Crows of Sri Lanka
BY AMA H.VANNAIRACHCHY
“Crows are incredibly smart. They can be taught five things on the drop.” –Robbie Coltrane The crow, a very common bird in Sri Lanka can be seen all over the island. This simple blackbird is known for its intelligence, playfulness and smartness although they look plain and dull. I experienced this during the first lockdown last year and realised how smart and interesting these birds are, and how different they are from many other common birds in our urban spaces. During the first lockdown when we used to feed our two dogs and three cats in our stores, a flock of crows would come and rest in the nearby Kottan tree observing the feeding process.
As we left they would come down and eat the rice of the dogs and the cats. Gradually these fellows became less afraid of us and would come very close and observe us with their sharp eyes. Soon they became friendly with us and we could feed them with food kept on our palms. I also noticed that there was one fellow with a broken upper beak and another one with only one leg. The one with the broken beak always had a partner and that one would care for the broken beaked one. This made me feel interested to know more about crows and observe them.
Origin and habitat
The crow we can see in Sri Lanka is known as the House crow (Corvidae splendens) or the Ceylon Crow or the Colombo Crow. It belongs to the crow family (Corvidae) and has an Asian origin. Although it is native to Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Laccadive Island, and southwest Thailand, its spread beyond these areas is believed to have happened via ships. Although the crow can be seen in almost all parts of the country it is reported that the crow does not live in thick forests.
As they are omnivorous and scavengers, their diet patterns are flexible; they can eat almost anything. This is one reason that crows are usually attracted to dumping grounds, marketplaces, and urban areas where food is being dumped. They also eat small reptiles and mammals, insects, small invertebrates, eggs, grains, and fruits.
They usually roost on tall trees and there is a large number of crows in a flock. They prefer urban areas as they have plenty of food around human settlements. They arrive at their roosting trees in large flocks in the evening. Their large nests can be seen on top of these trees and they are usually twigs lined with fibres.
Importance in the ecology
However, when the population is outnumbered they are considered pests in agriculture and sometimes can be harmful to livestock too. As they mess with the garbage that is also a reason sometimes they are seen as a hindrance. However, in that case, humans are to be blamed as they are unable to manage their garbage properly, hence attracting crows. Being seen as a pest in agriculture is also a problem created by humans just as the human-elephant conflict and the humanmonkey conflict. Their efficiency in removing pests and parasites in farmlands is greater if considered the damage they cause on crops.
Due to chemical pest controls the contribution of crows as pest controlling birds are gone unnoticed, resulting in breaking the natural balance of the ecosystem as humans have artificially manipulated the natural system. It is also noted that crows are natural pollinators. Decades ago, crows were seen as important creatures as they played a vital role in waste management. It is reported that they eat a large quantity of garbage. It is clear that crows are vital in balancing the ecosystem naturally, as long as we do not interfere and manipulate the ecosystem by prioritising our own needs. By doing so, we mess the ecosystem, make it heavily imbalanced and create more mess in the environment.
Crows are known to be flexible birds and they prefer to live around humans as humans provide them a reliable food source. They are also noted for their cleverness and intelligence. From my own observations, I noticed that these crows observe us very sharply and they seem to be recognising our voices as well as faces. Also, they seem to be caring for each other. I also noticed that they can recognise the food from a distance and decide if they want to eat it or not, before flying to it. While doing some research about these smart animals, I learned that crows can be smarter than dogs. An article by Sharon Begley published in Statnes, noted that crows possess a higher intelligence level.
John Marzluff an ornithologist at the University of Washington who has been studying crows for a decade says that crows are able to recognise human faces and they can recognise those who help them or feed them and also that they can remember faces that harm them even after years. The research also says that other researchers determined that crows seem to exhibit a level of consciousness only attributed to humans and very few of our mammal relatives, such as primates. Another study says that crows have a great memory for human faces, hold grudges against humans who harm them and that they communicate such things to other crows.
In local folklore
The crow plays a notable part in local folklore. They are considered hungry animals hence; it is considered a great meritorious act to feed them. Also, as they are associated with the god Senasuru, people feed crows to get rid of bad luck. Another belief is that those who steal or misuse the property of the Buddhist monks will be born as dogs and crows in their next lives. As crows are loud and talkative animals, their noises were interpreted and analyzed by our ancestors. The study called Kaputu Sasthare is about the language that crows speak. There is also, a verse of blessing in the Sinhala language which says that “May you live long, for 220 years, until the black crow turns white.” “Animals are certainly more sophisticated than we used to think. And we shouldn't lump animals together as a group. Crows and chimps and dogs are all highly intelligent in very different ways.”
– Alison Gopnik