Wind Under Their Wings – The Hindu

Large migratory black-eared kites are different from their country cousins ​​- they are selective about what they feast on and where

Large migratory black-eared kites are different from their country cousins ​​- they are selective about what they feast on and where

The black kites are the ecosystem cleanup team, living off the detritus of human civilization. As an undergraduate student in 2009, Nishant Kumar wondered about the impacts of collapsing vulture populations. Did the kites take over by eliminating organic matter? Although they replaced the vultures on the garbage heaps, their nesting density remained the same in Delhi. Why has the abundance of food not translated into an increase in reproduction? These intriguing questions led Kumar to set up the Black Kite Project with Urvi Gupta from the Wildlife Institute of India.

Delhi has no shortage of meals for scavenger birds. Landfills offer a gargantuan buffet of zoological waste. In the old quarters of the city, devout Muslims have a particular fondness for kites, throwing chunks of meat into the air in an age-old custom. Raptors know the routine and materialize in numbers, flapping over people’s heads while vying for those morsels. They keep one eye on the piece in the human’s hand and another on their neighbors as they grab a piece before it hits the ground without colliding. Believers feel that feeding them relieves the cares of life, that they transfer their troubles to the flesh by touching it, which is then carried away by the birds.

To their surprise, the researchers found that most of the raptors congregating in the garbage hills were not the common resident small Indian kites, but the larger migratory black-eared kites. Despite their different names, both belong to the same species, sporting forked tails and emitting whinnying cries. But their habits vary.

The filth-eating birds, which have a patch of black behind their eyes and are thus called black-eared kites, migrate from the Central Asian steppes in autumn. Until then, many bird specialists believed that these raptors flew as far as the Himalayas and no further south in the Indian peninsula.

When the black-eared kites leave Delhi for their annual return migration, the little Indian kites do not flock to the mountains of stinky offal. Instead, these acrobatic meat grabbers grab chunks mid-air and stay within the city limits. No wonder the absence of vultures did not increase the number of nests in the urban area. Although black kites are synonymous with dirt, they are selective about what they feast on and where.

Kumar and Gupta started a GPS tracking program to understand these raptors: where they roost, nest and find food, and how far they travel. They fitted a transmitter to a young subadult black-eared kite captured in a landfill. He took off for Chandigarh, from there to Ladakh, and as far south as Siberia. Researchers were discouraged because this bird gave them no insight into the life of its city. But soon, they recognized the value of data. They had discovered the migratory route and the feat of raptors to cross the mountains at 6,500 m.

Kumar and Gupta branded the wing of a small Indian kite hatching from a nest at Delhi Zoo. He was later seen in Bikaner, Rajasthan. Even these birds were not year-round city dwellers. A third, also a small Indian kite, hated the transmitter so much that he shredded the teflon harness straps with his sharp beak. The field assistant couldn’t believe it was the bird’s job and exclaimed that it looked like a rat had hitched a ride with the predator. The search party recovered the device, which hung like a necklace from the kite’s throat.

By guarding the nests and weighing the fledglings, Gupta became an unpopular figure among raptors in Inderlok, Delhi, who may have feared for the safety of their young. Weeks later, when she visited the site with another group of people, none of whom had been involved in the nest checking effort, a kite recognized her and showed her displeasure with the whole group, swooping down on them with his claws drawn.

The birds, which lighten the burden of human worries, have their own worries.

Janaki Lenin is no environmentalist, but many creatures share her home for reasons she has yet to discover.

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