January 11, 2009

Fishing for Some Morning Luck

One early morning recently as I hurried to board a suburban local train I stumbled upon an unlikely scene.

For a place that’s usually abuzz with tea stall owners making brisk business from rickshaw drivers warming to their early morning shifts with a glass of steaming tea, occasionally joined by office goers heading into the railway station for a ride to their destinations around Bombay, the sight of a man squatting to the side of the road, two dogs silently watching him chop fish on a makeshift board was an uncommon sight.

I cannot remember seeing a food stall whipping up fish curry among those serving tea out of makeshift tin shops that crowd the approach to the railway station. The dogs were oblivious to office goers hurrying past them so intent were they on the possibilities the morning held.

It was apparent the fish were not for sale but that did not stop a man from enquiring if they were. In all the time the dogs watched silently. The man paid them scant attention. It is very likely he will have tossed a piece of fish each to reward their patience once he was done with his job.

If you’ve lived in Bombay for some time and are an early riser and have to take a train to work then you’ll have seen fish vendors get off the luggage compartment with baskets of fish that they’ve furiously haggled for at docks where fishing trawlers land their catch in time for the early morning markets. Others source their baskets from fish markets around town before making their way to suburban railway stations for a ride down the Central and Western lines for suburbs to vend their wares in small fish markets there, usually squatting by the side of a road with the basket of fish at their feet.

It is rare that a rickshaw, a three-wheeler transport, will ferry them over to their designated spot in the fish market for, the strong smell of fish left behind in trails of melting ice seeping from the cane basket can render stout hearts queasy at the thought of putting up with it on their journey to their homes or elsewhere. In the morning rush hour every passenger matters to the rickshaw driver and it is unlikely he'll risk the day by ferrying fish in the backseat. So the fisherwomen walk to the fish market, challenged by crows and silent dogs along the way.

Waiting for a train one morning I watched two fisherwomen get off the luggage compartment with a basket of fish each balanced on their heads. As passengers heading out of the station crowded the covered stairway that leads up to the over-bridge they met with another stream of passengers making their way down to the railway platform, a common sight in rush-hour passenger traffic. In the ensuing logjam the two women paused for the stream to move up the steps. They had barely taken three steps up the stairs when a crow swooped in on the basket and made off with a fish through an opening in the covered staircase without breaking ‘stride’. For a while afterwards I was startled at the ingenuity and the speed of the enterprising crow that had made off with the fish in one fell swoop. This could not have been a one off for it must have known before of the opening in the covered staircase that would enable it to fly on without breaking ‘stride’ so to say.

Since then I’ve kept an eye out for enterprising crows that mill about railway platforms but without much luck. I believe it takes as much enterprise to make off with a fish in the uncertain dynamics of suburban railway stations as with retaining the prize fish from competing crows that haven’t been able to pull of a stunner themselves. A few months ago I witnessed just this.

Waiting in the compartment for the train to start on its journey I saw a crow with a fish in its beak land in a tree by the railway tracks. Soon enough three crows followed it to the tree. While two perched on branches on either side of the crow with the morning catch the third one waited on the ground, looking up, and ready to make off with the fish should it drop to the ground in the inevitable struggle for the booty between the three above. The morning Sun lit up the branch. Elsewhere the speakers reverberated with announcements of trains pulling into the station.

However the enterprising crow held the fish firm against the branch while pecking furiously at it. In between fending off opportunistic jabs by the two crows it quickly swallowed a few pieces of fish. Beneath, the third crow remained attentive to the drama unfolding in the branch above, alert for some morning luck to come its way. After fending off more charges by the two crows intent on sharing the spoils even as it swallowed more of the fish, the enterprising crow quickly lifted its beak and with quick bobs of its head regurgitated portions of fish it had gulped down. As pieces of fish covered with saliva fell to the ground, followed by the two crows that had jabbed for a piece of the meal without success, a virtual scramble ensued on the ground between the three.

Sensing an opportunity for some peace the crow in the tree proceeded to finish its breakfast while its pursuers battled it out below.

