NEW DELHI: If you’ve ever had the opportunity to look away from your digital devices into the open skies, you probably would have witnessed a kite with its soaring wings. There are a few that rest atop high buildings; others even play hide and seek near the towering minarets in Delhi. These birds look majestic, giving us clear evidence as to why they’re christened the kings of the clouds. However, a visit to Wazirabad’s Wildlife Rescue and you’ll be forced to realise how vulnerable these birds of prey can actually be. The cases at this animal shelter—started by Nadeem Shehzad and his brother Mohammad Saud—will put things into perspective, and eventually make you aware of the serious threats that we, inadvertently, pose to birds and other animals.
Flights of adversity
We walk into the Wildlife Rescue on a Thursday and find a few cages neatly stacked one above the other. There’s a spotted owl in a cage at the bottom, a few black kites in the one above, a pigeon, a kitten, and some squirrels follow in succession. In a water-filled steel tray at the corner, there’s a tortoise—brutally attacked by a pack of dogs. As we observe the birds amid the incessant meowing of the restless cat, Saud walks in along with his cousin Salik. We’re informed that they’ve just received a batch of 12 injured raptors from the Charity Bird Hospital in Chandni Chowk. Saud takes one of the birds out of the cardboard box used to transport it. Majestic yet helpless, it lay still, almost as if uncertain what its fate might be. Inspecting the wounded bird after unfolding its wing wrap, Saud says, “This one has multiple bone fractures. It is an open wound and I’m not sure if it’ll ever fly.” After giving the bird a few drops of Melonex to ease its pain, he lets the kitten out only to make space in the cage for three wounded kites.
Sensing our curiosity about the deep wound, Saud begins detailing the cause. Most of the birds that are transported to Wildlife Rescue are hurt by the glass powder-coated cotton strings called a manja, which is popularly used in kite flying. This deadly thread on a spool has been a menace for animals and humans alike. A 23-year-old biker lost his life because of this kite string near Pitampura in August this year. Reports in news publications have stated that the Charity Bird Hospital received over 100 injured bird cases on August 13 and 14 this year (kite flying is a tradition on Independence day in India). Even though it was banned in Delhi in 2017, the manja is still sold and distributed in the city’s local shops. Saud says, “We get anywhere between eight and 10 cases in a day. In fact, in the past two days we have received 12 cases, and this isn’t even the kite-flying season. Most of these birds are brought here due to their wings cut apart from skin, muscle or bone injuries.”
With a team of five—Saud, his brother Shehzad (who is in the US for a documentary shoot), Salik (a master’s student who spends over eight hours at the Rescue), help to conduct rescue operations, and a part-time veterinary doctor—the Wildlife Rescue has helped more than 2,200 birds since January this year. Apart from kites, they have also treated and cared for other feathered animals such as the lapwing, cattle egret, white stork, Egyptian vultures, barbettes, pigeons, and more.
Helping feathered friends
Saud talks about their journey mentioning that from a rather young age, the brothers would feed and rescue squirrels, among other smaller animals. He recalls, “When we were about five or six years old, we used to bring abandoned kittens home.” At the age of 10 or so, the brothers found a baby dove in Old Delhi. They cared for the orphan bird, and returned it to its habitat in a few weeks. This, Saud recollects, was their first rehabilitation.
Back in the 1900s, the siblings found an injured black kite and took it to the Charity Bird Hospital (an organisation, which is over 90-years-old and was established by the Jain community). The hospital refused to treat the bird on account of it being a scavenger (Jains believe in ahimsa; they’re also strict vegetarians and thus it would be impossible for them to feed a carnivorous kite). “This really hit us. So what if it is a raptor and eats meat? Does that mean it has no right to be treated?”
With no understanding of how to treat the bird, they were unable to help it. After this, every now and then they would find injured kites but never brought one home until 2003. Saud says, “We took an injured black kite home, and decided to help it somehow. It had a fracture and we could do nothing to help it fly again. It stayed with us for about 12 years, until it passed away.”
In the meantime, the brothers were certain they’d never overlook another injured animal or bird. Soon, they were rescuing and rehabilitating injured birds one after the other. He adds, “In no time, people got to know we were doing this. They started sending wounded birds to us. We used to volunteer at Sanjay Gandhi Animal Care Centre, and they also started sending raptors here,” Saud adds.
