Suddenly the house crow—the Corvus splendens-- has become a subject of intense interest for me. It always seems to have been so to poets, painters, playwrights and philosophers. It goes as far back as Sant Dnyaneshwar whose lyric on the crow, “Pail to gay kau kokatahe” has been immortalised by Lata Mangeshkar in her brother Hridaynath’s composition. “Fly away crow, I will gild your feet in gold” sings the poet. And then again “I’ll make a curd-rice mould and bring it to your mouth”.
Kau and chiu are the eternal pair in children’s stories. They are invoked by mothers too, feeding morsels of food to reluctant infants: “This one is for kau. This one is for chiu.”
There’s Shafaat Khan’s play “Bambai ke kawwe” built around the power crows enjoy in Hindu funeral rites. Of the many blackly comic scenes in Satish Alekar’s “Mahanirvan”, one of the funniest is two sons with rice balls fighting for the attention of a single crow to bring ultimate release to their respective fathers’ troubled souls.
R. K. Laxman held an entire show of penciled and crayoned crows in all their moods and postures. They were sharp, shrewd creatures with cocked heads and slanted looks. Gieve Patel has done a few crows, scavengers, feasting on messy dead rats on roads. But he’s done one that’s different. “Crow with egg”. This fellow stands in the very centre of the picture frame balancing an egg on his beak, a consummate performer, commanding us to stop, look and admire.
Years ago I too became an admirer of the crow for a brief while when one of the species took to sitting at my window watching me write. It is flattering to get attention, even when it comes from a creature which has just been scraping human secretions off the street. I was almost on the point of consolidating our relationship by naming my friend the Thane of Cawdor when he stopped coming. I bet he went to sit at Shobhaa De’s window. Had he expected me to offer him moulds of curd-rice and gild his feet with gold? You never know where birds will get their ideas. Anyhow that was the end of my close encounter with crows.
Till recently, when one of them dived at my head and left it stunned for a good hour-and-a-half. What was that? What did I do? I was only looking out of my verandah window passing time. There was another attack the following day when I was trying to unhook a hanging potted plant from one corner of the verandah to carry it to the other, where the afternoon sun was slanting in.
Friends had suddenly turned foes. Someone said I shouldn’t take it so personally. They’d probably built a nest in the tree outside the verandah. I said, “So?”
I found the answer to that “so” when I Googled “House crow”. Amongst all the knowns listed there, I discovered this (to me) unknown: “Breeding pairs will repeatedly dive bomb humans near the nest.” Ah!
Only personal experience tells you how long breeding lasts. The eggs were laid in April, five in all. Mrs Crow sat and sat and sat on them and managed to extract two kids towards the middle of May. The fledglings were grey wisps of something like feathers back then. By end May we could see their hungry beaks poking out of the nest. We thought we could clean our windows now without being attacked. We were mistaken. Our cleaning hands were clawed.
The little ones are now old enough to hop around on the branches nearest to the nest. They’ve grown sleek while our windows have grown grimy. Try to clean them even now and zoop, a black bomb comes diving down.
I wait impatiently for the baby crows to take to the skies. And yet there is fear. Forget the grime on my windows; will these little creatures, whose birth and growth I’ve been watching for over two months, be safe in those wide open skies with no mummy-daddy watching over them?