Caw of the wild: Meet the Mumbai crows with an Instagram following

Shreya Jha, 44, grew up birding with her father across many cities across the country. (Her father, who worked for the railways, had a transferable job). She knows to walk softly when she hears a call, and can identify over a 100 of them. One bird she never really paid attention to was the crow, a sighting too common to excite birders. That is until one day, about four years ago, when Charlie appeared at the window of her suburban Mumbai apartment where she was working from home, and started cawing. Of course, at that time, he didn’t have a name.

There’s data, humour, endearing anthropomorphisation, and sometimes all three, in Shreya Jha’s posts.

At first Jha, a brand marketing and communication professional, didn’t pay any attention to him or his partner Chelsea. Then, her mother, who was visiting told her to feed him. She gave him a biscuit and told him to go away.

He did, but he also came back. The next day. And the day after that. And then twice a day. And he brought a friend.

Jha kept feeding them, scraps at first, then gourmet crow fare: dry dog food, boiled eggs, chicken bones, liver, and farsan. Word spread in the crow world, and still more crows dropped in. Breakfast was at 8am, lunch around noon, dinner was at 4 pm. “Each meal is meant to be a snack, in small portions, so that they don’t grow dependent on me,” says Jha.

A few months later, she christened Charlie and Chelsea. There’s also Liam, Poppy, (one-eyed) Odin, Vito, Beb, Missy, Luke Stalker (named so because he follows her from room to room) and a multitude of nameless caw-cawers.

Jha started sending videos of them to her mom, who suggested she start posting them online. “She’s tired of seeing people post about their babies,” Jha laughs.

Jha’s IG page @Charliethecrow went live in October 2021, more than a year after she started feeding them. At first it was about their individual personalities (how Charlie wouldn’t let Chelsea eat from his bowl until he was done), and rainy-day hairstyles, when their head feathers form cool spikes after they’ve been rained over. The first wave of followers were crow lovers from across the world. “There are rehabbers and rescuers,” she says. “That also gave me a lot of access to information about the bird and its behaviour.”

The posts took on a new spin. Jha would talk about how crows spend hours “allopreening” or pruning each other’s feathers, as a way of connecting, and grooming. In one clip from April, Poppy is furiously wagging his tail at Liam. Jha’s caption explains that it a sign of fear or nervousness. She’s also posted reels and photos about death rituals (in which crows circle and caw); mating season; dos and don’ts when attending to injured and baby crows; and how to tell if a crow is male or female (you can’t really, unless you watch them nesting or do a blood test, so Jha actually names her crows randomly).

Some tips were learnt the hard way. In the early months, Charlie showed up with a bleeding, broken leg. “Like a fool, I panicked and tried to reach out to comfort him, but he moved away,” she writes on the long post about the injury. Another time, he was attacked by another crow and made his way back to her window after a terrifyingly long day. But this time, Jha didn’t rush. She carefully placed food near him and let him do this own thing. Charlie healed on his own over the next few months, with no interference from her, and reestablished his position in the crow hierarchy.

Crows have distinct personalities, Jha is learning. Some are true alphas. Some are brave explorers who’ll hop right on to her bed, or sit on her lap. Charlie, on the other hand, has never crossed the window’s threshold.

Jha’s page has more than one lakh followers. She’s also set up an online shop for T-Shirts, artwork and e-cards to help her supplement her monthly feeding expenses. The sales don’t compensate for losses – there have been quite a few over the years. “When a crow’s been coming every day for a year and then stops, you kind of know you’ve lost the crow,” says Jha.

No one know for sure how long crows live. But the house crow is estimated to live about eight years. “I hope it’s more,” says Jha. “I’ve known Charlie for four years already. He doesn’t look like an old man to me.”

The lease on her apartment has been renewed, and she’s not going anywhere for another three years. Neither it appears, are her feathered friends.

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