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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The perfect Mumbai resident

The perfect Mumbai resident

Crows are just like urban humans: convivial, raucous, focused on their needs, excitable and neurotic

Crows are not as lovable as the tiny, round-bellied, musical and impossibly cute sparrows, but they are certainly easier on the eye than the head-bobbing pigeons. Photo: ThinkstockPremium
Crows are not as lovable as the tiny, round-bellied, musical and impossibly cute sparrows, but they are certainly easier on the eye than the head-bobbing pigeons. Photo: Thinkstock

Every Mumbai resident has a crow story.

There is the one about the bird that flies in early in the morning and sits on the bedroom window sill, cackles and caws for several minutes, stares at the room’s occupants in silence for a bit, and then flutters away.

There is the one about the crow that appears at 1.40pm every day, demanding to be fed. If the window is shut, the crow will gently tap on the glass.

There’s the crow that caws the house down if its bowl of water is empty.

The cliché that Mumbai is a concrete jungle is absolutely true, as is the fact that it is teeming with domesticated animals and birds who give its citizens a false sense of being “close to nature". In Mumbai, this “closeness to nature" translates into feeding behaviour. We feed cows, dogs, sparrows, crows, pigeons and cats and anything else that approaches us with open mouths and beseeching eyes.

It appears that bird feeders have their favourites. Crows are not as lovable as the tiny, round-bellied, musical and impossibly cute sparrows, but they are certainly easier on the eye than the head-bobbing pigeons, which have occupied every available corner and converted it into their love pad and bathroom.

However, to love a crow is to nearly always be thwarted by it. Fortunate is the one who has been permitted to feel a crow’s crown, and it’s not for want of trying. When crow feeders are summoned to their window sills every day, one and only one thought crosses their minds: will I finally succeed in touching this bird to which I have devoted a portion of my grocery bill?

Nature has endowed crows with abundant caution, as well as fathomless mystery. It is unclear whether the daily visitor is male or female, mother or chick. We cannot even be sure if it is the same bird. After all, these are highly intelligent creatures, and are perfectly capable of substituting one caw-cawer with another without us being the wiser.

However, crows do display flashes of individuality. They have eating preferences, for instance. Some like rice, some meat. Some will burrow their beaks into gloops of spoilt curd and grow dizzy over rotten grapes, but they will not touch mashed banana. Some won’t venture beyond farsan.

“The crow (population) has increased hugely mainly because of our dirty habits of throwing garbage and littering food packets, as a result of which, in Mumbai (and other cities), crows have food, shelter and practically no predator," says Asad R. Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society. More crows equal an imbalance in the natural order of things. “Large owls, civet cats, wild cats, etc., are the crow’s predators, but they are not found in cities," Rahmani says. “So crows are increasing at the cost of all other smaller birds because besides feeding on discarded food, crows also feed on birds, their nestlings and eggs."

Yet, here we are, leaping out of our sofas at the mere sound of crows and breaking into childish smiles at the prospect of being able to sate the bird’s demands.

Perhaps it is because like all of Mumbai’s strays, its crows have come to resemble the people amongst whom they live. They are convivial and raucous. They are extremely focused on their basic needs (food, food, food). They are excitable and neurotic, with a proven inability to sit still. They have the angry-grumpy combo look worn by every fifth person in the city, the look that says, why am I still living in this blighted place, and why am I unable to live elsewhere?

“Since childhood, my absolute favourite bird is the crow," says Sunjoy Monga, conservationist and photographer. “It is the ultimate Bombay bird. It is intelligent and highly adaptable. It makes the most of the pathetic conditions in which we live. It can make nests out of clothes hangers and even discarded sanitary napkins."

Monga remembers an incident narrated to him by an optician in Kalbadevi in south Mumbai, who noticed that the spectacle frames on the display mannequins kept disappearing. It turned out that a crow was stealing the spectacles to make a nest.

There are other ways in which crows have become like Mumbaiites despite maintaining a respectable distance from them. They are incredibly mobile birds. They hitch rides on the tops of trucks and the red and silver BEST buses. Why pump your wings for a few metres when you can travel for free?

The birds derive their strength from numbers, but are timid and pragmatic in the singular. Try reaching out a hand to the lone crow that has shown up for a mid-morning snack and watch it behave like a victim in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

They might take our food without giving us anything in return, but some birds do drop their general suspicion of humankind to strike up a kind of friendship. The artist Mehlli Gobhai had a pet crow for a year that he called Kawwa. The crow adopted him, rather than the other way round, and feasted on raw meat. “Perhaps that is the way of crows and Bombay; you don’t get a choice; they come with territory," Gobhai says. “Walking the dog on a dreary morning, on the way back, there was a baby crow, lighting up the morning with the slash of his open red beak. He was huddling under the tyres of a truck. I had to bring him home. To walk away would be to leave him to certain death. The truck would have reversed and mutilated him and every grey morning would have brought him back and made me wonder what had been his fate. So I brought him home and a ridiculous bond developed between me and this bird."

Gobhai is not alone in his admiration for the way crows look (the late cartoonist R.K. Laxman also made several sketches of the birds). “I think it’s an aesthetic appreciation," Gobhai says. “According to me, those blacks and greys are splendid; I think peacocks are over-rated, just too much colour. Crows have character. They always seem to be looking you in the eye, as if assessing you."

Unsurprisingly, then, crows have inspired folklore and books, such as the title of the translation of Mumbai critic and playwright Shanta Gokhale’s 2008 Marathi novel Tya Varshi. The translation, titled Crowfall, contains a haunting description of the black birds dropping dead from the sky.

Writer, translator and poet Jerry Pinto uses crows to deliver the message of tolerance to children in the picture book When Crows Are White. Beautifully illustrated by Garima Gupta, the picture book is full of “myth, horror and darkness", Pinto says, but the central plot of a white crow is meant to talk about accepting differences, especially in an age where “kids are growing up in monocultures".

Like every Mumbaiite, Pinto has his share of crow stories. “The crow has been a regular visitor to my house," he says. “Sometimes, they bring return gifts, like bread pieces and fish heads. They prefer dal with rice to just rice. Once, when my grandmother didn’t feed the crow, it gently pecked her on the head."

Nandini Ramnath is a film journalist and critic with

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Published: 05 Jun 2015, 10:17 PM IST
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