surviving urban India
Ever seen a crow foraging for food in a dry garbage can, or heeded their raucous calls amid the din of city streets? We suspect that you have. Many of us may even consider them a nuisance, wanting in grace and melody. But if you observed closely, you may have noticed that they were anything but ‘bird-brained’. Yes, we all know the fable of the crow and water pot, but you do not need to look up fables to notice that, at least in our cities, you are more likely to see crows than sparrows, kites or even pigeons. Have you wondered why? Well, simply put, they are street-smart, a fact that has enabled them to survive in a world bereft of forests. In fact, classified under the family, Corvids, and further under the genus Corvus, comprising rooks, crows and ravens, their intelligence places them at the highest classification of birds.
So when exactly did the ‘house crow’ forsake the forest to live amid human dwellings? We are not quite sure. But historically too, its scavenging genius helped it spread far and wide, and thrive. Originally an inhabitant of the Indian subcontinent, the species travelled as far as 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 settle and prey on domestic fowl, crops and fruits. Even today, governments of countries like Australia, Seychelles, Singapore, Japan, and South Africa have declared it a pest, while some pay a bounty for its extermination. In India too, it is often seen as a troublemaker, ganging up on less aggressive birds and sometimes even swooping down unpredictably on humans. But our growing cities and towns also provide the crow its most ideal habitat. Wastes from kitchens, restaurants, lunch boxes, weddings and parties, discards from the fish and meat markets and the filth of the open dump yards, all add up to a veritable feast, in the open! Modern urban architecture, as opposed to traditional structures, provides less crevices and hollows for birds to nest in. So species like sparrows have shown a noticeable downswing in numbers in cities. like Delhi. Yet, here too, their much-despised but gritty counterparts have proven more adaptable, and flourish.
In case you were wondering how to tell one food-theif from the next, the house crow is mostly a dull black, atleast the fore-crown, front parts of the face, wings and tail, as also the bill and legs. The hind-crown, neck, breast and belly are mouse-grey, though even may be black in southern India. The jungle crow (Corvus macrorhynchos), which is much less gregarious and sociable, is more likely to prey on birds' nests, especially when rearing its own young. It is larger, all glossy black and has a harsher call. But why do urban crows scavenge rather than hunt? “That’s how they have evolved over the years. Crows are very opportunistic birds. They even travel on garbage trucks to forage for food. There are crows in China who have learnt how to eat nuts. Since they cannot break open the shells, they throw the nuts at a busy traffic signal and when a car runs over it, the nut breaks open. The birds then swoop down and pick up the nut,” says Atul Sathe of Bombay Natural History Society. To quote Ruskin Bond, “Where the man goes, the crow follows. He has learnt to perfection the art of living off humans. He will, I am sure, be the first bird on the moon, scavenging among the paper bags and cartons left behind by untidy astronauts.”
A bit of both perhaps. While the crow has definitely made itself infamous, it has, per the streets clean. In the 1800s, crows were ‘introduced’ in some parts of the world like Aden, Zanzibar and near Kuala Lumpur, thanks to their scavenging and pest-eating habits.
Cut to 2012. India.
Borivilli National Park, says Sathe, is facing an avian crisis. The cause: crows. So, is eradicating them a solution?
“Not at all. In fact, the best solution would be to generate lesser garbage which will cut the breeding problem. Unfortunately, there are no studies related to these birds in India that would help highlight the issue. And crows are not only efficient scavengers but also a significant part of Indian culture and beliefs,” says Sathe. For now, the crow is our constant companion, swooping, stealing or scavenging. And because its existence is so closely tied to that of humans, it will always be around – amidst the high rises and a teeming human populace.