Note: Last week PBS wrote in to inform me of the launch on January 5 of their six-part Story of India series by Michael Wood, projecting their India effort as “seeking in the present for clues to her past, and in the past for clues to her future.” The show runs on Mondays. For local timings head over to the PBS Engage blog.


kenju said...

I think that was one smart crow! Thanks for the tip about the PBS program. I will look for it here.

bindu said...

Loved your pictures of the patient dogs. It's really nice to see how observant you are of the dogs and crows and other creatures that most would not even notice. Interesting post ...

bobbie said...

that must have been quite a battle to watch. Crows can be very amusing.

Granny J said...

As ours is the town of ravens, I truly enjoyed your report of the enterprising crows!

ugich konitari said...

What a neat post on something one sees all the time, but has never noticed ! I am firmly convinced, that Mumbai crows have immense character, entrepreneurship, and a never-say-die attitude. (Wonder where it comes from :-) ....)

I have a ledge outside my kitchen where a similar guerilla tactic war is conducted by the visiting swooping crows, for a piece of stale chapati/bread, with the hankering crows keeping a sharp eye on the possibility of the winning candiddate letting slip a piece.....There are pigeons around too, but at such times they dont interfere, and wtch from a distance.

certainly reminds me of some folks who come into prominence every 5 years....

Cuckoo said...

Buoy !! That must have quite a watch !!

Kay said...

Amazing report on a slice of life one morning in Bombay. Happy new Year Anil.

heidi said...

GREAT post. Thanks for sharing!!

fishbowl said...

Nice Post:) and, I have never seen the Fish curry thing!

Taraana said...

i can relate to this incident. I have crows crowding my window every morning. they are now like pets. When food is cooked at home, a little extra is always cooked just for the crows.

they all know now that treats await them and god forbid, if there aren't any, they will caw continuously unless we give them something

Anil P said...

Kenju: Yes, it is one smart creature for sure.

I suppose the PBS Story Of India series must make for interesting viewing. I doubt if I will get to see the series in India.

Bindu: The dogs sat very patiently, watching him cut the fish. I wonder what was going on in their minds.

I find animals and birds fascinating to watch.

Bobbie: It sure was. They are amusing, somehow they seem to be in the thick of things most times.

Granny J: Thank you. Yes, they are amusing.

Ugich Konitari: Mumbai will have lent some character to the crows, some sharpness will have rubbed off on the crows as well :)

Sometimes I have to fend off crows that perch on the ledge where two pigeon couples have their nests.

Thank you.

Cuckoo: Yes, they were.

Kay: Thank you, Kay. Happy New Year to you too.

Heidi: Thank you.

Fishbowl: Thank you. For fish curry you'll have to visit Goa :)

Taraana: This is interesting indeed. Having set a pattern I'm sure they'll make their way dutifully to the window each morning.

Relating to them can foster a sense of belonging to nature in general.

Amber Star said...

The crow story was very interesting and I enjoyed it very much. I'm so glad you posted about the PBS series. My knitting group meets tonight, when it is shown here, but I set the Tivo to record the show. I think they are showing the first one again, because there are two tonight. I watched the promo and it was wonderful!

We have squirrels to watch as they make their way up and down the trees swirling around the trunks of the oaks. Sometimes they chase each other and sometimes they are on their own. We have a lot of grackles here. They aren't as interesting as crows and I don't want to get them roosting in our trees. They make a terrible racket and mess. Our town has had many different people try to rid us of them, but the grackles prevail. We are in a protected flyway for them, but I wish they would find another. We can't park our car downtown without it getting covered in bird poop. I prefer my squirrels over the birds.

Ranu said...

hi this is the first time I stopped by your blog..... It is great!!! It was recommended by suranga of gappa.

I am a regular commuter of the Mumbai locals and the macchiwalis never travel by luggage they are always in the ladies compartment throwing fish water on innocent people...... so much that we spend the whole working day smelling like a bangda. The only reason your crow got the fish was because he was flying..... these women carrying fish are STRONG.... very strong... the types who go in for sumo wrestling daily. I have been at their brunt quite often..... even punched in the stomach by one lady which left me on bed for the week!!! I dont complain any more in fear of being punched again. More than anything else your crow was lucky that he had wings.

Renee said...

I find you blog is a little trip for me to India, a place I will never get a chance to go to.

Thank you.


Squirrel said...

It looks so warm there.. . I miss seeing fishermen every day. Liked your story of the 4 crows.

I once watched a crow lift a tiny bunny off the ground, only to drop it when a second crow tried to interfere. The bunny ran off as the two crows fought.

Sarah Laurence said...

Did you ever figure out why the man was chopping up a fish in public without selling it?

I’m impressed by women who can carry loads on their head, especially in crowds. If it weren’t for crows, that would be the best strategy at rush hour.

Have you read Konrad Lorenz on jackdaws (in the crow family)? He was most impressed by their ingenuity (as you well describe) and their social behavior. They are intriguing birds. King Solomon’s Ring is still an interesting read as was this post.

marja-leena said...

A well-told tale of a clever crow!

Seamus said...

What a wonderful story of the crafty crow!

I am always amazed at the ingenuity of animals and their protection of "their" food. Our fox play similar games.

Lori ann said...

A facinating post Anil, thank you for a glimpse into an unfamiliar(yet familiar)moment.I think you have a gift.

Anil P said...

Amber Star: Thank you. Crows are usually very enterprising. Simple things tend to bring great pleasure at times.

I won't be getting to see the PBS broadcast in India so would be keen to learn of your review of the Story Of India series.

Growing up, I've watched squirrels aplenty. They're great fun to watch. Sometime ago I came across blog that records lives of squirrels in the blogger's backyard.

How many squirrels make up the flock where you live?

Ranu: Fisherwomen are hardy characters. I've seen many a Goan fisherwoman. They're hardy, yes, and cheerful as well.

Out here I usually see them emerge from the luggage compartment, usually in the mornings. At other times they're rarely to be found traveling with their baskets of fish, having sold their stock in the day. Thank you for visiting.

Renee: I do hope you will visit India someday. It's a pleasure to know that the posts help draw an India picture.

Squirrel: Oh yes, it is warm at this time of the year, mildly pleasant if I may say so.

Fishermen remind me of the sea, and of the coast.

Crows are strong enough to carry small creatures off the ground. Out here I've seen them making off with rats, and lizards, nothing bigger.

Sarah Laurence: No, I didn't. I don't recall seeing a stall out there selling fish preparations.

I've always admired their ability to withstand heavy loads on their head, and see these signts on my daily travels. Many of the women are old, making the effort all the more creditable.

I haven't read Konrad Lorenz, I need to now after your suggestion.

India's celebrated cartoonist R.K. Laxman made no secret of his admiration for crows, more so those from Mumbai. And his cartoons celebrated them on many an occasion even if they were a passive part of the scene.

Thank you.

Marja-leena: Thank you.

Seamus: Thank you. I've thoroughly enjoyed your fox stories for quite sometime now.

Lori Ann: Thank you, Lori Ann. It's a great pleasure to know you enjoy these posts.

Anonymous said...

Hooray, a new post from your wonderful part of the world told in your easy style.

Those crows, clever and entertaining.

Lakshmi said...

Sometimes we learn so much from birds and animals..

Anil P said...

Rob: Thank you. Their cleverness makes them entertaining to watch.

Lakshmi: Yes, we do, that is if we're prepared to learn from them.

Merisi said...

Such an interesting window into your world, thank you, once again, for sharing it with us!

From my windows, I observe Jackdaws, a smaller craw, every day, from their early morning call to their last flight at night, before the set down to roost. They are amazing birds. I would not be surprised if they knew all of the people living in their neighborhood and particularly their habits. I am sure they observe me when I stand watch at the window, because every time I try to take up the camera and get a close-up, they are gone the moment I zoom in. ;-)

Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz studied, among many other animals, Jackdaws, and I am sure you would delight in reading his book "King Solomon's Ring", if you have not done so already. They are some truly interesting social creatures.

Anil P said...

Merisi: Thank you.

Sarah Laurence, in her comment on this post, mentioned the same author that you do. I need to get hold of the book you both recommend.

Knowing how Crows behave I can well imagine Jackdaws. I'm sure they're as observent as we are if not more.

Anonymous said...

Thats a very engaging story powered by some great observations, Anil. Thanks for sharing.