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It’s a plane, it’s a bird, it’s a falcon!

Sunil Rajagopal | Updated on September 04, 2020 Published on September 03, 2020

Buzz word: Peregrine falcons are great wanderers and can be found almost all over the world, except the extreme poles   -  ISTOCK.COM

The sudden appearance of a peregrine falcon, a raptor that was once endangered, adds colour to a drab Delhi afternoon

* Peregrines haunt the wetlands near Delhi during winter months, taking down ducks and other wintering waterfowl

* Peregrines are depicted in popular culture as the fastest creatures in the world. They have been clocked at more than 350 kmph

Birdwatchers call it the magical jizz — spying a blur of a bird from the corner of an eye and recognising it. But this happens only after years of close observation, study and introspection. To know a bird you must know it intimately: What it eats when, what its habits are, where it goes, which trees it likes to nest and roost on, and so on. This leads to a slow accumulation of layers of unconscious knowledge — and the sudden jizz.

I work in one of the tallest buildings in the relative green of South Delhi. It is a 12-floor chessboard patterned leviathan in concrete and glass, dwarfing everything else around it. The view from the lift lobbies as you go up the floors is uninspiring. You look into an endless row of drab illegal constructions and five-foot wide buildings stacked one against another, stretching as far as the eyes can see.

The most interesting thing about the view from the lift lobbies are the plastic water tanks on the rooftops. They come in multiple sizes, in green, black, white and blue. Each terrace has several of them. On days of frayed tempers and urgent but needless tasks at work, I sometimes try and count them. It is a welcome distraction and brings about the realisation that there are many more irrelevant things in the world than what I do to earn my daily rice.

I watch the birds outside from here, too. Usually, there are ragged flocks of feral blue rock pigeons, some black kites riding the breeze and an occasional house crow taking a break on a window sill. Once, memorably on a horribly polluted post-Diwali afternoon, there was an Egyptian vulture climbing an awkward spiral through the smog.

One spring afternoon, I was at my post in the lift well, watching kites and counting tanks through a 15-foot expanse of shaded glass. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, there was an unusually large swirl of pigeons sweeping past from the right to the left. The swirl was rapid, and frantic, the formation losing shape as it turned anti-clockwise around the building. And just as the last of them whizzed past, I caught the blur of an odd-one-out dropping from just above.

It was heavy, bullet-like, barrel-chested. Dark head. Greyish below. It went so fast that the air around it seemed to glow.

My brain was already racing with the possibilities, but struggling to keep up with my thumping heart. In barely a few seconds, the mob of pigeons came screaming back; right to left again. This time, there was no formation — in utter panic, they were flying for their lives. And zooming with sharp-tipped wings folded three-quarters back, tight on their tails, was a peregrine falcon!

Unmistakeably so. The body was lighter below with mild streaking, and the top was dark blue-grey. It was masked. And powerful. I had the jizz of the bird.

That was the last I saw of this extraordinary tableau. Presumably, the hunter (the peregrine preys on a wide variety of birds — from small songbirds to ducks and geese) had his prize and the fatalistic pigeons settled back on to the terrace. Nothing can completely spook the pigeons of Delhi for long — not noise, threats, dust, smog or predators. They continue to survive, even thrive, in sync with the burgeoning population of this grand, creaking metro.

No amount of begging and pleading regarding the status of peregrine falcons in India could move the security guards to hand me the keys to the terrace for a recce. Most upscale offices are rightly wary that their disgruntled employees may like to join the pigeons on a jaunt around the building.

Peregrines are depicted in popular culture as the fastest creatures in the world. They have been clocked at more than 350 kmph while performing their signature move, the stoop: They climb to achieve height above lower flying prey and then literally fall out of the sky, wings tucked in close, letting gravity and their formidable talons do the killing.

As their name suggests, they are great wanderers and can be found almost all over the world, except the extreme poles. One race of the peregrine, the handsome black and rufous Shaheen falcon (Falco peregrinus peregrinator) is a resident of India. The protagonist of this drama, however, was overall of a lighter colour and bulkier. Which probably means it could have been a female Falco peregrinus calidus, an uncommon winter migrant in these parts.

Peregrines haunt the wetlands near Delhi during winter months, taking down ducks and other wintering waterfowl. One had even made an annual habit of turning up at an apartment complex in a neighbourhood near a wetland.

It seems incongruous and exciting that this mighty predator lives among us despite the foul environment and destructive urbanisation. The peregrine, which was once on the edge of extinction, has made a remarkable comeback globally and now thrives even in the high-rise horizons of uber cities such as London and New York — a further testament to the powers of resurrection inherent in nature.

I never saw the bird again from my office. The peregrine left me with a few precious moments and the water tanks.

Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and photographer based in Delhi

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Published on September 03, 2020
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