Of Beauty and Ravens

Come evening, there is a great rush above us. The air is filled with the chirps, trills and trills of birds returning home. Motor vehicle horns drown out most of this song. But the cawing of crows can still be distinguished above the mechanical din.

They gather on the roofs and bare branches of the trees and announce themselves imperiously. Aloud. As if everyone were trying to make themselves heard above the sound. They are a sight to behold, their black shapes outlined against the orange sky. Almost like a painting.

Yet we, caught up in our gray existence of concrete, metal and stone, do not notice anything. Just as we do not notice the other daily wonders that nature offers us. Our lives have a fast pace and our visions are blocked, we forget to stop and look around and admire the beauty that is always present around us.

As the 20th century Welsh poet very rightly stated,

“What is this life full of care,
We don’t have time to stand and watch. “

Beauty is found everywhere in nature, if only we took the time to seek it. Even the seemingly humble crow is incredibly charming in its own right. Yet we, due to its black plumage, dismiss it as ugly, not bothering to look beyond the black feathers. In our equity obsessed country, the “raven black” simile is never used in a derogatory sense. All this, an ode to the narrow-mindedness of our human species.

The well-known artist RK Laxman, however, differed. Fascinated by the common raven from childhood, he observed it closely enough to come to realize and admire its unorthodox beauty. Declaring the peacock too flashy for his liking, Laxman preferred the black crow with its gray feather collar. He loved the way it clearly stood out against any background. He appreciated her uncommon intelligence and daring nature. Laxman was so inspired by the corvids that he captured them and their antics in a series of iconic designs.

What Laxman saw in the alleged bass crow may require some artistic perspective. Opinions on outward beauty are, of course, highly subjective. However, if it weren’t for his looks, one would surely be captivated by ravens’ personalities. A personality so daring that the raven hires creatures larger than himself, both to steal food and in self-defense. A particularly valuable trait since the raven does not have the means to blend in. As Laxman pointed out, its black form shows itself against any background, be it green vegetation or blue sky. Having nowhere to hide, the crow prefers to fight it. A quality we would only appreciate if we spared the crow more than a cursory glance.

This courageous nature of theirs is also what allows crows to go to great lengths to get food. Lengths that other birds dare not venture. I have witnessed this behavior firsthand and it remains fresh in my memory. As a nine-year-old, bored at a garden party in Calcutta, I decided to try and feed the fried fish from my plate to a nearby crow. He swallowed the pieces I threw at him and croaking, he dropped a whole murder around my table. Frantically, I tried to throw all the food at them but, impatient, they decided to help themselves. Jumping onto my table, they began to take the food off my plate and argue with each other, all the while ignoring my presence. When one scooped my tiny plastic glass of water into his huge beak and scornfully tossed it aside, I decided it was best to get out. The table had been hijacked by crows.

If he had been an adult sitting at the table instead of a nine-year-old me, that probably wouldn’t have happened. Because although they are fearless to the point of appearing reckless, crows are cautious. Their intelligence is comparable to that of a seven-year-old human child, they analyze a situation before proceeding. They are also smart enough to model basic tools. Crows have been observed using hooked twigs to get food caught in difficult corners. As far as you know, Aesop’s fable about the crow and the jug of water may not simply be a story. Incredibly, ravens also enjoy the ability to memorize faces. They remember the faces of humans who tormented them in the past and then attacked them along with their flock. Be careful not to mess with the wrong crow, or he might have a whole murder poking you over the head.

Their family dynamics are incredible, crows remain in close-knit packs and mate for life. Upon the death of another crow, they were seen holding what appears to be a funeral. The entire flock gathers around the dead bird, keeping a respectful distance all the time. Croaking among themselves, they seem to feel sorry for themselves. Sometimes, however, the gloomy occasion is very inconveniently interrupted. Some crows detach themselves from the flock and mounting the corpse seem to mate with it. Scientists attribute this behavior to the dead bird’s rival ravens who finally attempt to dominate it.

Despite possessing an almost human sensitivity, crows remain mostly rejected and sometimes even despised by us. For some in India, the only time they come to matter, morbidly enough, is death. Crows are important figures in a Hindu ceremony called pind daan, performed in the days following the death of an individual. The ceremony involves the relatives of the individual offering rice balls (pindas) to the crows which are the symbol of the dead soul. Relatives are anxiously waiting for the crows to take part in the offering. Any hesitation on the part of the birds seems to point towards some unfulfilled desire of the deceased.

The decrease in the number of ravens due to pesticide poisoning and habitat loss is, therefore, understandably of great concern to the priests who perform these ceremonies. Losing the ravens means that they lose their representatives of the souls of the dead. However, losing them goes far beyond the mere loss of alleged manifestations of deceased human beings. We lose fascinating, sentient beings and we lose effective scavengers who keep disease and decay at bay. While we may not like them today, we will certainly regret it if they are no longer here. Because they, along with many other neglected species, support this planet while we humans destroy it.

It is in our own interest that we realize their meaning as soon as possible. Observing them alongside the numerous other creatures we share our world with and realizing their beauty could give us the initiative we need to save our burning world. Also, in the process we may learn to find beauty in places where we least expect it. Then stop to watch the crows as they gather for their evening chats in the tops of dead trees. Marvel at the sight of their black shapes against the orange sky as they caw to glory and pray that the caws will never cease.

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