Give no quarter

‘Large-billed Bullies’: Joint Third Prize, Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014 Photo: Balaji Loganathan / Sanctuary Photolibrary
‘Large-billed Bullies’: Joint Third Prize, Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014
Photo: Balaji Loganathan / Sanctuary Photolibrary

bittu sahgal

Crows fascinate me. In fact they have fascinated humans forever. Beyond The Crow and the Pitcher tale told by that ancient Greek fabulist, Aesop, varied world mythologies speak of crows and their intelligence with an admiration bordering on awe. Scientists, too, confirm that crows are at least as intelligent as apes and dolphins, with a brain to body-weight ratio that roughly approximates that of humans. What is more, crows possess problem-solving abilities comparable to that of an average six or seven-year-old child.

Incredibly, crows can also recognize human faces. They can tell an individual care-giver from one that poses a threat! Positron emission tomography (PET) scans reveal that the visual pathways activated in corvid brains — the mygdala, thalamus and brain stem — are the same as those activated in our own brains when we respond to emotions such as fear.

Crows, we know, are accomplished nest robbers. But this parakeet, whose world was ruthlessly turned upside down, discovered the hard way that crows are equally capable of cooperative hunting in the manner of wolves. The stark drama we see on this page reveals a pair of Large-billed Crows Corvus macrorhynchos, dispatching a Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri in the heart of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. The photographer, Balaji Loganathan, said the pair orchestrated a brutally efficient, harmonized hunt with one bird worrying and distracting the luckless parakeet, allowing the other to move in for the kill.

Such images tend to trigger responses akin to horror in many. Not in me. I was introduced to the finer aspects of birding by that Grand Old Man of ornithology, Dr Sálim Ali. He was passionate about birds, but displayed not a touch of sentimentality. Speaking for myself, I see not a shred of cruelty depicted here. ‘Eat or be eaten’ is the universal law of the jungle. No quarter given. No quarter asked.

Mindless cruelty, on the other hand, is the preserve of the ape that walks. We speak no end of how civilized we are and how nature by comparison is red in tooth and claw, but it should give us pause to think about whose hand remorselessly extinguishes the beauty around us. And while we are at it, we might wish to ruminate long and deep that when nature’s retribution strikes, because we stepped way beyond set limits, nature, without a shred of cruelty, will give us no quarter either.

First appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 6, December 2014

Bittu Sahgal
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Bittu Sahgal

Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Asia, India's premier wildlife and ecology magazine.