Of Beauty and Crows
Crows remember faces
Come evening, there is a great rush above us. The air is filled with the chirrups, trills, and warbles of birds returning home. The honking of motor vehicles drowns out most of this song. But the cawing of the crows can still be made out above the mechanical din.
They gather on rooftops and the bare branches of trees and announce themselves imperiously. Loudly. As if each one is trying to make itself heard over the sound. They are a sight to behold, their black forms outlined against the orange sky. Almost like a painting.
Yet we, caught up in our Grey existence of concrete, metal and stone, notice none of it. Just like we do not notice the other everyday wonders nature throws our way. Our lives fast paced, and our visions blinkered, we forget to pause and look around and take in the beauty that’s always present around us.
As 20th century Welsh poet put it very aptly,
“What is this life full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.”
Beauty is everywhere to be found in nature, if only we’d take the time to look for it. Even the seemingly lowly crow is incredibly fascinating in its own right. Yet we, owing to its black plumage dismiss it as ugly, not bothering to look beyond the black feathers. In our fairness obsessed country, the simile “as black as a crow” is never not used in a derogatory sense. All this, an ode to the narrow mindedness of our human species.
Noted artist RK Laxman, however, differed. Fascinated by the common crow since childhood, he observed it closely enough to come to realise and admire its unorthodox beauty. Declaring the peacock too gaudy for his taste, Laxman preferred the sable crow with its grey feathered collar. He loved how it stood out starkly against any background. He appreciated its uncommon intelligence and bold nature. So inspired was Laxman by the corvids that he captured them and their antics in a series of iconic drawings.
What Laxman saw in the supposedly lowly crow may demand a certain artistic perspective. Opinions on external beauty are, admittedly, highly subjective. Still, if not for its looks, one would definitely be captured by crow personalities. A personality so audacious that it makes the crow take on creatures bigger than itself, be it for stealing food or in self defence. A trait especially invaluable since the crow doesn’t possess the means to camouflage itself. As Laxman pointed out, its black form shows against any background, be it green vegetation or the blue sky. Having nowhere to hide, the crow prefers fighting it out. A quality we’d appreciate only if we were to spare the crow more than a cursory glance.
This spunky nature of theirs is also what allows the crows to go incredible lengths to get at food. Lengths that other birds dare not venture. I witnessed this behaviour first hand and it stays fresh in my memory. As a nine year old, bored at a garden party in Kolkata, I decided to try and feed fried fish from my plate to a nearby crow. It gobbled the pieces I threw its way and cawing, brought down a whole murder around my table. Frantically, I tried throwing them all food but becoming impatient, they decided to help themselves. Jumping onto my table, they began picking food off my plate and squabbling amongst themselves, disregarding my presence all the while. When one picked up my tiny plastic glass of water in its huge beak and disdainfully threw it aside, I decided it was best I made my exit. The table had been hijacked by crows.
Had it been an adult sitting at the table instead of a nine year old me, probably the situation would not have played out this way. For although fearless to the point of coming across as foolhardy, crows are wary. Their intelligence is comparable to that of a seven year old human child, they analyse a situation before proceeding. They are even smart enough to fashion basic instruments. Crows have been observed using hooked twigs to get at food caught in difficult nooks. For all you know, Aesop’s fable about the crow and the pitcher of water may not be simply a story. Incredibly, crows also enjoy the ability to memorize faces. They remember the faces of humans who tormented them in the past and later mob them together with their flock. Beware of messing with the wrong crow, or it may have a whole murder pecking you over your head.
Their family dynamics incredible, crows stay in tight knit flocks and mate for life. Upon the death of a fellow crow, they have been seen holding what seems like a funeral. The whole flock gathers around the dead bird, maintaining a respectful distance all the while. Cawing amongst themselves, they appear to be commiserating. Sometimes, however, the sombre occasion is interrupted in a very unseemly manner. A few crows break off from the flock and mounting the dead body appear to mate with it. Scientists attribute this behavior to rival crows of the dead bird attempting to dominate it finally.
Inspite of them possessing a sentience almost human like, crows remain mostly dismissed and sometimes even despised by us. For some in India the one occasion where they come to hold importance, morbidly enough, is death. Crows are important figures in a Hindu ceremony called the pind daan, performed on the days following an individual demise. The ceremony involves relatives of the individual offering balls of rice (pindas) to crows which are symbolic of the departed soul. Relatives anxiously wait for the crows to partake from the offering. Any hesitation on the part of the birds is seen to indicate towards some unfulfilled desire of the dead person.
The dwindling number of crows due to pesticide poisoning and habitat loss is, thus, understandably a big cause of concern for the priests performing these ceremonies. Losing crows means they lose their representatives of the souls of the dead. However, losing them goes much beyond just losing supposed manifestations of deceased human beings. We lose fascinating, sentient beings and we lose effective scavengers, who keep disease and decay at bay. While we may not value them today, we shall certainly regret it if they are no longer here. For they, along with several other overlooked species, hold this planet up while we humans wreck it.
It is in our own best interest that we realise their significance as soon as possible. Observing them along with the numerous other creatures we share our world with and realising their beauty may just give us the initiative we need to save our burning world. Additionally, in the process we may learn to find beauty in places where we least expect. So stop and watch the crows as they gather for their evening chats on dead tree tops. Marvel at the sight of their black forms against the orange sky as they caw away to glory and pray that the caws never cease.