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A symbol of Kakayuga

The crow is cruel and cunning because we are also like that. It need not be our national bird, but it is a national fact, a symbol and a shameful one at that, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

columns Updated: Nov 02, 2012 21:58 IST

Why is the peacock our national bird, not the crow?

Should numbers not have something to do with that recognition — ‘national’?

The crow abounds, teems, thrives where other birds just about survive.

The kite is demographically strong. The Delhi sky, for instance, has multiple linked-in squadrons of the cheel whirling in slow motion.

The pigeon, our grey gutargu with its silver specks, is populous too.

And companies of the parakeet fleet between trees, like children darting out of school.

But the corvus splendens beats them. It has the confidence of brute majority and the swagger.

I dislike it with passion.

It is ugly and obnoxious.

“You can’t call it ugly,” my birder wife Tara put in. “…You could say it is nothing much to look at…” I found all this courtesy wasted on the brazen bird. Yet, for the sake of objectivity, I asked myself, well, supposing the crow was not as common as it is, and was actually rare, would I have looked at it very differently?

No, I concluded, I would not have. I have no problem with the crow’s colours. The koel, the drongo, the darter are, all of them, coloured as the crow is. In fact, the crow’s black sheen is perhaps the best thing about its looks. It is its wretched nature that gets me.

“Well,” Tara demurred, “it has an interesting personality.”

“Ayyo! Interesting personality?” Protocol and etiquette may have their due place in the world of bird-scholars and bird-watchers but is this rude, discourteous, arrogant, most appallingly-behaved creature to be allowed to get away with crimes ranging from trespass, enfoulment, robbery, cheating, deceit, assault, battery, murder (both individual and mass) and many others listed in the Indian Penal Code?

Dr Salim Ali was not just the world’s most distinguished bird-man but also the most civilised human being who would have called a spade a large ladle for uses outside the dining context. Even he, yes sir, even Ali had to say of the common crow in The Book of Indian Birds: “Audacious, cunning and uncannily wary… Will eat almost anything: dead sewer rat, offal, carrion, kitchen scraps and refuse…eggs or fledgling birds pilfered from nests. A useful scavenger but also a great bully and therefore a serious menace to defenceless ornamental bird species…”

I do not know why Salimsahib had to say “dead sewer rat” and “ornamental”, thereby extenuating the scope of the crow’s killing sprees. It kills not just dead but dying beings and does that with undisguised relish. It also kills recklessly, mercilessly, fledgling or disabled birds and any other helpless creature be it ornamental or utterly plain-looking and plain-living. Indeed, the crow lacks both the ethics and the aesthetics to tell the difference.

Despite its atrocious record, the crow has managed to fascinate some people. If MF Husain was drawn to the horse, RK Laxman may be said to be fixated by the crow. He has drawn the crow, not to caricature it but simply out of admiration. The reason? It is an “intelligent bird”. He should be impressed by the same faculty in the fly, the mosquito, the cockroach and the rat. What these four are in the worlds of the insect and the rodent, the crow is to the avian universe — as a species intelligent, ubiquitous, immortal. The dodo may become a byword for the dead, the pink-headed duck live only on the illustrated plates of books, the great Indian bustard hide for dear life behind scrub, the vulture all but disappear, the sparrow gasp for life but the crow will live for ever.

It must always have been around in huge numbers, regarded through myth as ancestor spirit and fed coloured rice down the ages. Asoka’s famous Pillar Edict V, which reads like an archetypal Wild Life Protection Act, mentions (among birds) the parrot, maina, ruddy goose, swan, partridge, white dove, domestic dove and the water-cock among creatures prohibited from slaughter. What about Mr Corvus? He does not figure in the Emperor’s protected list, yet how well he has done for itself! And what terrible news that is for other birds! We rarely see the golden oriole now, the owl, or the sun-bird. The crow has edged them all out, violated their nests, beaked open their eggs, pecked their fledglings to a shocked crib death.

I put it to some nature conservationists that we should think of… I used the word with trepidation… ‘culling’ crows, if only to save other bird-life. My suggestion was met with horror. “That would not be right. Besides, that chance will get misused to get at other birds, including protected ones …”

An even wiser response followed my brash idea and I withdrew the suggestion and retracted my intemperate thought.

“Your dislike of the crow,” the wise man continued, “is nothing but a dislike of our own life-styles. The crow cannot help doing what it does. It is what it is, does what it does, in the places where it is, in the numbers that it is in, not because it is cunning and gluttonous but because of the way we are living. It is the garbage we generate, the filth we accumulate on our streets, that has made the crow grow to its present numbers. It is because it has swollen to its present strength that its predations on other birds has also increased, not because it is out to decimate other forms of bird life. The crow is callous, cruel and cunning because we are”.

The reasoning made sense and I realised that in shiftiness of gait, rapacity of claws, shining versatility of beak and slyness of rolling eye-balls the crow was, in fact, us. Not our ancestor but us and — our future. It need not be our national bird, but it is a national fact, a symbol and a shameful one at that, of our own Kakayuga.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal