The Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus) is named after ‘Brahmin’, the highest Hindu caste, ‘Hali’ the Greek word for ‘salt’, ‘Astur’ – Latin for hawk and ‘Indus’ the river from which India is named (which now happens to be in Pakistan !). Also called ‘Garuda’ in Karnataka, the vahan or vehicle of Lord Vishnu the Preserver. However the name that most often comes to my mind when I see one is the Ice Cream Cone Bird. Anyone familiar with the bird will know why.
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It is unmistakable when perched, its white head and breast contrasts dramatically with its copper body and wings, giving an impression of a vanilla ice cream cone! However a closer look will reveal some streaking on the white areas and black wing tips. A hawk of the sea and river, as per by its scientific name, which also describes its habitat.
It is commonly found along the coast, inland lakes, marshes and rivers, in fact anywhere near a suitable water body. It hunts and scavenges, feeding mainly on fish, both dead and live. It also feeds on other aquatic life like crabs, frogs and mudskippers. Its diet however is not restricted to aquatic species, it will also partake of lizard, small snakes, insects, termites on the wing, sickly and young birds including poultry, microbats and also floating garbage and sometimes on carcasses.
It is a resident breeder in Bangalore and the rest of the sub continent. There is a lot of local variation in its nesting season but is usually between December and April. They build untidy nests usually 10 to 15 meters high in tall trees in the vicinity of water. Sometimes a building is substituted for a tree. While they usually build new nests every year they are not above using nest material from the old nest. Very occasionally they will repair and reuse an old one. Both sexes share in nest building and incubation duties.
Interestingly, the female of the species is larger than a male. Usually, the females are 3% to 7% larger, but can also go upto 17% to 65% larger than the male.
The Brahminy Kite can be seen in and around the various lakes (and open drains) that dot the Bangalore area, I used to see one perch very often near my mother’s house on Promenade Road, a stone’s throw from Ulsoor Lake. It is not as numerous as the Black Kite which are practically everywhere in Bangalore.
It is still a common bird but its future is under constant threat due to various reasons. The population in Bangalore is threatened by our short-sighted greed for land that makes us drain our water bodies to build houses. Indiscriminate pesticide use and pollution of our lakes by raw sewage is another threat.
The irony of the situation is that even though the bird is still relatively common and not on the endangered list, we have very little information on its life history. A magnificent raptor waiting to be studied right at your doorstep.