Down in Jungleland: Riders of the Sky

Unlike most raptors, the black-shouldered kite has an easy-come, easy-go attitude to life.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Updated: October 2, 2016 1:01 am
Flight path: The kite gets its name from its distinct shoulder patch Flight path: The kite gets its name from its distinct shoulder patch

When you think raptors, you usually think of big, dark, powerful birds, with gimlet eyes, armed with grappling iron talons and cruel meat-hook bills. You don’t think of a slim, somewhat effete, silver-grey and snow-white bird that flies lankily across fields and hovers delicately, looking straight down out of eyes that seem to be made of pure rubies. The black-shouldered kite (till recently known as the black-winged kite) is something like a cross between a gull and a swallow, but is a raptor in its own right. It may not be as powerful as a superpower eagle, or deadly as a stooping falcon but it holds its own, and is very proficient at what it does.

Happily, it’s found all over the country and, in fact, its habitat may be expanding as it enters areas that have been heavily deforested. The black-shouldered kite likes lightly wooded areas and fields, which it can patrol, by quartering back and forth; its flight looks lazy and languid but don’t let that fool you. If it spots something interesting and tasty scurrying amongst the tussocks below, it’ll turn into the wind and brake to a standstill, the long pointed wings raised high above its back, with just the wingtips quivering. It might then bank steeply and angle down just a bit before hovering again, in order to scrutinise the ground better. Once the target has been precisely lined up, it just folds its wings and drops straight down on its victim, grasping it in its talons and bearing it away swiftly. That victim could be a rat or a lizard or a grasshopper or mantis or frog or even a ground nesting baby bird.

It is a sleek and handsome bird, slightly smaller than a crow. It likes taking up position at the top of bare trees or on telegraph wires from where it keeps an eye out for quarry. You can often spot it perched on wires strung alongside highways, along with other such birds as white-throated kingfishers and drongoes. The top of its head — the crown — the nape of its neck, back, rump and feathers covering the lower back at the base of its tail are silvery pearl grey, the rest of the head, underparts and tail pure snow-white. There’s a distinct black shoulder patch on its wings, easily visible while at rest, from which it gets its name. Its head is large and somewhat owlish, and a broad charcoal brush-stroke runs fore and aft of that hypnotic ruby eye. Look into them and you will be mesmerized!

They are quiet birds, and might emit a thin “pee-o” whistle while courting. (Many huge, powerful raptors have awful high-pitched “yelping puppy” screams, which completely undermine their ruthless swagger.) Black-shouldered kites in our parts nest between February and November (according to one source, giving April and May a miss for some reason!) and both sexes take part in nest-building and parenting. The male usually goes out to hunt while his wife stays at home and guards and feeds the chicks. Their home is something like a crow’s nest, and two or three chicks may be raised. Interestingly, in Europe and Africa (where the bird is also found), it has been observed that the mother leaves the family once the hatchlings are fledged, while the father continues to look after the brood for nearly three months afterwards. (Alas, I don’t know if this holds true for the birds in India.)

Black-shouldered kites are most active around dusk and in the mornings, which is when you’re most likely to spot them hunting. Though largely peace-loving, they will dive-bomb other bigger raptors away from their territories, harassing them till they leave and in turn may be harassed by crows, who go after their eggs and young.

Apart from their elegance, the main USP of these raptors is their ability to “hover” — the kestrel is another, smaller raptor that does this too — an exercise which is energy intensive. But technically, neither the black-shouldered kite nor the kestrel truly hover, because true hovering means you maintain a totally stationary position at a height — in completely still air. What these birds do, is they face the wind and angle their wings so that just enough thrust is generated to counter the wind blowing them backwards, so that net thrust is zero, at the same time generating enough lift to maintain height. They fly forward at the same speed that the wind is pushing them backwards and hence hold their position. The humming bird is the only bird that is capable of true hovering — and that’s because it flies more like an insect than a bird, crazily twisting its wings back and forth, through 180 degrees with every blurring wing-beat.

It’s always entertaining to watch these lank, easy riders of the sky quarter a stubbly field, suddenly brake in midair, twist down, stop again with trembling wing-tips and tiny tail twists, and then drop dead on the head of a hapless rat! With most raptors, it’s generally all about sheer power, speed and strength. With the black-shouldered kite, it seems more about an elegant, easy-come, easy-go attitude to life.

Lal is an author, environmentalist, and birdwatcher.