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Where the crows come to roost

Sunil Rajagopal | Updated on November 06, 2020 Published on November 05, 2020

Early to bed, early to rise: The crows are the first to wake — half an hour before first light and grumbling among themselves as they disperse groggily   -  Illustration: Sunil Rajagopal

Notes from a neighbourhood birdwatcher

*The crows start arriving about an hour before dark. They come in ones, twos and fives; the numbers swell with every passing hour. They are soon joined by garrulous mynahs and rosy starlings, as well as parakeets, babblers, egrets, kites and others who settle in the trees in between. By dusk, there are hundreds of them

The pink-stained sky slopes gently down through the wispy cloud banks anchored to the radio tower. There is an uncertainty to the descending warm breeze. Will it bring rain or dust? Out from the still blinding west flies the first solid dark shape. Stabby beak and sharp wings slicing through the dusk air. So begins a daily spectacle.

We live next to a school yard in Delhi. The venerable half-century-old brick building is flanked by a grand old pipal and a burgeoning banyan. And in between these two is a row of tall ashoks, rugged neems and ripening goolars.

The banyan and the pipal, large strangler figs both, are holy brothers — but there ends the comparison. The banyan is as dark and brooding as the pipal is cheerful and airy. The leaves of the banyan barely move in the breeze, except when the tree rouses itself to dump a load of drying leaves. The sun, even at its peak, can barely sneak through. The deciduous pipal, on the other hand, has beautiful tapering leaves that dance on the stillest, most stifling of days.

Both are magnets for life, though. The banyan is our immediate neighbour, its glossy pink and dense green foliage lending shade and character to our balcony.

The crows start arriving about an hour before dark. They come in ones, twos and fives; the numbers swell with every passing hour. They are soon joined by garrulous mynahs and rosy starlings, as well as parakeets, babblers, egrets, kites and others who settle in the trees in between. By dusk, there are hundreds of them.

The house crows are intent on their destination, rocking their wings at the last moment to drop in to preferred spots. Their larger menacing cousin, the large-billed crow, is a superb flyer and lands with precision.

Black kites glide in on measured, angled pinions, expertly bridling the breeze. The transient rosy starlings race by in loose delta formations. The mynahs tumble on to the trees like happy schoolkids let free by the chime of the last bell. Screeching long-tailed rose-ringed parakeets shoot eastward like a handful of peas that rolled out of a bowl. Blue rock pigeons are already home but they occasionally rise on panicked wings. The quiet collared doves, green pigeons and smaller birds such as robins, barbets and sunbirds settle in the darker recesses without fuss. Two groups of jungle babblers squabble in a corner of our balcony.

While every other bird in the air seems to be skating on smooth ice, the cattle egrets appear to be swimming in slush. Both the warm air and time seem to stall around them in respectful whorls as they wave their snowy wings in sluggish arcs, in no hurry to get home. The first egret scout appears half an hour before dark, flying low and scanning the area. Five minutes later, a band of three escorts trudges by. Then, precisely 10 minutes from sundown, a long open ‘V’ of egrets floats by in a dignified parade. Finally, a party of three or four arrives just as night closes in.

Summer inexorably stretches the days longer and winter slowly chokes them, but the egrets are never rushed. They always keep to their schedule.

Despite the presence of other birds, the evening and the trees belong to the crows. Their dark, brooding presence lends an air of impending apocalypse to this evening ritual. For far too long have we associated them with death, forgotten ancestors and messages from the other world for it to be any other way. We know only too well that their shiny eyes and whirling brains are so like ours; funny, bright, scheming, suspicious, murderous. It is hard to be in the presence of so many crows and not be moved. By fear and unease; by wonder.

It is a bit like being inside a packed football stadium, only the fans aren’t singing songs but performing some primordial chant. What are they talking about? Are they recounting the day’s events? Or calling out to friends and family to settle down nearby?

Their motions are incomprehensible and unnerving. Ominous shapes blur through the smouldering sky in unreadable patterns. Just before complete dark, they haul themselves up and then come trickling down like swirls of ink darkening a glass of water. And then, suddenly, the shadows go still and the world is quiet again; waiting.

Occasionally, a group of foraging flying foxes or a ghostly barn owl rouses them from their slumber. And they scream their displeasure. The strangers’ presence makes the resting birds nervous and many thousand stomachs relieve themselves at one go. Any unfortunate car parked below turns white in a matter of seconds. Birds crouched in the lower branches get drenched and the banyan is smudged white.

The crows are the first to wake, too — half an hour before first light and grumbling among themselves as they disperse groggily. They are soon followed by their cousins in a steady trickle till only the resident birds remain. I wonder if they were born here. Do they resent their returning cousins?

Our world wakes up long after the crows are gone. Slowly the city takes over and birdsong is drowned out by cars, their memory lost in our rush to get somewhere. But the crows always return, to reclaim their trees and place in the world.

Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and photographer based in Delhi

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Published on November 05, 2020
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