Cats, crows and the universe

Omair Ahmad | Updated on August 21, 2020

Think out of the box, human: Whether we understand them or not, animals and birds act in a way that makes sense to them   -  ISTOCK.COM

A neighbourhood war between two non-human species provides a lens to our customised understanding of fellow inhabitants

The crows in our colony have declared war on the cats, and also anyone they see as an ally of the felines. This started a couple of weeks ago, and still continues, with the crows cawing day and night, dive-bombing cats and making some close passes by humans.

From what I can piece together, this is the background to the conflict: A crow chick fell off the nest, and cats being cats pounced on it. The chick did not survive and battle lines were drawn. We are minor characters in the episode, involved only because our neighbour takes care of the cats, and my wife likes to feed them.

The cats are semi-strays — these are not house pets. They live as and where they please. If they are hurt or unwell, our neighbour steps in for care, and my wife sometimes helps him by taking them to the vet for treatment or spaying. We also end up feeding them. Over the years, litters and litters have grown up around us, and each cat has its own characteristics. We have names for them, often in keeping with their attributes.

For example, Miki, named by my wife, is far more interested in affection than food. She curls up at our feet as we stand on the terrace, rubbing her head against us, often ignoring her food. Shorty — I named her thus because she lost the end of her tail to probably an accident or a fight — is now Sortie. She rushes into the house whenever she finds the door open, and hides somewhere. We spend the next few minutes calling “Oye, Sortie!” as she hides and dodges around the house.

Frank is a black tomcat who lounges outside, silent and dark as midnight. He has, we think, forgotten how to meow, and ends up growl-hissing, or growl-meowing, when fed.

The crows do not care. All cats are their enemies now, and they will attack them all. In their aggression towards the four-legged enemy, the crows even targeted an innocent bulbul that had built a nest over a light fitting on the terrace. The crows drove her out of the shelter and, we fear, killed the hatchlings too.

In all these happenings we discern a sense of plot, characters and emotions. There is a story here, there is strategy and planning, and you could even say a sense of right and wrong. It may be folly to attribute human emotions to the birds and animals we observe, but it would also be the same to ignore clear attributes, obvious patterns of behaviour and actions. Whether we understand them or not, these creatures act in a way that makes sense to them.

I have been watching the ‘cats and crows’ drama unfold from the house in which we are largely trapped during the pandemic. It helped me realise how narrow our idea of morality is. We comprehend morality, sensibility, the reasons behind why people do what they do, almost exclusively through the lens of the human world. But that is such a small part of the universe.

The universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old, and the Earth we inhabit — a tiny, tiny portion of it — is about 4.5 billion years old. The first carbon-based life form emerged about 4 billion years ago, the first mammal appeared maybe around 225 million years ago, and humans evolved only a few hundred thousand years ago. Civilisation, as we know it, is barely 10,000 years old. To say that we are a blink in the eye of this planet would be to grossly exaggerate our importance. We are not even that.

The “universal” rules of justice, compassion, loyalty and so on show our limited understanding of the world. These are not observable phenomena. We cannot derive them from watching the behaviour of cats and crows, or a bulbul forced to flee its nest due to a war it has no part in. And yet, these ideas govern our thinking. These rules emerge from the stories we tell ourselves and fellow humans; these give us a way of dealing with the world, to understand it. But we should not fool ourselves. Crows and cats were fighting long before humans came along; they will be at it long after we have left the scene.

And the bulbul? Well, we now know the story behind its bittersweet song.


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas;

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on August 21, 2020

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