June 05, 2006

This one's for you, Chetan

After breakfast, we always put the crumbs left over out on the window sill for the crows to chew on. Been doing so for some years, so I think I now know the crows who turn up. I call one Chetan, another Gopal. (My son calls them Hoffidan and Yeah. Don't ask, because I don't know).

Sometimes when I put the crumbs out, there's not a single crow in sight. But they're watching from wherever they are. Because even as I withdraw my hand, I'll hear a caw and maybe an answering one. Before I know it, five or six crows converge on the sill, flapping wildly only inches from my fingers, pecking swiftly at the crumbs. Sometimes they play little games, spooking each other to get at the food first, pretending bravado as they watch me watch them. Whatever it is, the crumbs are gone in seconds.

Chetan tends to fly off with his morsel to a slender branch of a palm nearby. Already tilting under the weight of several crows conferring there, it tilts some more as Chetan takes his place. It's almost as if he is intent on playing the fool, because the branch tilts just enough that the bird at the end struggles briefly and then falls off. In the excitement, one or two more fall off too. They circle around and find a spot nearer the trunk. The merry-go-round goes round: eventually Chetan falls off.

Once, a large plastic bundle, flung by some idiot from his high-rise window, sailed through the air to land on the terrace of the low bungalow next door. I was speechless. But then the crows got involved and I forgot my anger. I was at the window putting out some bits of bread, and Chetan and gang were actually zooming towards me when the bag sailed across the sky. They changed their minds mid-flight, wheeling and diving down to the terrace. Within seconds, dozens of crows had gathered, milling around and making a racket.

For long minutes, none of the birds went near the bag. Obviously suspicious, they stalked and flapped around it, but never closer than several feet. I could see what was happening: each bird was waiting for one of the others to actually check the bag out. Every now and then, one would strut a little closer, looking around alertly to make sure his friends could see how brave he was.

But at just feet from the bag, the brave one would suddenly lose heart and take off to rest his beating heart. Or another crow, jealous of this one's chance at glory, would dive-bomb him (or do what is sometimes called "giving hool") suddenly and startle him. Either way, he would fly off and another courageous one would step up to test his gumption.

When one of them managed to overcome his fears and actually reach the bag, when he made the first peck at it, that broke all inhibitions. The others immediately swarmed all over. Like my bread crumbs, whatever was in the bag was gone in seconds, leaving a few wisps of blue plastic floating on the breeze, the only traces of the idiot's garbage.

And it struck me then that the whole episode had reminded me of nothing as much as a gang of little boys. Perhaps it's a mistake to anthropomorphize the antics of crows, but I couldn't help it. The false bravado, the strutting, the spooking: hey, I too did all that when I was a boy, so did my friends. (Some of whom tell me I still do it).

Here were Chetan and company, crows all, but not too different from my friends and me.

In his wonderful The Book Of Indian Birds, Salim Ali writes that the crow "lives in close association with man and obtains its livelihood from his works." After the episode on the terrace, I wonder if the crow obtains anything else from man. Like emotions, behaviour, social graces, weaknesses.

Or is it the other way around? Do we get those things from crows?

I'm no ornithologist, but for me, there isn't a more intelligent bird, one that's more fun to watch, than these playful, clever creatures. Salim Ali also describes them as "audacious, cunning and uncannily wary." Every time Chetan, Gopal and their friends soar down for their biscuits, I see those words in flapping black and grey.

And I am uncannily delighted. I would like to know, one of these years, what "Hoffidan" means.


Re: Hoffidan and Yeah. A certain family member has just reminded me that my son calls all the crows who come to the back of our home "Yeah", and all the crows who come to the front "Hoffidan."

Don't ask because I don't know.


Prerona said...

loved this post!

always thought crows had real attitude! tried photographing some a few days back but couldnt catch the mood ... but its fun watching them :)

ur son sounds cute! very calvinesque and all

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks Prerona. Keep trying those photographs, and share the results won't you?

Anonymous said...


Lovely post. How about some photographs of Chetan and gang?

I dont have much hope from you, I think I should directly request your son. :)

Anonymous said...

Dang! The previous anony was me....

Anonymous said...

Lovely post!

Anonymous said...

Must be nice to enjoy breakfast with our kawas while rest of have to rush to catch the 8:22 Andheri local :( How do you do it Delhi?

Anonymous said...

oops typo:
Must be nice to enjoy breakfast with our kawas while rest of have to rush to catch the 8:22 Andheri local :( How do you do it Dilip?