The kites circle lower, their wings casting shadows on the compound far below. The sun burns bright these days, lending a shine to the tail feathers of these brown birds.
“Are the kites here yet?” my grandmother asks. It is her morning ritual to toss a few pieces of bread to the stately birds, and she has never been one to break a habit. I think she holds the birds to the same level of integrity. She pushes her long braid over her shoulder and leans past me to open the window, where the air conditioning box juts out like an awkwardly placed table. This is where the kites come for their daily banquet. Of course, the kites are far more able hunters than my grandmother gives them credit for, and I doubt bread is high on their dietary preferences. But they respond with a solemn courtesy nonetheless, possibly because of the more enticing meal available at our window – the stray sparrow.
Sparrows have nested in and around homes in the city for as long as my mother and grandmother can remember, with flocks of these tiny birds dotting the skies in the early morning and late evening hours. They were once the most common visitors to our balcony, roosting on the tops of cupboards and even on the bathroom water heater (a highly unsafe location given its propensity for sudden malfunctions). Their tiny chirps would wake me up, and I would sleepily blink my eyes until the shrill call of a kite swooping past the window sent the little brown birds aflutter and the noise pierced through my wall of tiredness. They never seemed to mind my presence, even when I took a duster and climbed up on the old metal stepstool to clean the tops of the cupboards where their nests were messily strewn. One young female hopped up and down in agitation at the sight of my huge spectacles peering over the edge of the cupboard, but eventually calmed down enough to step out of my way and let me clean her surroundings. She then proceeded to restock her nest with more bits and pieces of cloth that she slowly but surely unravelled from my grandfather’s old bath towel.
This year, the sparrows were noticeably absent from the cupboard tops, a rare few occasionally stopping by the kitchen window to tweet kindly at my grandmother and receive morning prasadam. But the shadows of circling kites keep them away now. Sparrows and smaller birds have fared poorly in the face of the black kite’s success. As Mumbai grew, with forests giving way to the concrete jungle and open dumping sites became more prolific, the scavenger population in the city also rose. The Parsi Towers of Silence in Malabar Hill also witnessed a rise in the resident black kite population. This rise was strongly correlated with the decline of Mumbai’s white-rumped vulture population, which originally fed at the Towers of Silence as a part of the Zoroastrian ritual of sky burial. With the decline of vultures due to a widespread veterinary drug, Diclofenac, the populations of smaller scavengers, including black kites and crows, rose rapidly. As the black kites developed a stronghold in Mumbai, the city’s sparrows became easy prey for these raptors. Another easy catch was the portly pigeon, often caught unawares on the ground by a swooping kite. The relationship between black kites and smaller birds in Mumbai has been documented by the Bombay Natural History Society and amateur birdwatchers, who have noted a sharp decline in the city’s sparrow population given the rise in numbers of kites circling on high.
During the hot summer days, the kites could be found swooping in the sky, often locking in mid-air combat and grappling with one another fiercely. Their war cries carried over the sound of lorries and buses, and the occasional feather would float down on the light breeze, a token for an excitable child to keep. My friend, who lived on the seventh floor of our building, claimed that a murderous kite had once swooped down at her and tried to snatch the chicken from her hands when she was returning from the butcher’s shop. While I rolled my eyes at the description of the bird, it was not an uncommon thing for people to complain about overly aggressive kites. While kites are not typically given to knocking humans on the head with sharp claws (unlike the crows in my other grandmother’s house, which have given me sizable injuries on multiple occasions), they are territorial birds, especially when guarding their nests or prey. Being large birds, they can be intimidating when encountered at close quarters. On my trips to the terrace in a vain attempt to keep fit, I would often find kites perched along the railing, their sharp eyes scanning me and then dismissing me as a weak opponent. If I stepped too close, they would flutter their wings and click their beaks sharply. But their attention was mostly drawn by others of their kind, the smaller birds that they hunted, and the occasional handouts by kindly grandmothers.
A pair of black kites decided to adopt our rickety air-conditioning box as their personal playground and soon we could barely see the grey paint beneath the heavy swath of white kite excrement that they lavishly dispensed. The blue rock pigeons who occupied the air-conditioning box of the next flat were particularly disgusted by this display of ownership and I became used to the early-morning screeching matches between the pigeon family and the kite family. Kites are large birds and will happily attack pigeons, and I think the pigeons knew this, for they never ventured out of their safe spot within the grill of the neighbour’s balcony when the kites were around. They stayed behind bars, melodiously cooing as the kites threateningly ruffled their feathers and made promises of quick death. The neighbours tended religiously to their pigeon guests and shook their fists at our kite family, and my grandmother – who was soon the kites’ staunchest supporter – dispensed unwanted advice about the dangers of cozying up to pigeons, which she claimed would spread disease at the drop of a hat, especially during the monsoon.
While kites have embraced the hardships that come with life in India’s commercial capital, the human denizens of the city have mixed feelings about these raptors. Black kites are thought by many to be bad omens, while the more richly-hued Brahminy kite is lauded as a good omen. The popularity of the Brahminy comes from its “genteel” behaviour (i.e. the tendency to feast on fresh fish). The negative portrayal of black kites is majorly attributed to their feeding habits. While they often frequent fish markets in hopes of fresh fish, black kites are equally amicable to chowing down on a variety of unpalatable foodstuffs. In Malabar Hill, where kites have replaced vultures as key scavengers at the Parsi Towers of Silence, residents in the tall buildings that have sprung up around the Towers now complain about the unbecoming sight and stench of bodies lying out in the elements. They also complain of kites bringing half-consumed pieces of human flesh and dropping them in balconies near the Towers. Residents certainly cannot be blamed for their disgust any more than the kites are responsible for this rude behaviour. But while the kites have certainly gained disfavour over the years, they are also respected by citizens for their effective scavenging behaviour. Animal waste and decomposing roadkill are known public health hazards, and often draw stray dogs. Dogs are carriers of various diseases, including rabies and canine distemper, the latter of which can wreak havoc in wild canid (i.e. wolf, dhole, jackal, fox) populations. Black kites often appear on the site of roadkill or fresh animal waste in garbage dumps in dense numbers, devouring the meat and preventing large gatherings of dogs.
Soaring at great heights, the black kites of Mumbai are the quintessential survivors, thriving amongst dense human populations and successfully integrating themselves into the food chain. I, for one, have reserved that spot on the air-conditioning box on their behalf, beating away eager pigeons, in hopes of their timely return!
*This blog post is an abridged version of an essay I submitted for the M. Krishnan Nature Writing Award 2021. The original piece won a Commendable Mention (2nd place) at the national level (India).
*Illustrations are by the talented Pratiksha Sail, who has created an illustrated guide to birds of Mumbai (and other Indian cities) for Youth for Nature Magazine, Issue 3. Click on this link to find the issue and see more of her beautiful artwork! You can also follow her on Instagram HERE to see more of her work.