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The bird with brains

Ranjit Manakadan
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If there is one bird species that befits the award for taking very successfully to ‘city life,' it has to be the House Crow (C orvus splendens) . The history of when and how the House Crow forsook the forest to live amid human dwellings in villages, small towns and cities is lost in time. This is unfortunate as it would have made an interesting story of adaptation.

Another common city dweller, the House Sparrow (P asser domesticus) — though becoming less and less common in recent years — would beat the crow in terms of numbers and spread, but this birdie is a much less interesting and non-controversial species. The house crow, originally an inhabitant of the Indian subcontinent, has spread and colonised some parts of the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, reaching these areas mostly by piggybacking onto ships. It was quickly shot out in Australia before it could establish itself and cause havoc to native birds and other animal species.

The house crow comes under the family, called Corvids, and are further grouped under the genus Corvus comprising rooks, crows and ravens. Corvus is now placed at the highest pinnacle of the bird classification order, not surprising considering the known intelligence of this group of birds. Crows and their allies do not seem ‘bird-brained' like most of the other bird species, as besides appropriating time for the basic necessities of life and raising a family, they indulge in play among themselves and other animals.

Many rural Indian folks must have witnessed the house crow cheekily tugging at the tail of a cow or ox in slumber — a la village rascal. And in towns, one can see crows heckling birds of prey, flying foxes at their roosts or even among their own kind, and apparently enjoying these pranks. Or, suddenly, swooping down from the tree to give a peck on a child's head for the heck of it!

I always really wonder what goes on during their boisterous gatherings on rooftops prior to roosting — a la our MLAs and MPs engaged in heated arguments in Assemblies and Parliament! If only we understood their language. Crows are also well-known for the clamour they create on encountering a dead of their kin — probably screaming ‘bloody murder and hang the murderer'! For these and other reasons, crows have fascinated mankind for millennia.

The house crow has apt names in Indian languages which are onomatopoeic in origin. It is kak in Sanskrit, kowwa in Hindi, kaaki in Telugu, kage , in Kannada, kowla in Marathi, kagdo in Gujarati and k ag in Bengali. The most befitting name is kaa kaa in both Tamil and Malayalam as this is precisely echoic of the bird's call. This is the main call, but it has a bit more of vocabulary expressive of various moods and situations.

It is one of the better and less harsh looking of the crows. The fore-crown, front parts of the face, wings and tail, as also the bill and legs, are dull black. The hind-crown, neck, breast and belly are mouse-grey. Variations occur region-wise and the birds of Sri Lanka and southern India are more blackish.

Communal and generally keeping to its own kind, there is only one other species that it associates with or rather has no option but to tolerate, the jungle crow ( Corvus macrorhynchos), which is a much less gregarious and sociable. The jungle crow tends to dominate the House Crow, lording it over food resources before permitting the latter to partake of them or steal scraps. It is more a marauder of birds' nests, and especially when rearing its own young. Larger, all glossy black and with harsher call, it looks menacing even to humans!

As for relative pugnacity, I still vividly remember my younger days as a trainee at the Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary during the exercises at trapping and banding of Brahminy Kites ( Haliastus indus ) on our field camp campus. Along with the Brahminys, some House Crows and Jungle Crows would get entangled in the nets. Except for the initial resistance on being handled while affixing the numbered ring on the leg, the House Crow would remain calm as if in a trance. Even if one got agitated and managed a peck, this was half-hearted and did not cause appreciable pain.

The Jungle Crow, on the other hand, would get agitated throughout the exercise, and if one erred even for a second, one would get a painful jab on one's hand. As for the other Corvus species of India, having not ventured much into northern India and especially the Himalayas, I have seen only the Common Raven (Corvus corax) — once in the heart of Jodhpur town. A large replica of the Jungle Crow, it differs in having a wedged tail and possessing a ‘beard' (viz., long throat hackles). It also makes a creaking noise (from the pinions of its wings) as it flies. I am sure most ringers would not be interested in handling this bird!

Why is it that the House Crow is such a successful species in human habitation areas in India? No doubt, it is a bird with brains, has optimal size without being too ungainly that matters for survival, gangs up, and is omnivorous (eats almost everything a human being eats), but a lot has to do with the Indian's attitude of considering all the premises outside his home a garbage bin! Additionally, in some places, Hindus have the practice of offering food first to crows in the belief that their dead ancestors or parents' souls reside in the birds.

As for other beliefs about crows in Hinduism, a particular call of a Jungle Crow outside one's home could signify the impending death of a family member or relative, and another that a guest is about to arrive. And, if any of this does happen (by chance of course!), then the elders would say, “I told you so”!

Of course, what crows normally get nowadays are leftovers, but there is an abundance of them in India for crows to survive and flourish. Wastes from kitchens, restaurants, lunch boxes, weddings and parties all are thrown bewilderingly by the educated and the uneducated alike into the open. Then, there are the discards from the fish and meat markets and the filth of the open dump yards. Where else but in India do such bountiful conditions exist for the House Crow permitting them to proliferate? So, what is the harm if the crows increase in numbers?

For one, the House Crow excludes many other bird (and other small animal) species from surviving in our rural and urban surroundings. Besides feeding on wastes, it is a predator of small birds, and the eggs and young of birds. Many of these species could survive with their own strategies if the crows were in normal densities that nature ordained them to be, but this is a case of dealing with a mob of intelligent predators. It is for this reason that governments of other countries pay a bounty for every immigrant ‘Indian Crow' (this is the term used, sometimes derogatorily, for the House Crow in colonised countries) shot — as it would otherwise disseminate the local fauna.

In Singapore, another reason was that the House Crow resorted to opening the covers of its garbage bins and scattering rubbish in desperate search for food in the spic and span clean country. If there were no House Crows in India, we would definitely have had a much higher diversity of birds in our gardens, parks and surroundings, as only the toughies and street-smart guys among birds can survive with the House Crow.

So, with all that is written, should one abhor the House Crow? Is this fair? Why blame it, for it is we who should be blamed, as the crow has proliferated owing to the Indian's basic lack of cleanliness. And, is the House Crow a culprit worse than man? Has the crow done more damage to the ecosystem and been responsible for more extinction of species than man? Both are basically survivors and does not nature favour the successful? So next time, you look at our own Indian crow in disdain, think twice and give it the respect due to the fittest survivor among birds. And, if we continue to disrespect, destroy and pollute nature, we Indians may in future only get to appreciate the House Crow's ‘melodious' calls in the mornings, and have sufficient depravity of mind from the ill-effects of the lack of wilderness to be able to discern a myriad of colours in even the jet black plumage of the Jungle Crow! Till then, Kaa, Kaa!

(The writer is an Assistant Director in the Bombay Natural History Society and co-author of the recent publication (2011) on birds by the BNHS, 'Birds of the Indian Subcontinent — A Field Guide' (authors: Ranjit Manakadan, J.C. Daniel and Nikhil Bhopale). His email ID is: ransan5@gmail.com)

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