India's crowded and chaotic capital is an unlikely haven for a dazzling variety of birds. But the winged creatures are under threat from pollution, malnutrition and injuries. A unique hospital is working to change that.
Anyone who's been to Delhi has probably noticed the city's lush bird life.
Crimson-beaked parakeets chatter in the crevices of ancient tombs; hornbills and common hoopoes flutter around in parks; black kites shriek tremulously as they circle and swoop while majestic peacocks scream shrilly at dusk in parks and forests. Owls are everywhere.
In Old Delhi, the 17th century walled city within the capital that is a world apart from the broad avenues and political bustle outside, there is a thriving market in parrots, love birds, pheasants and budgies. Many residents still practice the art of kabootarbazi, or pigeon rearing, a legacy of the former Mughal rulers. By all accounts, it's a bird-crazy place.
Rarer species are found in the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, one of North India’s richest nature reserves on the floodplains of the heavily polluted Yamuna river that runs through Delhi. In winter, it's a magnet for migratory water birds like storks, flamingos and geese. And even in summer, bird watchers can spot partridges, long-legged sandpipers, ducks and pond herons.
But for years, experts have lamented a decline in bird numers in and around Delhi, driven mainly by habitat loss, growing pollution and rapid urbanization.
That means there's never an idle moment for Dr Sunil Kumar Bhat, chief veterinarian at the Charity Bird Hospital in Old Delhi, a two-storied building dedicated to treating sick and injured birds free of cost.
The 'sparrow doctor'
In the modest hospital, a huge number of cages and aviaries house some 2,500 birds, most of them pigeons and doves. They are divided by species and illness, with separate "wards" for those awaiting or recovering from surgery. Some 50 to 60 winged patients are brought to the hospital each day by individuals, rescue organizations and at times even the police.
"We're actually taking in more birds than we can handle. But what can we do? I don't have the heart to turn them away," says Bhat, who's known among locals in the area as the "sparrow doctor."
From performing surgery on broken wings and bones to administering antibiotics for bacterial infections, treating wounds, providing a nutritious multi-grain diet and checking in on his patients, Bhat has his hands full.
Collisions a major threat
On a recent afternoon, Bhat and his team were busy attending to an injured peacock. Held down by an assistant, the large bird lay on a table, its right leg bent awkwardly. "It's a fracture. It was probably hit by a bicycle," says Bhat, as he bandages the leg. "But it will recover in a few weeks and we'll then release it into a nearby forest."
Collision-related injury is one of the biggest risks to Delhi's birds, says Bhat. Encounters with whirring ceiling fans, low hanging electricity wires and kite strings often cause serious damage to the city's feathered residents.
The vet recounts a case years ago when he treated a severely burned sparrow that had flown into a pot full of boiling hot oil used by a street food vendor. "We packed it in ice and then treated it for months with painkillers and antibiotics," Bhat says. "The sparrow survived. It was a miracle. It made us feel our work is so worthwhile."
Many of the patients also come in with dysentery and other digestive problems, a result of malnutrition and feeding on the unsorted waste that Delhi's 18 million residents generate daily. Another major problem is the city's deteriorating air and water quality. Respiratory disorders are common in winter. "Birds are very sensitive. They need clean air and water to thrive," says Bhat. "Like humans, they are susceptible to diseases and are infected with similar ailments."
Set them free
The birds that make it to the Charity Hospital are lucky - the staff boasts of a recovery rate of close to 80 percent. The organization, which was set up by followers of the ancient Jain religion in the 1930s, is run entirely on private donations with people chipping in money, grain, medicines and supplies.
And, in keeping with Jain tradition, which regards all forms of life as sacred, the hospital prefers freeing all the birds it cares for. This isn't always possible. "We don't encourage people to buy birds because they often don't know how to take care of them," says Bhat. "But of course we can't forcibly take away birds from their owners if they bring them for a check up. So, much of our work involves educating people about the right diet and care for their birds."
Many of the people who come in with sick birds seem happy with the hospital's approach. Mohammed Nadeem dropped in with his two-year-old parrot who he says has become passive and depressed. "I've always received sound advice from the doctors here," Nadeem says. "And my bird has always gotten healthier. That's the most important thing."
No meat policy
Still some are critical of the hospital's no-meat policy. Jains are strict vegetarians, which means mainly vegetarian birds are admitted. But carnivorous birds are present, in this case an owl with a clipped wing and several injured eagles, falcons and kites in separate cages.
"We can't refuse to take these birds but due to the religious sentiments involved, we can't feed them meat either," Bhat says. "So, we give them alternative sources of protein like soya and paneer and some fruit."
It's a strategy that has some bird lovers in the city up in arms. "The hospital does a great job in treating vegetarian birds. But feeding fruit to raptors is simply disastrous," says Akshay Seth, an avian hobbyist who is well versed in Delhi's birdlife. "Birds of prey don't have the metabolism to digest fruit and soya. So, basically they're dying a slow death by eating that. It's like feeding grass to a lion."
Seth says the hospital should instead tie up with organizations that take care of carnivorous birds and ensure a plentiful meat supply - a suggestion that isn't likely to go down well with the Jain-run charity.
Beyond the meat wars, there's little doubt that Old Delhi's Charity Bird Hospital is a boon for the city's avian population. Dr Bhat takes a break from his busy day on the roof, where all kinds of birds refuel from troughs of medicated water and grain before they flutter off on their forays over the chaotic streets. For Bhat, the birds are a kind of medicine too. "It's just so relaxing to watch them," he says.