Black Kite: A happy forager, not the hunter hubby of Aesop’s eagle

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Black Kite with a fish

The Black Kite is not too selective about its food, living quarters or breeding partner. It is no wonder that the bird has spread widely over Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe

We were startled by a Black Kite flying low with a dead fish cradled in its talons. In the merciless afternoon sun, the kite was panting worse than us. We felt no remorse for the fish; it was probably floating dead in a fishpond and did not feel the terrible talons when the kite grabbed it.

Our worry was more for the kite that had to fly some distance to find a tree to sit and devour the fish. The little fish might not be worth the energy the kite would lose in the process. On that hot evening, the other kites were soaring high-up in circles and did not come down for food.

Black Kite is called 'Bhuban Chil' in Bangla. In most Indian languages, 'Chil' is the name of the kites of the Subcontinent. Bangladesh has a fairly large resident population of this kite, and many migrants join them from October.

The Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling, as a young boy, saw many a kite or Chil at the campus of J J School of Art in Mumbai, where his parents lived. About that ubiquitous Chil he wrote in The Jungle Books:

Now Chil the Kite brings home the night

That Mang the Bat sets free

This is the hour of pride and power

Talon and tush and claw.

Oh, hear the call!

Good hunting all -

The abundant Black Kites may bring home the night at the Baikka Beel Fish Sanctuary, but there are not many bats to set it free. Nights are set free here by the Fishing Cats. Their eyes glow like cool amber sometimes as we shine the torch at night.

We ambled on the road between the sanctuary and the fishponds by its side. The severe sun had sent all the resident Lesser Whistling Ducks packing into the water hyacinth. A few Gagrgany and Common Teal, the only migratory ducks to arrive by end-October, were huddling with the residents.

With all the birds hiding away, the Black Kite was the only show in town. First, we saw the kite that flew over our head take an open perch to eat the little fish with relish. Then it held its outstretched wings oddly in front to let the sunshine on every feather.

Black Kite is not truly black, although it looks so against a bright sky. Its feathers are dark brown with a touch of lighter brown. The light brown edge of feathers makes its neck appear wreathed and back ornamented. We had a good view of its gorgeous back from one of the towers in Baikka Beel.

The sanctuary surely has a good population of kites. There are, however, much larger populations at the town dumps, highest at the garbage dumps of the Dhaka metropolis. Our capital easily has the largest population of Black Kites in Bangladesh.

The Black Kite is more interested in scavenging than hunting. It usually picks up the dead and dying fishes from the water. We never saw the kite lift a living and struggling fish from the sanctuary or the adjacent fishponds.

The great skill of catching an ample, energetic fish out of water is the domain of Pallas's Fish Eagles. Those skilled fishermen are arriving now to court, nest and breed at our Haor Basin. A number of those eagles and their fledglings will visit Baikka Beel from January onwards.

The Black Kite does not share the great hunting skills of its close cousin, the Pallas's Fish Eagle. Our ancestors had noted the limitation of the kite. In Aesop's fable, a male kite talks about his ability to kill an Ostrich, a female eagle is impressed, and after their marriage, he manages to hunt a tiny mouse.

Obviously, Aesop's purpose was not to demean a decent kite but to focus on man's eternal folly of overstating his abilities that would be tested every day in wedded life. The fable is also meant to be a warning against taking any job application without a grain of salt.

In real life, however, no Black Kite ever married or meddled with an eagle. Instead, a male kite marries a female kite that is bigger in size and better at finding food. Their marriage laws are simple: the bride and the groom must be at least two years old, and the matrimony is a winter deal that ends in monsoon.

To choose partners, the kites ride in hot air and soar in circles to socialise for days. After attaining some closeness, the pair engages in aerobatics, including some steep dives over water. They also come to sip water and take an elaborate dip together.

They quickly build a platform-nest of sticks and stones, often on a coconut tree.  After the female lays two to three eggs, the pair shares all household chores. The chicks leave the nest before the monsoon, and the need to maintain the pair-bond is over.

Pragmatism and minimalism are the hallmarks of the Black Kite lives. It avoids engaging in an energy-sapping hunt for a tasty meal or wooing an upmarket mate such as an eagle. What is more, the bird is not too selective about its food, living quarters or breeding partner.

No wonder the Black Kite has spread widely over Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe. It is now considered the most numerous raptor in the world. The credits for such proliferation go to the kite's unfussy way of life and the fussy human lifestyle that raises the garbage piles ever higher.

Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam.

From The Business Standard

  • Aesop’s Eagle
  • Black Kite
  • Birds

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