There is an admirable placidity about the black kites perched on a compound wall and a pylon, around the point where the Pallikaranai Marsh gives way to the Perungudi landfill station. Vehicles zip away in front of these birds. Bio-mining work chugs along behind them. The species is clearly comfortable in the midst of civilisation and development. Commensal to man, the bird is particularly at home in urban settings, benefitting from human activity that creates garbage dumps — though there is a flip side to it. By the look of it, the species is thriving in Chennai. Or, have we missed something?
Distributed across Asia, Europe, Australasia and Africa, the black kite is found in numbers that is something to cheer about, seemingly light-years from the threshold of vulnerability. However, studies are said to have nailed declines in some populations.
No such studies about black kite populations in and around Chennai exist, but observations spanning decades suggest changes in patterns of black-kite visibility around the metro.
Ornithologist V Santharam makes a pertinent observation: “I notice their numbers are much less than what they used to be. In the Sixties and Seventies, when we had just come to Madras, we were staying for a while in Georgetown. At Parrys Corner, when we would look up, the area would be full of black kites. On every building, two to three black kites would be sitting and calling constantly. That kind of numbers are not there anymore, probably because we have become a little wiser with our waste management. We dump waste irresponsibly only in some places, and these places still have the black kite. In the city itself, the numbers now seem to be slightly on the lower side.”
Besides Perungudi, they are noticeably present at the odd garbage collection point and its surrounding spaces within the city; and the Marina beach area, which before the pandemic used to yield a rich haul of leftovers.
“We had this feeling about vultures that they are so abundant. I vividly remember an international meeting in SACON in Coimbatore in the mid-1990s when we discussed the Indian candidates for the red data book. Many of the ornithologists from India were aghast when they saw the vultures being proposed as threatened. ‘When you come to Delhi, I will show you a million birds!’ — that was the sentiment. Within a couple of years, they reported a crash in vulture numbers. We may have really not noticed it, because these birds are long-lived. The adults are still around for 25 to 30 years, but they might not have produced young ones. Then diclofenac happened causing the crash in vulture numbers. The decline was dramatic. The fact that we similarly take the black kite for granted is what we should worry about. The prevailing sentiment is: It is a common bird and let us not give too much importance to it.”
- Looking for ready-made food is among the black kite’s quiddities, one which overshadows its capacity for hunting. The bird would not shy away from a hunting opportunity when it arrives on a platter.
- It is known to take rodents and also reptiles, its ability for “aerial acrobatics” particularly assisting it while it hunts down a scurrying rodent.
- “The shape of its tail, which is forked, enables the black kite to manipulate itself efficiently in the air and maneuver easily, an advantage shared by the drongo,” says ornithologist V Santharam.
- Sometime ago, Madras Naturalists’ Society honorary secretary G Vijaya Kumar shared an observation about the black kite with this writer: How he watched the bird successfully swoop down on a live fish in the beach waters. Santharam chips in with an account of how he has similarly seen the black kite pick up floating fish.
In contrast to most other bird species, the black kite benefits from development, at least on the face of it. Increased urbanisation, more garbage dumps and more readily-available food. However, resting the black kites’ chances entirely on food availability is tantamount to resting a 2300-tonne Wartsila RT-flex96C engine on your wooden dining table.
There could be other stressors at play that may be affecting their breeding chances — and they could be resulting from development and urbanisation. Even in the case of the black kite, urbanisation is a double-edged sword. A study of the breeding and nesting realities is an unavoidable part of the course to reaching some kind of a firm ground about the species’ status in a given geography.
“The birds may not be finding conducive nesting sites around the urban areas. The black kite is known to live in the wild for over 20-plus years, and so you may not immediately note any drop in their numbers on account of poor breeding success,” says Santharam.
It may be recalled that in Delhi, a study called Black Kite Project spearheaded by academician and researcher Nishant Kumar was sufficiently multi-faceted to explore the bird’s breeding behaviour and sites.
(‘Resident Watch’ discusses birds resident in Chennai and surrounding districts)