STREET DOGS AND FERAL CATS
AND NATURE'S NATURAL ALARM
I discovered the bird and street animal pecking order this morning as a serendipitous off-shoot of another of my short term, proto-scientific studies initiated by a Google enquiry as to the name of the medium sized, very handsome, black and white bird who is the first to break the morning silence with a lovely birdsong serenade here in Fort Kochi. This quiet opening foray is followed by other bird voices joining in – cuckoo, mynah, parrot, starling, chickadee – to create a pleasant, romantic and altogether natural morning wake-up alarm. But as the natural world in all its vicissitudes and vagaries would have it, this morning Mozart-sweet delight is quickly and unceremoniously smashed to bits when the late waking Indian Urban Raven – we would call this species the annoying, loud and raucous CROW – suddenly realizes that their voices have yet to smash the peaceful morning symphony to smithereens and split the air with emergency siren caws and cackles and screeches.
But back to the pecking order. Up northern India, where Hindus predominate and no one eats beef, one sees cows roaming the streets either with or without some small kid weighing in at maybe one-twelfth the weight of his charge (if that) quite frequently. Down here in the Communist/Christian South, the sight of cows roaming around chomping on roadside grasses or a mango pit tossed from a passing car is rare. In fact, I’ve seen precisely three cows wandering the streets of Fort Kochi since my arrival back in late December. (I will not speculate as to why there are so few here, given the sensibilities of my Hindu friends.) Up north, householders habitually leave piles of rice or dal and maybe a couple of chappatis from the previous night’s dinner or the morning breakfast, outside their gates knowing that within the hour a passing cow or six will not only remove the foodstuffs from the roadway but be quite happy doing so.
Here, people do leave food outside their gates. But this being the Indian south, the uppam is generally substituted for the chappati while the rice and dal remain the same. Occasionally a coconut shell stripped of the bulk of its meaty insides or a couple of pineapple pieces – perhaps a bit overripe – will be left.
Kochi is chock full of street dogs and feral cats. Just last month two dogs gave birth to six puppies between them, five survived and are now dividing their time between the two houses across the street from us and the homestay at the end of the lane. Momma dogs, originally frantic over losing custody of their children, appear to have become equitably accustomed to the situation. In any event, it is my assumption that the little piles of food leavings one sees parked just outside the family compound, are essentially for the benefit of the town’s many street dogs. And yes, no question that if discovered first by a ranging dog, it will be gobbled up in a flash. If not, then it’s one of the multi-colored cats to do the clean-up, although the cats generally wait each morning for the bicycle fish wallahs, either sitting quietly and patiently by their sides as the sellers negotiate sales with the neighborhood housewives or rub luxuriously against the fish mongers legs.
This morning, however, one neighboring pile had not been discovered by the ever present canine and feline troop. As I watched, first the chickadees and sparrows swooped down and pecked up the rice. Then along came the beautiful black and white birds followed by the ubiquitous crow who chased all the smaller birds away. But suddenly, from around the corner, came one of our yellow and white feral kitty cats – a fairly young one – who strolled calmly towards the inviting morsel, seemingly ignoring the gathering of six crows all screeching as if they had achieved Nirvana. But, as she inched calmly closer, one could sense the increasing nervousness among the black ravens, shifting in a group in the opposite direction and surreptitiously eyeing routes of escape.
And suddenly, kitty cat – within a foot of the inviting mound of food, flicked her tail back and forth three times – obviously some sort of inter-species signal – and all the crows flew away accompanied, naturally, with much indignant screeching. Not far mind you. But kitty cat suffered no interference as she partook of the morning offering of rice, dal and uppam. There were, however, no dogs in sight or within smelling distance.
The name of the beautiful black and white bird? Oddly enough, the "Indian Robin." But with not a trace of orange in sight.