Last winter, Christopher Wallbank SWLA travelled to North India on a residency organised by the Royal Drawing School and the International Institute of Fine Arts (IIFA), which is based in Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh. As part of this residency, Wallbank spent ten days documenting the urban Black Kites of Delhi. Here he describes his experience:

"My aim was to observe how this medium-sized bird of prey has adapted to an urban environment, and to witness the stories of the people who live alongside it.

Returning to Roost, Lodi Gardens

The Black Kites were common in the skies above Delhi - a rare constant in a city of contrasts. Searching for Black Kites to draw would, in one instance, lead me into the commotion of Old Delhi’s traffic-swamped streets, where they circled and jostled for space overhead. Another time, I found myself in a tranquil city garden, watching them float over the crumbling ruins of mogul tombs, crossing flightpaths with huge fruit bats in the dusk sky.

Travelling to the sprawling concrete of Ghazipur, where Black Kites congregate in their high thousands around the sector’s vast markets and slaughterhouses, led me to the furthest extremes of the capital. Here, children and teenagers work to salvage what they can from the same piles the Black Kites scavenge. They would often inspect the progress of my paintings, suggesting improvements for the sky or where to add more ‘cheel’ - the local name for a Black Kite, derived from the sound of its mewing call.

Above Ghazipur’s markets loomed a landfill site that had grown into a two-hundred-foot high hill, cutting an imposing landmark on the skyline. The Black Kites, just distant specks, powdered off its peaks and ridges in a way that evoked memories of seabird islands in summer. The site’s summit was like another planet, swamped in a cloud of noxious smog and dust, Black Kites drifting silently in the oxygen-less soup.

Black Kites over the summit of Ghazipur rubbish dump

In Delhi, a sketchbook and pencil are useful for eliciting conversation from inquisitive passers-by. For this reason, my favourite place to work in the capital was around the great mosque Jama Masjid, in the heart of Old Delhi. Members of the community here shared my joy in watching the Kites and maintained the tradition of feeding them; one man I spoke to described it as his “way of giving back to God”.

Black Kites being fed outside Jama Masjid, Old Delhi 

A Delhi family giving back in a big way are two brothers; Nadeem Shehzad, Mohammed Saud, and their cousin Salik Rehman. I visited the family’s three-room apartment from where they also run a rescue centre for the Black Kites. Being the guardians of these birds is no mean feat - Delhi’s Black Kite population is in conflict with a completely different kind of kite, the popular paper kites flown competitively all over the city. The low-flying, slow manoeuvring Black Kite has a problem with avoiding the paper variety. When they collide, the razor sharp string especially designed for competitive kite flying slices the Black Kites wings. Initially, Nadeem and Saud struggled to find vets who could treat the resulting injuries, so they began to teach themselves. They have since completed hundreds of wing operations independently, unwittingly becoming authorities on the procedure.

Saud operating on black-eared Kite with severed bicep

I visited the brothers in what they called the slow season and watched Saud operate until ten at night. Nadeem showed me their rooftop aviary housing seventy two injured birds; this was nothing, he told me, compared to the peak competitive kite-flying season, when it will house three hundred recovering Black Kites at any given moment: "we never get time for sleep", he says. 

Recovering kites, vultures, and storks at the Rescue Centre

Christopher's work will be on show in Out of the Frame as part of The Natural Eye 2018: The Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition from 25 October to 4 November.

View the Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition online now

Apply for a Bursary from the Society of Wildlife Artists to do a similar project