Umbrellas are a handy invention.
They protect against rain, sun, crowds – my mother makes do with her index finger, admirably – and overzealous parent crows. For two summers, the mango tree in our compound, its adjacent balcony and the roof it levels have been under seize from a couple who take their parenting responsibilities very seriously.
The lady, petite and docile, stops at cawing alarm. When the father is within view, she lazily and demurely hands over the rest of the industry to him. When he isn’t, she’s even willing to observe which corner of the grille the human walks to or how far she bends over it without undue panic.
The ‘man’ is quite another matter. So much as a shadow gets him into the defensive.
With crows, that only means becoming very offensive. Puffing himself into a feather cannon ball, claws splayed, he leans from the closest branch to the human’s eye level, opens his pharynx – or what goes for it in avian physiology – and caws menacingly. You get the feeling you’re in imminent danger of a bird hit on your face and back off. The threat is palpable and effective.
The nest is a good four feet overhead, at an impossible to reach angle from the balcony but try teaching a parent bird some stupid fuzzy logic. Maths be darned, I don’t think the measure of safe distance holds any merit with baba crow. Uncountable are the times my meagre brain has got clawed at, for looking down my balcony (not even in the general direction of its precious progeny.)
Note the possessive my above. That’s about the only futile, lexical claim we can lay these days to the narrow slab of property we humans pay municipal tax for.
I tried leaving peace offerings of food outside. The morsels were pecked clean, no trust returned. Being stubborn, I’m determined to befriend any non-human in my vicinity, but no luck two years running. I never meant to tease, put my scant upper regions in the pecking line too, as bird brained, I guess, as the friendly neighbours.
To be fair, the hatchlings don’t make protecting them an easy task. Last year one dark night, the three ladies of the house discovered one thrashing about in the corner of the roof. She may have been trying out her self-mode of transportation and fallen off. By lucky coincidence, we found her before our dogs. In our nighties, leaning dangerously across the waist high railing of our third floor roof, we attempted a daring restitution. I was in favour of bringing the fellow into the room and tending to her, but my mother and sister reasoned that the parents would abandon her if they smelt our touch or were separated too long. So we put the very frightened, fidgety bird in a packet, looped its handles through one end of a long stick and after precarious manoeuvre, dropped the inhabitant back to her nest, where she flourished.
I cannot claim our rescue apparatus endears us any more to the parents. It looks quite the long jousting stick it is. Ma uses it, with a large sieve attached, to unburden the tree’s highest branches of ripe fruit each summer. The lower reaches she (wo)manfully climbs. As the tree keeps inching annually, and after severe reprimand from the daughters she gleefully disobeys in age as they had done her in youth, she has begun to deploy an array of Man Friday-s, God knows where she summons them from, and sends them scampering up it.
This year, one came armed with an axe and an assistant to scare the crows away.
I had the distinct impression, the birds, bred and brought up in the land, understand the tongue we were speaking for their chagrin was voluble.
The upper branches were too flimsy to climb safely, said the man, they needed to be chopped down. And while they were at it, why not break the nest and end our troubles? I wrangled for half an hour and finally sent him back on his way. There could be enough mangoes in the market, no one was hurting my birds! For you see, the feather-head that I am, I have grown quite fond of the pesky fellows and their fervour to keep the genus alive.
Besides, till the last minute I can protect it, no one is felling that tree. That would almost be like killing Dad twice over.
The tree had been a bone of contention with our human neighbour from the start. She hasn’t a shade of green around her concrete-bound yard and hates leaves.
Someone sold off a graft to Dad, claiming it was a fruitful academic experiment guaranteed to not grow taller than the diminutive family scale. Now, this was twenty-five odd years ago. The tree challenges the family home’s height every year, promising to bloom a few feet taller, caves the boundary wall, bursts cracks underground, sways its limbs around with aplomb and sheds copious leaves. Like my gullible father’s other impractical projects, the giant mango tree stands at the end of the ten by four foot drive, counting time till its inevitable mortality.
Somehow, I manage to keep pushing the decision a little further, but regretfully, may not be able to for long.
This year, the hatchling timed his birth perfectly, and the tree still stands.
I saw him one day, sitting up near the nest’s edge. The thin parents had managed to stuff him but wouldn’t allow me leisure to admire their handiwork, throwing a fit. Through the ruckus he sat still, the winged lama, drowsing or dreaming of songs from afar, I know not which.
A loud squawk scurried me out of bed next morning. Dogs, cats, a hundred crows screaming from every perch, barks, shuffles, flying feathers, tearing limbs, tails, wings, futile hops, fast chases had all the ingredients of a gory, tragic battle. By the time we shooed the pups away, the fledging stood up, ruffled but apparently in one piece, hopped a few steps and disappeared into the thick undergrowth of the vacant plot opposite, never to emerge again.
He eluded rescue and we were punished with vicious angry beaks for our endeavour.
He must have been testing his new wings and fallen straight among the puppies in the yard, who were also trying out their newly acquired hunting skills.
The second morning was quiet. I went out to the balcony, there was not one crow in sight. The tree was empty, so was the nest.
An empty nest can signal the triumph of nature’s rejuvenation. In an urban space greedily usurped by human procreative speed, which outdoes that of every other species, the crow, sparrow, common myna, pigeon, parrot, owl, kite, vulture, common keelback, toad, frog, field mouse, butterfly, moth, spider are rapidly being squeezed out of existence. The habitat where they lived, hunted and birthed young for ages is being snatched away from them; we human beings fear them, hate them, misunderstand them, malign them and spell different excuses to exterminate them, seldom willing to share our homes.
When a pair of birds successfully breed and fly away with their young, or the little one leaves the nest and flocks closer to the humans their parents have learnt to trust, for these are smart cookies and some never go far from the concrete shelter, returning with their own lovers in later Spring-s, that abandoned nest becomes a seat of celebration.
But this one was only empty. And sad.