The Life of Crows in Urban Environments

Crows

by Jayaram V

Recently there was a report in the newspapers that a prominent personality in India sold his expensive car because he saw a crow sitting on it. He thought it was a bad omen. It is a sad reflection of how our perception of the world is influenced by our beliefs and in the process how we grow insensitive to the values of human life and the need for compassion to other living beings.

The crow is one of the most common birds of India. They are like the dogs of the air. You see them everywhere in towns and villages. They live amidst people and somehow are accustomed to human presence. If you offer them food, they come almost near you without fear.

It is not clear when they have became a bad omen. There was a time when you would see them in almost every village. They were an inseparable part of rural milieu. They often stole food by entering the houses or the kitchens. No one bothered if they sat on the wall, landed on a cot or bed,  or perched on the house.

However, it seems rapid urbanization has impacted their natural habitats. Amidst high rise buildings, pollution, traffic noise, overcrowded streets, encroachment of public lands, destruction of forests and changes in weather pattern made life very difficult for them. There was a time when the birds ruled the skies. Now the equation has changed. We consider the birds a nuisance to air travel. Many bird species, not just crows, are on the verge of extinction as their natural habitats and migratory routes are destroyed. It is tough for the birds who live amidst people to find a proper place to lay their eggs and rear their chicks. For the birds, this is an apocalypse. Most of us do not see the destruction that we have been inflicting upon many life forms upon earth.

In the past, crows used to be a regular presence in cattlesheds and backyards of houses in rural areas. They used to perch on the trees or on the walls and used every opportunity to declare their presence. As a child I thought that the crows were a generous lot because they were not greedy. Whenever they saw food, the cawed loudly and invited other crows to share the food with them. That in my opinion morally put them above humans. The crows had a field day on festive occoasions. They feasted upon left over food from the kitchens and utensils that were left in the open for cleaning. Sometimes they stole food from the sheds where the cattle were housed. On occasions one might have considered them a nuisance, but no one really felt bothered by them or thought that they were inauspicious. I do not recall any instance where they were considered a bad omen. I do remember that if they cawed in chorus, people believed that some relative or guest might visit their households soon.

It is not clear when the crows have become a bad omen in India. Bats, vultures, owls and certain birds that make strange noises in the night certainly considered inauspicious, but crows did not have that kind of reputation in the past. It may be because of their black color which is considered inauspicious, or may be because they are associated with Hindu funeral rites.

Hindus have the tradition of offering rice balls to crows as part of the funeral ceremony, after the body of a deceased is cremated with proper ceremonies. If the crows readily eat the food, it means the departed soul is happy the offerings made by the family members and ready to depart. If they do not eat or show reluctance, it means that the soul is unhappy and needs some expiation.

Because of this practice, you can see a number of crows in or around the cremation grounds. They will be sitting on trees or on the buildings, waiting for the food. People are happy to see them so that they can offer them food and complete their rituals. The crows are happy because they are constantly feed since on any given there will be at least 10-20 cremations. The people who manage the cremation grounds think that the crows serve an important purpose. Hence, they let them stay. If you visit the cremation grounds, you will see the crows, cawing and declaring their presence. Unfortunately, currently they are the only places in the urban areas where the crows welcome and where they feel safe.

However, it seems to have changed the perception of people about crows. The birds that once lived mostly in the open areas, fields, groves and open lands, are now mostly found in the cremation grounds or in busy urban environment. It is a sad development, because it changed people’s attitude towards them. If you see the crows in cremation grounds and later in your balcony, you may not really comfortable with their presence and may like to shoo them away.

The truth is crows are just another bird species. We cannot attribute to them our notions of good or evil. They do no harm to humans. Their lives in urban areas are already in grave danger. It is very likely that within a few decades most bird species including the crows may become even extinct, because within a few years the skies will be full of drones, personal flying aircrafts, robotic flying machines, radio and wireless towers, and more high-rise buildings, coupled with scarce resources, and changing climate.

While we may establish human settlements upon Mars, the chances of survival for many species upon earth will become increasingly harder. It is therefore necessary to treat all these creatures with some compassion and consideration.

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