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The peregrine on a smoggy afternoon

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Yes, Delhi has its birds, even falcons that fly at 350 kmph

Birding is a rewarding hobby and passion because of its connection with nature. It requires close observation and study of the world around us. To find a bird, you need to know what it eats and when and what trees it is likely to be drawn to — for instance, a fruitarian bird will prefer a fruit tree. Others aspects to look out for are what does the bird sound like, what are its habits, where does it go and so on. This leads to a slow compilation of a repository of unconscious knowledge and better still, unexpected moments of joy.

And yet, every once in a while, we all have that one incident or moment that outdoes everything that went before and makes it even more precious. 

I work in a tall building in the relative green of south Delhi. Anyone familiar with the area would have noticed the 12-floor monstrosity in concrete and glass that dwarfs everything else on Aurobindo Marg. The view from the lift well on my floor is not too inspiring. An endless row of drab illegal constructions and five-foot-wide houses stacked one against another, stretching as far as the eyes can see. So narrow and so close that they are probably earthquake-proof, because there is just no space to collapse and fall in.

The most interesting bit about them are the tanks on the rooftops. They come in green, black, white and blue and in multiple sizes. I sometimes count them, an impossible exercise to complete, to distract myself on days of frayed tempers. I watch the birds outside too. Usually ragged flocks of feral blue rock pigeons and black kites riding the wind and the occasional house crow taking a break on a window sill. Once memorably on a wintry afternoon last season, there was an Egyptian vulture climbing an awkward spiral through the smog.

At 3.15 p.m. on one horribly polluted post-Deepavali afternoon, I was at my post in the lift well watching kites through a 15-foot expanse of glass. Then out of nowhere, from right to left, swept an unusually large swirl of pigeons. Rapid. Frantic. A formation losing shape as it turned anti-clockwise around the building. And just as the last of them whizzed past, an odd-one-out dropping in a blur from just above. Heavy, bullet-like, barrel-chested. Greyish below. Dark head?

My brain was already racing with the possibilities, but struggling to keep up with my thumping heart. It was barely a few seconds before the mob of pigeons came screaming back, right to left. This time with no pretense of a formation. Utter panic and flying for their lives.

And zooming with sharp-tipped wings folded three quarters back, tight on their tails, unmistakably a peregrine falcon. Lighter below, dark above. Masked. Powerful.

That was the last I saw of this extraordinary tableau. Presumably, the hunter had his prize and the pigeons of Delhi settled back on to the terrace. No amount of noise, dust and smog or predator can completely spook the pigeons of Delhi for long. They continue to survive here, even thrive, like the burgeoning population of this grand, creaking metro. Just like them, no amount of begging and pleas regarding the status of peregrine falcons in India could persuade the security guards to hand over the keys to the terrace for a recce. Most upscale offices are rightly cautious of the possibility that a few of their disgruntled employees may like to join the pigeons on a jaunt around the building.

Peregrine falcons are well known as the fastest creatures in the world. They have been clocked at 350 kmph-plus while performing their signature move, the stoop, wherein they climb to achieve height above lower flying prey and then literally fall out of the sky with wings tucked in, letting gravity and their formidable talons do the killing. As their name suggests, they are great wanderers and can be found almost all over the world, except the extreme poles.

One race of the peregrine, the handsome black and rufous Shaheen falcon (Falco peregrinus peregrinator) is a resident of India. The protagonist of this drama, however, was overall of a lighter colouration and bulkier. Which probably means it could have been a Falco peregrinus calidus, an uncommon winter migrant in these parts. Peregrines haunt the wetlands near Delhi during winter months. Some have also made an apparent habit of turning up at an apartment complex near Jasola.

It seems incongruous and exciting that such a mighty predator lives with us amid such destructive urbanisation and in such a foul environment. The peregrine, which was once teetering on the edge of extinction, has made a remarkable comeback across the world and now thrives in the high rises of uber cities such as London and New York. A further testament to the power of resurrection inherent in nature.

It was just a few seconds, but the sheer unexpectedness and thrill of this just made my day.   

rajagopal.sunil@gmail.com

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 2:41:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-peregrine-on-a-smoggy-afternoon/article29993137.ece

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