The Inscrutable Lives of Crows
Crows can remember faces.
This was a crumb of information that my grandmother dropped at the dinner table one day — close to twenty years ago, when I must have been around seven or eight — and I didn’t think much of it back then. I didn’t believe her, and yet some part of me craved to, as I had spent years cultivating a bond with the curious corvids that festooned the trees lining our front yard: the gulmohar that burst into wild flames in the summer; the bamboo grove that stuck up at odd angles across from my verandah; the tamarind tree with its bright green clouds of foliage; the guava tree where sparrows twittered and cheeped and flitted all morning. Surveying the quiet, residential neighborhood of Hindustan Park from their boughs and coigns of vantage were crows. Lots of crows. Entire colonies of crows (or “murders” of them, as my mother later corrected me).
They inhabited every nook of the exterior walls of our red-brick bungalow, nestling into the alcoves that were trellised with creepers and cascades of bougainvillea. Some sidled along the brick wall that fringed my garden, holding twigs or wisps of fiber, dead mice or struggling frogs in their beaks. Others nested on the television antenna over the attic, often interrupting, much to the dismay of my grandfather, the cricket matches that he used to watch. They craned their inquisitive necks into the dining room during breakfast-time, or foraged for food outside the grilled screen of our kitchen. They strutted along open windows, squawking and clicking, peeping into my parents’ bedroom with no regard for privacy.
“Stop feeding those pesky thieves, shona,” my aayah would reprimand as she shoved spoonfuls of cereal toward my reluctant mouth. An eight-year-old me would stand on tiptoe on the marble ledge in my room, reaching up toward the bird perched on the wooden, shuttered window, holding out some bread or some pie or a piece of my omelet. The crows had, through the acceptance of my offerings, come to regard me as a friend I believed, and waited for me every morning, evading my grandmother’s psh-pshs and my servants’ vociferous shooshoos.
“Do you know that they eat cockroaches, and potty, and even nosey?” my aayah asked, referring — by the colloquial, childish word “nosey” — to nasal mucus, and I replied with something between a snort and a titter as the bird picked at the food from my palm.
When I was twelve, the latent naturalist in me developed a fascination with the behavioral habits of house crows. I would sit on the marble steps of my verandah, watching — sometimes for hours on end — the birds ferret for scraps of food. What makes the house crow, or the Corvus splendens, different and distinctive from other crows in its family — such as ravens and jackdaws — is its charcoal collar, stark against its jet-black crown and face, like a stole that it drapes over its neck and its breast, its feathers giving off a satiny iridescence of purple and green.
“Pretty amazing, huh?” my father said one morning, coming over and sitting beside me as I watched, fixated, a crow that was regurgitating its food. My grandmother had told me — when I had asked her why we feed flour balls to crows during Pitru Paksha — that as Hindus, we regard crows our ancestors, and this made the comical act engaged in by what may very well have been a deceased relative of mine, all the more bizarre. I had learned through my previous observations that what the crow was really doing was caching leftovers of food in tufts of grass from an expandable, sac-like pocket below its tongue. It hopped over with a leaf held in its beak to the squirreled-away morsels, placing the leaf daintily over the hideout, looking around to make sure that it hadn’t been spotted, that its hideout hadn’t been revealed.
My father turned a page of The Statesman that was spread open on his knee, his brow furrowing as he read the news. His attention was still on me, though, and he continued: “They’re extremely intelligent. Not what you would call bird-brained!”
“Kinda like raptors,” I replied, referencing the dromaeosaurs from my favorite film Jurassic Park, and my father laughed, his eyes crinkling in the corners.
My father, much like an industrious papa-crow, spent the next couple of weeks with a saw and a drill, building me a treehouse in a leafy shade beside the garage. It was nothing fancy; it was more like a crude plank wedged between branches, with walls of shaved bamboo that were woven with palm leaves. And on hot summer days after school, my best friend Roshni and I would scamper up to the treehouse with my grandfather’s pair of binoculars, our chappals raising dust. We would sit cross-legged in the languor of late afternoon, squinting in the stale midday sun and scrutinizing the quirky antics of crows (as well as, sometimes, of our neighbors).
Crows mate for life — this was another tidbit that my grandmother shared with me between the bedtime stories that she told me. Crows breed during the monsoon months, and pairs sat high atop branches, gurgling and rattling, bobbing heads, ruffling each other’s glossy neck-feathers in a heartwarming display of avian affection. Often, one of the crows — presumably the father-to-be, but it was hard to say — would dive down to rummage for material to build a nest, flying back to his mate with a piece of cloth or string, sprig or wire. One time, when my aayah was bathing in the servants’ tin-roofed bathroom in the backyard, her saree left in a heap outside, a crow even made off with her elastic hair band, and she cursed the feathered fiend all evening. I found it pleasantly peculiar that an animal could oscillate between connubial tenderness and such diabolical cunning, all in an effort to care and provide for its loved ones.
