A Crow Named Charlie

Shreya Jha

© Copyright 2021 by Shreya Jha

2021 Animal Story Contest Runner-Up

Indian House Crow - Photo by Simran deep Singh on Unsplash
           Indian House Crow - Photo by Simran deep Singh on Unsplash

Surely there is no purer love than that between man and animal. This is a story of my reluctant friendship with a wild crow who taught me about love, resilience and living free. 

A for Abtoss, B for Bulbul, C for Crow.’

I learnt to recite the alphabet with the names of birds. Abtoss was my baby word for Albatross, not the easiest word for a child to pronounce. I’m not sure if this is a true recollection or a figment of my memory. Probably the latter. It is a fact though, that birds have been part of my life from almost the beginning.

I was five years old when my father, a new birder those days, started taking me along with him on his weekend birdwatching jaunts. We would wake up early on Sunday mornings and walk to birding spots around our house – a lake across the railway tracks from where we lived or sometimes a small wooded area close by.

As a child, I loved the bright and colourful birds – sunbirds, bee-eaters, kingfishers; and ignored the common ones – sparrows, pigeons, crows. I especially didn’t care for crows. I found them ordinary, ugly and loud. There’s nothing special about them. Or so I thought, till I got seduced by one almost four decades later.

In the summer of 2019, my life was going through an upheaval. I had quit my lucrative corporate career to try something of my own and was working out of the bedroom of my house. I was dealing with what could only be called a mid-life crisis and the inevitable solitude of the romanticized entrepreneur’s life.

My days were spent working at my desk, which is next to a large window of my fifth-floor apartment. The window overlooks the top of a huge Persian silk tree, and in the month of July that year, the tree was in full bloom, attracting colourful butterflies and several city birds. I loved that view from the window until a crow started obstructing it.

It seemed like the crow came into my life and on to my window out of nowhere. One day I had a view of a canopy of pink flowers and multi-coloured butterflies, and the next day I had a big lump of a crow staring at me. It would come every morning and sit right in front of me, across the window glass and watch me – sometimes in silence and sometimes letting out a few caws. I ignored it for several days till my mother who was visiting me at that time urged me, ‘Feed the poor thing’.

If there’s one thing that you take out of this story, it is this – no crow is a ‘poor thing’. Crows are the smartest, wiliest and sassiest of all birds.

Okay,’ I agreed reluctantly. ‘Maybe it just wants food and will go away once fed.’

Yes, the crow did want food but no, it didn’t go away. If anything, it seemed to think that we were friends now and started spending even more time hanging out with me.

Working on your own is not easy, and I was struggling with loneliness. I missed the energy of an office – the sounds of people talking, phones ringing, printers buzzing, eating lunch with colleagues who became friends. The crow’s companionship was comforting, and I grew to look forward to it every day.

In the first few weeks of feeding the crow, I noticed it always came with a partner. Were they together? Curious, I Googled. I was surprised to learn that crows tend to mate for life. Surely, that’s one up on humans. Observing the two crows over time, I came to the conclusion that my crow was a male. He was larger and more dominant than his partner. He always ate first, and would often feed his partner beak-to-beak – an interesting and curious aspect about crows. Males feed females, especially closer to breeding season, to show that they are good providers. It’s part of their pair-bonding ritual. The more I observed these two, the more I got drawn into their world.

Over the next couple of months, we fell into a comfortable routine. They had their own water and food bowls, which were kept on the window box-grill for their convenience. I learnt what food they liked and what they hated. Who would have known that crows would be fussy about food? They came to feed several times a day, but Crow continued to spend time hanging around with me even after he’d eaten.

I continued to refer to the crow as ‘Crow’. I had not named him. He was a wild crow after all, and came and went as he liked. Giving him a name felt like I was trying to domesticate him. Though if I were honest with myself, I didn’t want to name him or his partner because I thought it would seal our bond, and I did not want to get attached to them. Besides, the cat was called ‘Cat’ in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, so Crow was a good enough name for a vagabond crow.

When my aunt came to visit me in October that year and heard my ‘Crow’ logic, she told me to snap out of my denial. I was already deep into a relationship with the crow whether I liked it or not. We’d been ‘friends’ for more than three months, I realised. I gave in and allowed my aunt to christen the crow and his partner. She named them Charlie and Chelsea.

My days increasingly started revolving around Charlie and Chelsea. My work was punctuated with sweet moments of interaction with the two crows. I was fascinated with them and their intelligence, especially Charlie. Like a new parent, I was constantly taking pictures and videos of them that I loved sharing with my family and friends. In the evenings they would leave to roost with other crows, and I would wait eagerly for them to come back the next morning.

You know the feeling when everything seems right with the world? The skies are bluer, the sun is shinier and you are friends with the most delightful crow couple. If this were a movie, this is the cue for something to go wrong. This was not a movie. It was real life. And yet, something did go terribly wrong.

On 16th November 2019, I found Charlie sitting still on my window. He wasn’t moving. I thought he was sleeping or just relaxing, waiting for me. I slid open the window gently, and he hopped and fell on to a pot kept in the window box-grill. I knew immediately that something was wrong, and then I noticed his leg was bleeding.

Like a fool, I panicked and reached out to comfort him. He moved away in fear. I could see his leg better now. It seemed broken and he was clearly in tremendous pain. Instinctively, I reached out again which I shouldn’t have because this time he jumped off the window box and landed on a branch of the tree a few feet away. He was close but unreachable now, separated from me by the window grill.

