows thrive on human association,” says Santhanaraman. “Omnivores, they find the throw-aways they eat in densely populated areas. Where do dead rats disappear?” Matchless in making-do, they start collecting twigs and wire-pieces after summer, engage in nest-building and chick-rearing till September. They choose this season because it rains, insects breed, providing food for their new-born, play foster-parents to koel chicks. “Have you noticed their precariously made stick-nests in tall and small trees, traffic signals, coiled cables hanging from lamp-posts? That’s adaptation!”
These guys can remember faces, says sparrow-man Murugavel, recalling how crows have always viewed him with suspicion. As a kid he had to endure attacks by a couple of crows whenever he stepped out on his terrace, but the belligerent birds would keep peace when his mom frequented the place. The same pair visited his kitchen window-sill for food but would fly away when he entered. “It had something to do with my face,” he says. Recently, when a crow aimed at his head as he watered plants on the terrace, he had to be sure. “I hid, and asked my seven-year-old to do the watering. This guy and his companion sat on the parapet and watched!”
They are great in planning and execution, he says, describing how a large-billed crow teased a shikra with a squirrel in its talons, sat next to it to divert attention while its partner-in-crime snatched the prey. “Amazing how a bird-of-prey was surprised into loosening its grip!” They can work out cunning strategies requiring team work, says birder Geetha Jaikumar. “I once watched house-crows hanging around while feeding my dog. One of them would pull the dog’s tail and as the poor canine whipped around, the others would help themselves to the food. This happened fairly regularly so I took to waiting until the dog finished eating.”
Chennai crows have impressed New York-based painter Kimia Kline. Till recently in Chennai, she notes, “One of the first things I noticed was the massive number of crows that rule the city streets. They are big, loud and everywhere. In honour of our flighty friends and their manic ways, I made this drawing. It took a long time. And every time I looked up, I’d see a crow sitting on my window sill staring at me.” The lovely pen-and-ink adorns her blog Alkeemi.
The Indian house-crow (Corvus splendens, Corvidue) is regarded as one of the most intelligent of birds with excellent memory, good eyesight and a fairly long life, according to D. Srinivasan, Adyar. Some of them are known to live up to 30 years in captivity. He explains how crows seem to know of the arrival of unexpected guests. Travel in the past was either on foot or bullock cart. The crow would spot the arrival of visitors to the village, and with its keen eyesight and memory remember the house and recognise the visitors. It would then fly there and caw in anticipation! If these were regular visitors, it would pass on the information to the fledglings.