THE INDIAN CORBY
I HAVE never been able to discover why the great black crow (Corvus macrorhynchus), so common in India, is called the jungle-crow. It is, indeed, true that the corby is found in the jungle, but it is found everywhere else in most parts of India, and is certainly abundant in villages and towns, being in some places quite as much a house bird as its smaller cousin, the grey-necked crow.
Considering the character of the larger species and its extensive distribution, one hears remarkably little about it. The explanation is, of course, that the house-crow absorbs all the attention that man has to bestow upon the sable-plumaged tribe. The prevailing opinion seems to be that the black crow is merely a mild edition, a feeble imitation of, a scoundrel of lesser calibre than, its smaller cousin, Corvus splendens, and, therefore, everything that applies to the house-crow applies in a lesser degree to the big-billed bird. This is, I submit, a mistaken view, the result of imperfect observation. Corvus macrorhynchus has an individuality of his own, and we do him scant justice in dismissing him with a short paragraph at the foot of a lengthy description of Corvus splendens.
In saying this, I feel that I am speaking as one having I authority, and not as the Scribes and Pharisees, whose zoological horizon coincides with the limits of the museum. For a period of eighteen months I lived in a station which should be renamed and called Crow-borough. To assert that the place in question swarms with crows is, of course, to assert nothing, for it shares this feature with every other place in India. The point I desire to bring out clearly is that in this particular place the black crows are nearly as numerous as the grey-necked birds. The former are certainly in a minority, but their minority is, like Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's in the previous House of Commons, a large one, and what they lack in numbers they make up in weight and beak-force. It was truly delightful to watch them lord it over the grey-necked birds. Grammarians will observe that I here use the past tense. This is a point of some importance. Just as it is impossible to properly estimate the character of an eminent man during his lifetime, so is it to form a proper opinion of the personality and behaviour of a species of crow while one is in the midst of that species, while one is subjected to the persecutions, the annoyances, and the insults to which it thinks fit to treat one.
But I am now far away from Crowborough, and I may never again return thither. As I sit upon the Irish shore and see the blue waters of the North Atlantic roll softly up against the black rocks of Antrim, I feel that I am in a position to form a true estimate of the character of Corvus macrorhynchus.
Until I went to Crowborough I laboured under the delusion that the grey-necked crow knew not the meaning of the word " respect." The deference with which the big-beaked species is treated by his smaller cousin came as a complete surprise to me.
Most Anglo-Indians are so embittered against the whole tribe of the corvi that they will on no account feed them. I do not share this prejudice. I am able to see things from the corvine point of view. Were I a crow I should most certainly consider man fair game.
While in Crowborough I invariably gave the surplus of my tiffin to the crows. Those in the locality of my office window did not take long to find this out. The grey-necked crows were the first to make the discovery. It takes these less time to put two and two together than it does the more sluggish-brained black crows. At the end of a few days quite half-a-dozen grey-necked fellows had learned to hang about my windows at the luncheon hour. They used to sit in a row along each window-ledge. One day a corby appeared upon the scene. His arrival was the signal for the departure of his grey-necked brethren. From that day onwards he regarded that ledge as his special preserve, and whenever a house-crow ventured on to the ledge he "went for" it savagely with his great beak. The intruder never waited long enough to enable him to get a blow home. Thus the hunting-ground of the grey-necked crows became restricted to one of the window-ledges.
In order to tease the black fellow I used sometimes to throw all the food to the window in which the grey crows were perched. He would fly round and drive them off that ledge and then give me a bit of his mind !
Later on he introduced his wife. She took possession of one window and he of the other; so that the poor house-crows no longer had " a look in." Some of the bolder spirits among them used certainly to settle on the shutters in hopes of catching a stray crumb, but none durst venture on to the ledge while a black crow was there.
Upon one occasion I put a whole milk pudding upon the ledge; the corbies would not allow the house-crows so much as a peck at the dainty dish until they themselves had had their fill.
Every one knows that the grey-necked crows, when harassing a creature more powerful than themselves, work in concert. It is my belief that two of these birds acting together are more than a match for any other creature. The way in which a pair of them will, by alternate feint and attack, take food away from a great kite or a dog is truly admirable. But so great is the respect of the grey-necked crows for the corby that I have never seen them attack him in this way. This says volumes for the force of character of Corvus macrorhynchus. He is quite an Oliver Cromwell among birds. He is a dour, austere, masterful, selfish bird -: a bird which it is impossible to like or to despise.
When he has once made up his mind to do anything there is no deterring him from the accomplishment thereof. Early in the year one of these birds spent at least the greater part of a day in trying to secure for its nest one of the twigs in a little circular fence erected for the protection of a young tree. The fence in question was composed of leafless branches, interlaced and tied together. One of these twigs, being loose at one end, was pounced upon by a black crow who intended to carry it to his or her nest. But the other end was securely fastened. I watched that crow at intervals for several hours. Whenever I looked it was grappling in vain with the refractory twig. The work was, it is true, frequently interrupted, for natives kept passing by. But immediately the human being had gone, the crow resumed the attack. Every now and again it would fly to a dust-bin hard by and alight on the rim in order to take a breather. Occasionally it would dive into that bin in order to secure the wherewithal to feed the inner crow. It would then return to work like a giant refreshed.
I am of opinion that that dust-bin was to the crow what the public-house is to the British working man.