The King Crow: M. Krishnan

THERE were some 30 cows in the grazing herd, four bull calves and two buffaloes. And once again I noticed that the king crows rode the coloured beasts, not the white ones. For a moment I thought I had confirmed a trend in the more obscure habits of these bold black birds. Then I realised how easily false conclusions can be reached in the field.
It was in the same tract that, earlier in the year, I had twice observed the liking of king crows for coloured coats on their mobile perches. The cattle of this flat scrubland are stunted and black or brown, the brown varying from fawn to a rich, deep chestnut, very few of them are white and these, presumably “imported” milch-cows, are much larger; the chances of finding king crows on the backs of coloured cows are about five times as good as on white ones, considerably better in view of the fact that the birds like to ride low.
This latter preference is real. King crows perch on small cows, yearling calves, buffaloes and even goats rather than on tall cattle, where, choice offers. It  is mainly for the sake of the insects flushed from cover by the  lumbering hooves that they go riding grazing cattle, and obviously the closer they are to the grass the surer their hunting.
It is remarkable with what certainty and speed they can take prey in the air. I have repeatedly seen a king crow take a vaulting grasshopper in mid-leap, swooping down on the quarry, snatching it up and returning to the hump of its mount in one smooth movement. But if you want to know with what acrobatic speed and ease the bird can twist and turn in the air, you should watch it chasing some fast-flying insect.
The deeply forked tail and broadly triangular wings are spread out into translucent brown fans as the bird brakes in the air, half-shut and black again as it dives headlong almost to the earth or shoots up obliquely on the impetus of the dive. You can actually hear the zip and rustle of the tail and pinions being flicked open and shut if you are near enough, but the bird seldom flutters its wings — the entire dizzy and complicated manoeuvre is sustained by the initial momentum, till the prey is plucked from the air and the king crow flies off, whirring and swinging by turns, to its perch.
Undoubtedly, the fishtail helps in these aerial acrobatics, other birds notable for their deftness of wing also depend heavily on their forked tails, kites and swallows for example. It is its speed and dexterity in twisting around in full flight that enables the king crow to attack much larger birds like hawks, kites and crows that venture too close to its nest.

The  chorus of king crows heralding the dawn can be heard in the jungles as well as in rural areas where they roost close to the human settlement. Even, I, who, like these birds so much, cannot say that they have musical voices (though some of their cousins do), but in the chill, grey clearness preceding daybreak, their calls have an exuberant, confident cheeriness, at least to the human ear. A famous set of stanzas by the Vaishnavite poetess Aandaal, addressed to a girl still asleep after promising to wake the others early (so that they could be in time for the early morning worship), refers to the pre-dawn chorus of king crows.
Do you not hear the high-pitched conversation of Harsh-voiced king crows!

Yes, there is a certain harshness in the king crows’ calls,  in spite of the carrying shrillness, but it is pointless analyzing sounds that belong so very much to the open air in cloistered print, incongruous as it may read, it is still true that it is this very vigour and rasping vivacity in the morning voices of these birds that makes the experience of being awakened by them so pleasant.

Before roosting, the birds fly about actively and call to one another again, and the sharp double whistle can often be heard then. King crows are said to mimic the shikra in this call; it is true that the shrikes and drongoes have imitative talent and that some of them are wonderful mimics; it is also true that this double whistle is exactly like the shikra’s call, except for the lack of a tonal quality that I can indicate only by the word “querulous”. But all the same I beg to differ from the experts who consider this call imitative. I think it is one of the king crow’s authentic calls, and that its similarity to the shikra’s is purely a coincidence. Otherwise, I cannot understand why this is so frequently indulged in by king crows all over the country, just before roosting.

Incidently, the open beaks of the king crows in the pictures do not show them calling. The afternoon sun was parchingly hot overhead when I took the photographs accompanying this article, and the birds were panting. Many birds pant in such heat and no doubt gain considerable relief thereby.

— Published in The Sunday Statesman, 1956

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About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
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