The kalbaishakhi showers were incessant in those months, and the earth soaked the rain like a remembrance. The gulmohars in my garden flared up, and clustered modhumonjori unfurled at dusk, the rain washing the dust from the flowers’ heart-shaped leaves. My parents bought me a yellow hammock that they hung in the verandah, and I would cuddle up in it and read adventure novels by Enid Blyton — The Famous Five and The Secret Seven — and be transported to the English hillsides and moors as the rain pattered against windows and flooded the sleepy lawn. My mother would place a bowl of steaming Maggi noodles, my favorite snack, along with a tall glass of milk and Bournvita on the glass-topped table in front of me. Once the mizzle subsided and I was done slurping the noodles — even licking the bowl as I often did — I would take the glass of chocolatey malt drink and make my way across the slushy grass, my chappals sinking into mud, then haul myself up to the treehouse to watch mother-crows hawk for worms and insects that had squirmed and squiggled their way out of waterlogged holes, cracks, and crevices before flying back to feed their fledglings.
I remember the time a baby crow fell from its nest in the guava tree. It fluttered and flailed and waddled around for hours, pathetic cries emerging from its fleshy carmine mouth. Eventually, it fell into a dull, confused stupor, settling in the leafy dirt. My calico tried to approach it, and I locked the cat in the garage to make sure that she didn’t tear into it and toss it around, the way she did every bulbul or mynah that she landed her claws on.
The other crows broke out into a raucous cawing. “Don’t!” my aayah warned, eyeing the wheeling mob, when I suggested that we rescue and return the nestling. “They’ll peck at your head if you do, shona. They’ll even abandon the little one if a human were to so much as touch it.”
“So do we just wait for it to die?” I asked and she shrugged, dusting the antique mirror in the verandah, at a loss for an answer. Despite her warnings, I donned a hat over my short curls to ward off potential attacks by agitated crows, and scooped the downy blue-eyed baby from the thicket where it lay shaking, gently stroking its fluffy head with my finger. Then I clambered up the wall against which the tree rested, reaching out and dropping the bird back in its nest, its parents circling me excitedly until I retreated. I couldn’t tell whether they were grateful, but as a child — and as children often project human emotions onto animals, deriving a selfish yet innocent joy in this process of anthropomorphizing — I believed, as the parents now preened and fussed over the returned nestling, that they had, in some inscrutable way, appreciated my gesture; they hadn’t abandoned their baby, and this could only mean that they had accepted me. My mother smiled at me from across the drawing room as she lowered a tray of teacups onto the center table, the dupatta of her salwaar kameez dangling. What did parent birds do, I often wondered, once their fledgling outgrew and left its nest? After all those days spent brooding, spent nurturing, did they wonder about its well-being even if it never returned, or did they continue with their lives — capering and cawing about — happy with the knowledge that they had done their part in rearing it, in teaching it to fly and urging it to go out into the world?
When I was in my early teens, at the peak of my tomboy phase, I came to enjoy playing sports with the other children from my para (or neighborhood). We assembled on the streets or in someone or other’s compound after our respective private tuition lessons got over, to play games that included kabaddi, hide-and-seek, kho-kho, and my favorite — lock-and-key. Above us the crows, just as pert and gregarious as us, gathered along power lines to make mischief or outmaneuver each other, as though they were mirroring our activities.
The eldest amongst us was a boy named Abhijeet Dey, who was also the best sportsperson. The rest of the boys emulated him, and the girls — all primped-up and at the cusp of adolescence — would huddle by his side, giggling and nudging each other. I didn’t share their opinion of him, as he shoved around the younger boys at times, and at other times indulged in strange forms of amusement, such as staging betta fish fights, collecting spiders in glass jars, and egging passersby from his second-floor balcony. And to my chagrin, he took up another such ludicrous hobby. One evening, after a game of dog-and-the-bone, in which he was on the winning side, he picked up a broken brick and hurled it into the gulmohar tree, snickering as the crows, startled, scattered in all directions.
“Hey! What did you do that for?” I asked, despite half-knowing that he was the sort of person who harassed birds out of malignancy.
“Creating a nuisance. Shitting over baba’s Maruti. This should show them,” he said, grabbing a rock, aiming it at a crow perched on the edge of a municipal garbage vat.
I wanted to tell him to stop, but as the other children seemed to be enjoying this game, I held my tongue, afraid of facing judgment from my peers. During the evenings that followed, he went about shaking violently at tree trunks, pelting stones at parapet walls, water tanks, clotheslines, and utility poles. The crows seemed to have identified that he was a threat, and every time he joined us in the playground — even before he joined us, in fact; even as he could be seen sauntering into our lane, swinging his cricket bat — they cocked their indignant heads, alerted. Once the wiser amongst them sounded an alarm, the rest flew into a belligerent frenzy, trying to ward him off like aircraft strafing a ground target.
