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Friday, November 16, 2018

by Proloy Bagchi (writer), Idgah Hills, Bhopal, March 10, 2018

Behavioral change crows that has come about in their relations with humans

Rama Chandra Guha, generally known as a historian but he is also a journalist, an environmentalist, a political commentator and a cricket historian, has compiled in a book (Penguine Books, Mkrishnan & Indian Wildlife) the articles of Late M Krishnan who has been described as a writer, an ecological patriot, a naturalist and a photographer. The book is very aptly titled “Nature’s spokesman”. It contains some of Krishnan’s columns that came out around fifty years ago in newspapers and periodicals. He used to write for The Statesman, The Hindu and various other periodicals.

While growing up in Gwalior in the 1940s and 1950s we used to feast on his columns that would be featured in The Statesman. The columns would contain his impressions of Nature as he happened to come across it not only in the protected jungles across India but also the unprotected ones. He was a naturalist by choice and many of that era with even a little interest in Nature would remember his columns with tremendous amount of longing. Krishnan’s advantage was that not only did he have an abiding interest in Nature and its various expressions he could also give vent to his impressions in brilliant language which, of course, was English. He was a (reluctant) post graduate in English of those good old days when colleges and universities used to teach and impart knowledge.

I got Guha’s book from the dwindling collection of my eldest brother’s library from which a few thousands have been given away to the State MP Academy of Administration and the School of Good Governance at Bhopal. The book is by far very absorbing. Many of the observations of Krishnan are as humorous as they are interesting.

The book would seem to be a gem for naturalists who have been romping around Nature and go about watching the natural processes for pleasure or to record or photograph them. Krishnan had probably been to all the wildlife sanctuaries and the forests that were outside such protected areas in the country. But his interest in wildlife did not always take him away into the jungles. On many occasions his house and its backyard became the locale for his observations of household pests that make miserable the lives of ordinary mortals.

I cannot help sharing a few lines from the book’s chapter on urban birds. In it Krishnan had written feelingly about crows. The words are magical and the narration barely conceals his dry humour. But before I do that I would like to share a few facts about crows.

That crows are intelligent and have co-existed with humans for centuries has been well known. That they can survive on anything that is edible has enabled them to thrive with aplomb along with the explosive growth of humans in urban centres. Their behaviour, especially in relation to humans has been subject of studies in various environmental establishments. Perhaps, the University of Washington at Seattle is one of the rare ones to have a research wing devoted to corvids, the species that the common crow belongs, as some people imagine it is the corvid capital of the world.

A researcher at Seattle has witnessed an exhibition of intelligence of crows. Hovering around garbage bins crows would wait for a squirrel to wriggle into a discarded can. Out when he pops from the can with food in its mouth the crows would mob that squirrel and rob him of his food. Crows have also been found to be smart enough to remember human faces and “hold grudges for human misdeeds”. They also have been seen attacking such humans whom they would seem to abhor. On the other hand, they also show great appreciation for the humans who treat them right. They are known to have left “gifts” for such individuals in reciprocation of the good turns done to them. The gifts included candies, safety pins, keys and such like that, presumably, they think are associated with humans. There are many more remarkable features regarding behavior of crows. I have myself come across a video where a crow would put away litter in a bin. As Krishnan has mentioned below, Douglas Dewar wrote a book only on them almost a hundred years ago.

Leaving that for the time being, here is what Krishnan wrote on crows. The extract reflects his keen observations and an acutely analytical mind and the impressive language that he has used to give expression to his observations. So, here it goes:

“… Crows are such sapient birds, their ways are so curiously dark and daring, that one could write pages about them – Dewar (Douglas Dewar, a British Civil Servant and ornithologist), in fact, has devoted a whole book on grey-necks (crows) – and I dare not add a paragraph! But I will say this, I have watched the civilization overtake the jungle crow, in my back yard.

“It was a rude, uncouth, apprehensive bird in my boyhood, lacking poise, shy and sidling in its approach to the tap for a drink, clumsy and precipitate in its getaway. Today it sits on top of the bucket with easy self-assurance and wears a sophisticated look. The amused tolerance in its eye suggests that it is reflecting impersonally over something ludicrous.

“It is possible that it is thinking, in its black mind, that in the past thirty years it has witnessed the gradual taming and civilization of one who was a robust young barbarian!”



About the Writer

Pushing 80 I was born in Gwalior in Central India to parents who were educated in Calcutta, now Kolkata. My father did his master's in English in 1916. He was a professor of English in the then only college in Gwalior. After qualifying in the exams for entry in to central civil services I served the government of India for 34 years reaching the very top of the professional cadres of the Indian Postal Service. I also acted as consultant ion behalf of the Universal Postal Union in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Swaziland.
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