He sat there on the branch with his right wing open. I couldn’t make out if he had hurt his wing, but why else would he keep it open? Worried, I sat at the window and repeatedly called out to him but he wasn’t moving and his eyes seemed vacant.

We sat like that for ten minutes, maybe longer. Chelsea was sitting close by and cawing away, agitated. The tree was becoming noisier as other crows started gathering around Charlie. Maybe I should call a vet, I thought. But before I could do anything, the attack began.

It happened so suddenly and unexpectedly. Some of the assembled crows started cawing and flying into Charlie, and striking him. It was a frightening experience, and it is hard to relive it even now. It went on for seconds but felt like an eternity. I remember screaming and crying with fear and helplessness. Chelsea was screeching and wagging her tail furiously. Later, I would read about it and learn that crows wag their tails when they’re frightened or excited. The attack continued and Charlie fell through the branches, down the tree and I could no longer see him. The crows dispersed as fast as they’d appeared. Chelsea flew off as well. I was still shaking and crying as I tried to spot Charlie on the ground, but he was nowhere to be seen.

The sun was setting as I finally calmed down, and all the crows were leaving to roost. I couldn’t wait till the next day. I had to do something, speak to someone who could help. We don’t have an animal and bird rescue body in my city. A veterinarian would be my best bet.

It was a Saturday evening and almost no one was available. If they were, they didn’t treat birds. If they did treat birds, the minute I said ‘crow’ the vets refused to engage. Crows are so common here in the city, they’re considered pests. No one is interested in saving one crow. I finally found a vet who took my call. She was kind and patient with me, and I was grateful to talk to someone about what had happened.

You can try to catch him with a towel gently and bring him to me,’ she said. ‘It’s always a risk as you may end up traumatising and hurting him even more by grabbing him,’ she warned me.

I don’t know if he’s alive,’ I replied, finally stating my fear aloud.

We’ll have to wait and watch. If he survived the attack but his wings are hurt, the chances of him surviving are unlikely’ the vet said gently.

I didn’t know what to say. I thanked her and told her I would get back. I never did.

I spent the rest of the evening browsing through Charlie’s pictures and videos on my phone. I should have never named him, I thought for a second. No, I was glad he’d been named. The least his memory deserves is a name. He’s going to make it, I told myself over and over again. Charlie is going to make it.

The next day I waited anxiously. The whole day went by and there was no sign of either Charlie or Chelsea. And then, I spotted Charlie mid-afternoon. He was alive! He flew and sat on the tree at a distance without approaching me. Chelsea came to the window to take some food from me, and then fed him. His wing must be okay, I thought remembering the vet’s words. Charlie will be okay, I thought letting relief set in.

And then the crows attacked again. It was a repeat of the previous evening. Half a dozen crows dived at Charlie, as others sat around on the branches of the tree watching and cawing, as if cheering them on. Chelsea was squawking away again, but there wasn’t anything she could do. I stood watching the scene unfold, helplessly. There wasn’t anything I could do either. Charlie disappeared from my view amid a flurry of wings. I couldn’t see if he had made it, but this time I knew he had.

That night I read about crows attacking crows. Often it’s a fight for territory. Sometimes, as it was perhaps in this case, crows band together to kill a fellow crow if it is weak or dying. Either as an act of mercy or to eliminate an injured bird that could attract predators and pose a threat to the rest of the crows.

Charlie wasn’t going to let go without a fight. I remembered his patient determination when he wooed me – sitting on my window day after day waiting for me to finally feed him. Charlie is not one to give up easily, and he didn’t. He survived the second night as well. I saw him the next afternoon, again sitting on the tree close to my window. Chelsea continued to feed him as he recuperated over the next few days.

Three days after his injury he finally came up to the window. His right leg was broken and hanging. He tried to stand on his left leg, but the leg was not yet strong enough to take his weight. So he sat down on his tummy and cawed for food. As Charlie ate from my hand, I cried tears of joy this time and thanked him for not dying. To my amazement, he took food from me and fed Chelsea who was sitting next to him. He was not going to let an injury hold him back. I knew then that Charlie was going to be alright.

Over the next few months Charlie healed slowly. In the beginning, he would often sit on his tummy, unable to put pressure even on his good leg. With time his left leg became stronger and he was a happy single-legged crow. Surprisingly, his injured leg also healed over time and he is now able to stand on it comfortably. His leg healed in a strange crooked way, perhaps representative of life that is twisted and yet so beautiful.

Almost two years have gone by and Charlie and Chelsea continue to come to my window every day. Six months after Charlie’s injury, they nested and had a family. Life does indeed go on.

They say if you love something set it free, and if it comes back it’s yours. Every morning that Charlie comes back, I am reminded that he loves me. Set it free they say, but they never tell you how hard it is to love somebody who is free. How terrifying it is to see him leave every time knowing that he may never come back.

After the traumatic incident, I started preparing myself mentally for the day when Charlie finally won’t come. Yet, every morning I wait anxiously for him to appear and I’m always elated to see him.

Charlie and I now live from one day to the next. He taught me that. To live and love in the moment, be fierce and a fighter, survive and thrive no matter what.

 I am a brand marketing and communications professional. I love travelling and seeing new places. I've visited 28 countries and I lived in Iraq as a child and Barcelona as a Masters student. I currently reside and work in Mumbai, India. The favourite part of my day is spending time with Charlie and other wild crows, and I share their pictures and videos on www.instagram.com/charlie.the.crow/

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