They are so common in our skyscape that we don’t even look at them — until the there is a sudden “whoosh” and our kathi roll or samosa vanishes from our fingers, and we’re left with an open, empty mouth. But if you’re interested in, and appreciate flying and flight, watch black kites — earlier, more derogatorily, called pariah kites (why they are called “black” kites when they are clearly brown is another question ornithological authorities need to answer). These large brown hawks are scavengers, very comfortable with city living, largely because of the amount of edible garbage we strew everywhere. Any congested city, especially its marketplaces and roadside eateries, will be under close surveillance from high above, by squadrons of these birds, their beady eyes peeled. It’s worthwhile following a single flight from take-off to landing — though if you’re the commander of an Airbus or Boeing, it would not be wise to get too carried away by what you observe.
Typically, when they launch from a tree bough, they lunge forward as their wings rise above their shoulders, drop a bit and then surge powerfully with deep, quick wingbeats. Within moments, they gain altitude and stretch their wings horizontally, with, perhaps, only the tips of their primaries tugged upwards. The deeply-forked tail flicks up and down or sideways, as the bird steers round and round in great circles, its eyes on the ground. A dead rat on the road is homed in on: suddenly, the bird just tips over on its side and plummets, and then it is diving straight down. The claws extend and, within seconds, the carcass is caught and the bird is now powering its way back up, deftly dodging the complete chaos of cables over the area. I’ve watched kites fly acrobatic sorties in the streets of old Delhi, where they can suddenly materialise from virtually under your car’s front bumper as they snatch up yet another piece of roadkill tidbit. They must be making about a thousand last-minute decisions while swerving past the plethora of obstructions in their path as they fly, from cables to washing lines to open windows, to the incredibly narrow gaps between houses and buildings — and each other. To land on a branch, they glide towards it, slowing down as they approach, then brake with wing-flaps and extend claws to touch down precisely.
Happily, their skill is appreciated by some. Near Turkman Gate in old Delhi, I have watched young men repeatedly toss tidbits high up into the air as squadrons of black kites give everyone a display of stunt flying as they snatch the morsels mid-air. Sometimes, a pair will indulge in a “fall-to-death” game of dare. One bird will suddenly dive at another flying below it. The lower partner turns over and enmeshes its claws with the “attacker” and both tumble earthwards like a big feathered Catherine wheel. Just as you think they’re going to hit the ground, they disentangle and fly off in different directions.
Their flying skills can make them quite deadly, too. Decades ago, when I lived in Bombay, a pair of kites nested in a large peepal tree in front of the verandah of our flat. It was prime property because they got a grandstand view of all of central Bombay sprawled below them. But, like our current dispensation, they didn’t appreciate well-intentioned voyeuristic neighbours who were documenting (with revulsion) what their progeny were up to in the nest: fratricide! So, the moment you appeared on the verandah, one of the parent birds would dive off the tree, disappear from sight, circle back and gain height, before coming whistling down like a Formula One car. Eyes blazing and claws extended, it would head straight for you. Luckily, the verandah had a deep parapet, but you could feel the rush of wind through its wings as it screamed past you, making you duck hastily for cover.
But, even these maestros of the sky probably learn their skills the hard way: by crashing a few times. On more than one occasion, I have rescued young black kites lying stunned in the garden, having crashed into the side of the building. They play dead when you pick them up (which is strange, because being scavengers, they ought to appreciate that other creatures might also prefer their food served up dead!), and if they’re undamaged, will recover and fly off on their own. You watch fledglings in their nest, jumping up and down and flapping away, and you can imagine what they must experience when they finally take that first great leap into the void.
To experience just an infinitesimal bit of what it must feel like, all you need to do is to pick up a discarded flight feather. Hold it horizontally, very lightly between thumb and forefinger, its leading (short) edge facing forwards. Now move your arm swiftly forward. You can feel the feather wanting to “take off”, automatically moving upwards and urging your hand to move up with it. That’s lift — and the design of that feather, which is basically an aerofoil, has been copied for aircrafts the world over. And yes, not only can it produce lift, it can give you one, too!