Since then, they have helped all kinds of raptors and water birds, among other animals. In fact, they receive injured birds from different parts of Delhi, as well as from the Delhi Fire Service and Delhi Forest Department. When asked how difficult it is to return birds to the wild, given young birds often refuse to forage once they’ve received food from a human source, Saud explains, “The bird should not imprint on the human. If it does, it won’t survive in the wild. In our first rehabilitation, the dove kept coming back home for a month. The last time it was back was with its mate.” He elucidates that it is the same for kites and other raptors, “The baby kites that are rehabilitated keep coming back to us for two or three months after they are returned to the wild. A section of our bird enclosure is open 24 hours so that these birds can come back to us if the need arises.”
Listening to Saud talk in his usual soft yet enthusiastic voice, we're certain that he spends hours helping these birds of prey. Saud concurs and says he’s trying to create a balance in life. Smiling coyly, his wife Shabnam (33), who greets us as we enter their home—in a building a minute away from the rented space—expresses clearly that she isn’t very happy about his busy schedule, “Of course he’s doing a great deed. But he’s so busy throughout the day that I hardly ever get to see him,” she complains.
Chip in for chirps
We head directly towards the second floor of their home; we're at an enclosure where 100 or more black kites are sitting one next to the other. There’s a black-eared kite (a migratory bird) as well as two Egyptian vultures right next to a big tray of minced raw chicken. A crow also helps itself to the food on the tray thanks to no objection from the kite. Adjacent to this space, the siblings have started building five new enclosures for owls and squirrels.
Telling us how the birds, once nursed back to health, are moved from the rented space to this partially enclosed zone, Saud says, “When the treatment is over and the bird is better, we do something we call a soft release. The bird practises flying. In fact, we’ve designed the enclosure such that unless the bird can fly well for 10ft in a particular angle, it cannot leave. Later, once it has left, it can keep coming back from the open space in case it doesn’t get water or food.” Of course, the unfortunate few raptors that are heavily injured with no sign of recovery or are in excess pain are euthanised, and later incinerated.
Avian enthusiasts are often familiar with how difficult it is to find a veterinarian who specialises in treating birds. Saud agrees, adding, “Vets in India mostly know how to treat cats, dogs or cattle. Birds, being smaller creatures, are often difficult to treat. Also, unlike other animals, birds (especially wild birds) aren’t a part of any trade or any business.” Fortunately for the siblings, their avian vet, who visits the shelter once or twice a week, has a grasp on how to treat injured birds after working with them for about seven years.
Saud says his vet is well-equipped to conduct surgical procedures on birds. He mentions, “We are connected to National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA) and International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC) in the US. In fact, Shehzad was one out of nine people who received a scholarship by NWRA in 2015. We were happy to go to the States, as we thought it would help us learn more about avian surgeries. Unfortunately, we were told that wing repair for birds is impossible. When we mentioned that we’ve attempted the same on raptors, they asked us to document cases to prove our claim.” The duo was back and chronicled surgeries as well as videos of birds flying after recovering. “Later, when I was awarded a similar NWRA scholarship in 2018, we presented a paper on orthopaedic surgery,” he says.
On a monthly basis, they shell out more than Rs35,000 for medicines, food, staff salary, rescue transportation, the electricity, and rent for the space. The brothers, who own a bathroom accessories manufacturing business together, would earlier spend over 95 per cent of the cost out of their own pockets. But now, through a number of domestic and foreign donations, that cost has been reduced.
As we climb down a flight of stairs to the first floor, Saud shows us an enclosure where we see a rescued painted stork along with a few kites and two Egyptian vultures. Among other things, Saud stresses the importance of raptors—often referred to as nature’s clean-up crew—to protect the health of the ecosystem. He says, “You’ll find a number of these raptors near the Ghazipur landfill. These scavengers are very important to keep the ecosystem clean. In one day, a raptor will eat anywhere between 50gm and 100gm of food. With a population of around 50,000 or more such scavengers in Delhi, imagine how many tonnes of garbage they would go through and how they keep the city clean.” So what can be done to help these birds of prey? Saud concludes that not only an understanding of how important these raptors are but also acknowledgement from the government to help these raptors would be a good place to start at, “It would be nice to get some help from the government or even land on lease to create a nice set-up for the rescue and rehabilitation of raptors.”