Black kites are common throughout the world, at least throughout Eurasia. They’re very common in the skies above Delhi, circling and soaring, living mostly on garbage and the occasional small animal.
In a place as flat as Delhi, there are no crags for eagles and the like to make their eyries. Several kites have made their nests in the trees on the compound where we live. They can get a little protective too, dive-bombing residents who get too close to the nests.
This year, from the nest closest to our house, a baby kite (a very large baby – the kites are a very large bird) fell from the nest and was living on the ground. Its mother would swoop down to feed it, and watch over it from a perch on top of the flagpole. And whack anyone who got too close.
What became apparent, though, was that the baby had a broken wing – it would run and try to fly, with one wing flapping at a strange angle. It wasn’t going to fly.
We looked after it a little bit. The bird would overcome any fear if mincemeat was on offer, but would ignore completely a pork chop (though its mother didn’t, whacking me on the head when I tried to recover a chop to place it closer to the baby, then wheeling back and diving down to clutch the chop and fly off).
The baby would hop under the sprinkler, and tip its head sideways to get a drink from the water lying on the grass, cooling off in the Delhi summer’s forty plus.
The kites are at the top of the food chain in Delhi, so the baby kite was pretty safe in the medium term, with us and its mother to look after it, and no other animal daring to get close to anything with such a powerful beak. But the mothers abandon their babies at about the start of the monsoon – only a few weeks away.
At that point, the baby would slowly start to starve, as not only would its mother abandon it, but most human inhabitants of the compound too would be disappearing at the end of the school year, only days away.
The idea of the bird slowly starving, until so weak that the crows (or other kites) could swing down and torture it to death, didn’t appeal to me. So I called a vet for advice.
The vet suggested the Jain Bird Hospital – there’s a bird hospital in Delhi, part of the Jain temple opposite the Red Fort, right in the centre of old Delhi. I called them and explained there was a kite chick with a broken wing in the garden – ‘chill’ the guy said – okay, I can chill – what? “Not a chick, a chill,” he said. Okay, a kite chill – I can’t find any reference to it being called a chill anywhere else, but I can go with that.
The hospital said they’d look after the bird, but I had to bring it to them. So I spoke to the guy in charge of property, who spoke to another guy, who spoke to the head gardener, who assembled a large team, who hunted the chill down and put it in a cage usually used to trap cats. Then we put the cage in the back of the car, and the driver took me and a couple of boys off to the hospital.
Took us an hour to get there – wrong time of day, wrong part of the city. The bird, though, survived the trip.
That part of town, in the old city, beside Chandi Chowk, opposite the Red Fort, the footpath is covered with vendors, selling anything – brightly coloured plastic, cloth cut and assembled into human shapes, footwear, badly fried food, anything really.
I could see the Jain temple, and cut through the gate to see if there really was a bird hospital inside. Found a guy, sitting on a fence, completely naked, slightly overweight, dispensing advice about what was printed on sheets of paper handed to him by reverent (and clothed) Indians. Got harassed by the temple hangers-on about wearing shoes in the temple precinct. And found a small door (I had to duck) up an irregular set of stairs (where I had to duck a few more times) plastered with advice about the importance of birds and being nice to them, that led to the bird hospital.
Did they want the bird? Yes they did. Would they come with me back to the car to get it? Yes they would. We trundled off together – the footwear fanatics didn’t seem to care to bother the veterinarian dude the way they’d harassed me – back to the car. The vet opened the box and grabbed the bird – no gloves, no hesitation – and started back towards the hospital. Could me and the boys come too? Sure. Off we went. Shoes back off again to walk across ten metres of grubby temple turf, and back up the irregular stairs.
The hospital filled a floor of a building – about the size of a terrace house, but with windows on both sides. Filled with bird cages mostly, birdcages filled with a variety of birds, small to large, colourful to plain, shrill to silent, still to swooping and climbing, with a reception area and a veterinarian’s area as well. The doc took the bird straight to his surgery. He sprayed it with some stuff, put some other stuff down its throat, grabbed its wings and held the bird in a certain way (that caused the bird to make a big noise and try to bite him), and then told me – in a kind of English that didn’t leave much room for conversation, that the bird would be flying … in five or six days! Then he took it away and put it in a cage.
There were simply hundreds of cages in the hospital. The centre of the floor was filled, floor to ceiling, with individual cages, backing on to each other. Much larger cages pushed against the walls. I got the impression the patients started out in the smaller cages, then moved to a larger cage before being freed. Though the bird we’d delivered, perhaps in deference to its size and ferocity, was immediately allocated a large cage against the outside wall, with a window to freedom.
Not all the birds in the hospital were held in cages – quite a few small things were flitting about in the air, while others walked upon the floor, and others still clung to different places on the walls.
We were done. I was given a receipt for the bird, and told I couldn’t have it back, that it would be set free. Fine by me. We made a donation clearly more than any anticipated. Fine by me again. And we headed home – much more quickly than we’d arrived, given the passage of time, and the movement of traffic at that time of day.
Of course, the story was not quite over yet. Mother bird was fretting like mad at the absence of her chill. Calling for it all hours of the day. Waiting for it to re-appear from under the vegetation growing alongside the fence that the chill had made its home. Waiting in vain – that chill’s not coming back. She was still hanging around when we departed India at school’s end two days’ later. Of course, she still had a nest in the tree, and another chill hanging around as well.
Hopefully, the next time she sees her wayward offspring will be a reunion in the skies. Who knows?