“Crows hold grudges, you know,” I informed him meekly, but he sneered, undeterred.
As I watched him provoke and torment them, I felt like a traitor, all the efforts that I had made in trying to win over the trust of these birds dissipating in vain before me.
“He’s taken this a bit too far, don’t you think?” Roshni said to me when Abhijeet — armed with a badminton racket — climbed into our neighbor’s front-yard and up a mango tree, and began poking at a nest lodged between forked branches in an attempt to topple it. A couple of crows arced overhead, becoming more and more furious in their clamor. An egg tipped over, splattering and pooling yellow in the dirt, and I felt my discomfort rise like bile. I began to make my way toward Abhijeet along with Roshni, puffing myself up in preparation for confrontation. Suddenly, one of the crows swooped down when he was most preoccupied in his prodding, and descended in a helical gyre, its beak making contact with his head. We stopped in our steps, overcome with horrified delight as he yelped and hurled a curse, losing his footing in the process. He both fell and slid sideways, landing in a crumpled heap on the ground, wincing, gripping his leg which was twisted at an oddly amusing angle. I believe that ever since that day, he went on to choose his hobbies more carefully, ones that didn’t involve adversaries that far outwitted him.
I, too, moved on, and a few years later, relocated to New Delhi to pursue my undergraduate studies at a local university. It was the first time that I had ever lived away from home, and during October months, I would sit on my folding chair on the balcony of my apartment, snug in my socks and woolens and the beanie that my grandmother knit for me before I left for college. Stalls and shanties lined the bylanes below my building, and vendors poured frothing tea into terracotta cups and slid fritters into spluttering kadhais. As the day would close, the muezzin’s call to prayer would waft across terraces and mingle with temple bells. I would light a Goldflake cigarette and look out at the dusk gathering over Lajpat Nagar, at the tops of the trees that wore the mist. I let the smoke linger in my lungs, the thought of Calcutta always on my mind. My mother would call on WhatsApp, asking what I’d had for lunch, making sure that I was buying my vegetables fresh, that I was soaking my almonds overnight, that I was drinking mosambi juice every morning, that I was trying to quit smoking. Sometimes the signal broke off, only to resume again; other times I lost connectivity altogether, and her voice dropped; and at other times, she sounded distant, and I strained to hear her, to hold on to her words that slipped and fragmented.
During those autumn months, saptaparni trees were always in bloom, and their white petals spiraled down and littered the footpaths, the fragrance resembling the smell of cardamom. Crows drifted and clustered on the tarpaulin roofs that covered the snack corners, clucking and chittering in anticipation of their suppers. One of the crows would shriek, leap off the edge, then float onto the curb to pick at carrion or make a dart at a momo that someone may have dropped, or to dip and soak its bread into the waters of a gutter. Another’s eyes would droop, and it would fluff up before taking flight, preparing to roost for the night. Yet another would soar into the evening, banking gracefully, wearing the wind under its wings, its silhouette shrinking to a speck in the orange-grey distance.
It has been ten years since I left Calcutta, and in those ten years I have lived in cities far away — first in Delhi, then Hyderabad — and now live even farther away, continents away from home, in Virginia, in Hampton Roads, in a city harbored in the cerulean eastern coastline of America. During my strolls through parks, orchards, woodlots, and along streams and creeks in Virginia Beach, I have spotted, among other birds, hawks, ospreys, pigeons, purple martins, mallards, cardinals, and, of course, crows — the American crow, unfamiliar, coal-black, and larger than the crows that I remember from back home. I have also heard the nasal car-cars of the relatively elusive fish crow, while picnicking by a marshy inlet in Kiptopeke State Park.
As I write this, I am sitting at my window with its slatted blinds pulled up, watching the sun set behind the buildings of Norfolk, vermilion-pink streaking the clouds. I often sit at my window with a book or a mug of hot chocolate, hoping to spot the bird that was so ubiquitous in India but scarcely ever spotting one, the Norfolk skyline stark and birdless when compared with the skies of Calcutta that were peppered with crows. I visited Calcutta this summer, after an entire year of not seeing my family, and as I wheeled my suitcase into my garden, latching the rusty iron gate behind me and making my way under the wreaths of bougainvillea and up the porch, toward my parents’ and grandparents’ open arms, I couldn’t help but glance up into the patulous trees, hoping to see familiar faces and trying to glimpse, in those inscrutable faces, a hint of reciprocated familiarity. It is said that young crows disappear for days, but then return to their parents, only to leave again. If crows do remember faces, as my grandmother had once told me, then perhaps they still remembered mine; perhaps they still remember me as one of them, one just like them — untethered from the parent tree, and yet trying to retrace a way back home.
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