Barefoot Notes: Grey Neck and Other Balcony Birds

Every day around noon, he perches on his favourite, fifteen-year-old neem tree, tugging at a branchlet fallen over his usual seat, but never really trying to get rid of it. This neem tree grows in a pot in the window, three feet from where I sit separated by a reflective glass.

He is the calmest of his kind I’ve ever met. He does not call in response to every conversation he overhears, only some. Mostly, though, he is quiet in spite of the constant ruckus all around, and there are a lot of his kind. I didn’t know they could be so – if I may use the word – disciplined, or appreciate solitude. He certainly appears to enjoy it.

How do I tell he is calm and relaxed? He hunches down on his toes, sinks his shoulders, and ruffles his crest and neck feathers – looking snug. Sometimes he scratches, shuffles his feathers, stretches his wings one by one, fans his tail and shakes his head – and finally gives a long sigh of satisfaction and relief, I’m willing to believe.

Like every other of his kind, he is quite curious. He turns his head to look at every unusual sound made around him – even those that come from inside homes. He is synurbic – a species that is found in or colonises urban ecosystems. He is a synanthrope – a species associated with humans, from whom they benefit. He is the House Crow – a name as fitting as the raven-that-shines, Corvus splendens.

Perhaps their association with humans is not the only reason they are called the House Crow. It is probably because they like sitting at the window and looking about. They like to venture out for a stroll – or flutter – and meet and greet on terraces and under city trees, or have some evening snacks – by this I do not intend to anthropomorphise them, but this is their true nature, so much like ours.

I call him Grey Neck, after M Krishnan’s article on House Crows titled ‘Grey-necks’. How do I tell if he is the same crow that visits? I cannot even tell if it is a he. But then again, like humans, crows are territorial. They form gangs, called a murder for reasons I cannot fathom, and live together for most part of the year except when, during the breeding season, they form a loosely held community and become more ferociously territorial as pairs. Two pairs belonging to the same community will nest close by, even steal each other’s sites or rubble used to build nests, but they won’t tolerate outsiders, even individual crows of the same community, venturing close to their nesting site. If a floater flies by, he is condemned not in the court of crows but with beak and claw. Perhaps that is why a gang is called a murder. Even humans are not spared. Those who’ve been jabbed on the head by a crow know it all too well.

Territoriality is in their nature. Another way of seeing this is that a territorial animal identifies with a community or a locale. Within every community, every crow possesses a unique identity. It allows for a sense of being independent, albeit being a part of a larger whole. Sounds so much like humans again. This independence, this individuality, allows them to build their own shell, much like we do – and I think I just found the shell of this fellow: a neem tree my father rescued by the side of a highway, dripping wet in soot and oil. I know exactly what compelled him to rescue this sapling. When I looked at it, I took pity on it and set to help him dig it out from its tar-baked coffin as vehicles zoomed by us, plastering us with a blend of rain and soot. It just wasn’t a place for a plant. Grey Neck does not know this, but I decided to add this bit to his story because it makes me realise one thing; everyone has a place. If anything, this place makes Grey Neck special.

And then, sometimes within a few minutes to an hour, he flies off to attend his unfinished business or visit an old cache. Thereafter I cannot tell Grey Neck from other crows.

The balcony is my father’s forest. We have a fair share of feathered visitors. A pair of Purple-rumped Sunbirds almost always finds time to visit and sneak-peek into the flowering Bougainvillea, Crossandra, and Yellow Alder, at times manoeuvring themselves to sip from the downward-facing flowers of Chilli. Recently they have been bringing a new companion with them, their fledged son! Not to meet me, of course. I saw him the first time sitting close to the reflective window and chirrup to himself as his father sat in the back in silence. Was he introducing his son to his new (imaginary) friend, or simply to his own self before he flies off to find a place in this big bad city? Both these thoughts upset me. And I remind myself of the neem tree. If it can find a home in a city, and thrive and flower, certainly can this little sunbird with its wings and effervescent curiosity.

A small murmuration of Common Myna often visit to rest on the grille and crackle and whistle at their own reflections. They are not aggressive, and appear to be trying to strike a conversation with their own self. The White-browed Fantail Flycatcher are probably the most expressive of balcony birds. They amble along whenever they wish, dancing upon the branches looking at their own reflections spin with them with a tail fully unfurled – a sign of excitement and alertness. They can take on a cat prowling close to their nest in the nearby copse, or harass a crow, but they would not come any closer to their own reflection. Occasionally, the Red-vented and the Red-whiskered Bulbuls would arrive – the latter only to fight with their own reflection. One of the pair always perches calmly on the grille while the other vehemently attacks its spectre. It’s easier to tell, then, which one is the guy. Their rivalry with themselves – not every animal can recognize its own reflection – is equalled by that of the Common Tailorbird whistling tew-whee tew-whee in a constant loop at the top of its voice while vehemently jabbing at its doppelganger. I would tap on the glass or open the window only when the fighters arrive least the constant squabble and pecking hurt them.

Curiously, not all birds do this. I am certain the House Sparrows visit the window to check themselves out, so do the Blyth’s Reed Warbler that migrate to this crowded city in winters – the naturalist laughs at this assertion. The sparrows always come in groups – of as much as fifteen at a time – twittering and socialising and pecking at the leaves of the succulents, Asparagus, and Ocimum, or picking the runners of the Fishbone Fern to build their nests. The warbler visits to relish on the egg-sacs of the tent spiders that have claimed a corner of the balcony – I told you, it’s a forest.

The only birds to rarely visit this forest are the Rock Pigeon, Magpie Robin, and Coppersmith Barbet. The pigeons prefer rooftops where they saunter about gurgling their voice chambers at the quietest time of the day. The Magpie Robin and the Coppersmith Barbet stick to the larger trees of a nearby copse. Both of them, at different times of the day – the robin in the mornings and evenings, and the barbet at noon – lay claim to their territory by singing their own version of the sweetest martial music ever recorded (over a blare of horns and combustion engines), from a vantage point on a tall Eucalyptus tree.

When Grey Neck takes his place in the forest, though, the others don’t visit. Not because he is intimidating, but because a crow is judged by the way he behaves in a social grouping – was it the balcony birds to label a group of crows a murder? At times when Grey Neck is silently seated I see him cocking an eye towards the window, and I wonder if he does that to look at his own reflection, or to look beyond it, at another set of eyes watching him.

We’re both strangers to one another – well, I’m a stranger to every bird that visits. In fact, if you were to enquire about me to them, they would deny my very existence. And yet seeing them use this man-made forest on top of a man-made building to socialise, quarrel, feed, make love, or, just like the House Crow, find a few moments of silence in this chaotic city, this is the affability of nature, this is its resilience, its resolve.

We build cities for our own sake, nature maximises their usability for everyone else’s.

Every year around the middle of February, India participates in the Great Backyard Bird Count, where birders observe birds through the balcony or the window. The observations are uploaded online to create a nation-wide database on birds of India. It helps find trends in their diversity, density and distribution.

If you think the birds around your place are aplenty, or vanishing, participate in this activity. You will help find the larger trends in their dynamic lives. You can help by spending only 15 minutes every day between Feb 16 and 19, whether you are home, at work, on a campus, watching and counting birds.