There are many things that fly away and become a part of the past, of eternity or of the other world. Times fly. Souls are said to fly away to the other world. Birds fly away, either to perch somewhere or to their nests or on a long trans- continental migratory flight. But what happens to them when they die? Do they perish forever more or do they too have souls which fly away to the other world? Do birds have an after life? I must confess I had never given any thought to these and other related questions until the day a heart wrenching sight hit me with full force.

A common myna—the brown, medium sized, yellow eye rimmed, yellow beaked birds we see on the roadsides and in parks so often and associate with the “one for sorrow, two for joy…” ditty—had been crushed under a passing vehicle. All that remained was a small flattened pulp of some flesh and feathers. Its mate—agitation, alarm, distress pitiably visible in all its actions, was desperately trying to get some kind of a response from the dead myna and risking getting crushed too by unconcerned vehicles whizzing past. It was truly a ‘one for sorrow’ scene and disturbed me greatly.

When I passed the spot the next day, the remains of the crushed myna had been swept away but the surviving myna was still there, still agitated, still distressed. My heart went out to it again and I experienced for the umpteenth time the sadness and helplessness of seeing a “prani”, a living being who has lost someone.  The faithful, grieving myna was there at the fatal spot for several days and then one day, it was no longer there. I’ve always wondered what happened to it. Did it finally come to terms with the loss and fly away to some other place? Did it also get crushed under a vehicle? Did it die of grief or grief induced starvation? I also wondered what had happened to the dead myna and the entire tragic sequence started me off on a study of birds—in life and after life. What I found was both fascinating and illuminating.

I was already familiar with the traditional widespread beliefs about crows, ravens and rooks, who belong to the same cosmopolitan family of oscine passerine birds but are different from each other. Locked away in my memory there were also sentimental, startling first hand experiences with crows as birds who herald death and can sense it in advance. An hour or so before my father passed away, at least fifty crows had gathered on our rooftop, cawing raucously, not interested at all in the daily feed of milk and bread put out for them. The moment my father passed away, they fell silent. A little before one of our pets dies, they arrive too, cawing loudly in unison. Some believe that crows don’t just herald death, they come to escort the departed soul to a certain level above earth. The Audubon Society, which “protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow” has in one of its newsletters listed a crow superstition: If you see 5 crows, sickness will follow; see 6 crows and death will follow.

The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying points out that from classical times to the present day, the raven and crow have been thought birds of ill omen. Hammond Phyllis has written that the crow is significant of approaching death or impending doom. If it flies insistently above a place of very close to someone or in circles around a house then that is where the death occurs. However, crows have also been known to herald birth. According to India’s Environmental Information System (ENVIS) Centre On Avian Ecology “The house crow is usually identified with departed souls or ancestors. The bird is the vehicle of Shani or Saturn. In Buddhism, the Dharmapala Mahakala is represented by a crow in one of his physical/earthly forms. It is believed that crows heralded the birth of the First, Seventh, Eighth, Twelfth and Fourteenth Lamas.”

Crows and ravens have also been assigned a protective role. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying recounts bow in Britain, traditions of metempsychosis were attached to both the raven and the red-legged crow or chough in connection with King Arthur and mentions a belief that he had not died but had been enchanted into a crow or raven. The custom of keeping six ravens at the Tower of London was instituted by King Charles II (1630–1685). The ravens are a palladium or national talisman, “it being said that, so long as there are ravens at the Tower, Britain cannot be conquered. Some anxiety was caused during World War II by rumors that the ravens had fallen silent and had not croaked for five whole days.” In India, there have been innumerable instances when crows cawed and warned of fire, of theft, of an earthquake and to this day many household in rural as well as urban areas pay heed to what crows try and communicate.

Crows, ravens and rooks are not the only birds linked with the paranormal. “In Western tradition”, says a piece on Soul Birds, “one of the most common sites for a formerly human soul to inhabit is that of a bird. Such birds are invariably also ominous, in its original sense of prophetic, the rationale being that the dead, as spirits, know both past and future.” A combination of mythological stories, religious beliefs and current commonplace incidents and experiences from all over the world emphasise clearly a strong, undeniable paranormal connection between several birds and the other world. They also leave no doubts that birds have souls. But do birds themselves move on to the other world after death and are they reincarnated? Will tell you about it in the next column. Till then, it would be worth pondering over the words of Nick Redfern who has written about a wide range of unsolved mysteries and authored 41 books. “I guess it all depends on one’s own belief systems—or one’s lack of belief systems—concerning things that suggest there is more to our world and our existence than we know. Perhaps more than we can know. Until it’s our time.”