YASHWANT VAID STOOD ANXIOUSLY beside Vinod Kumar, as the latter deftly parted the beaks of a pigeon, which shrank from his touch. Kumar poured several drops of an orange liquid down the bird’s throat and asked Vaid, “Where did you buy it from?”
“In front of Jama Masjid,” Vaid, a primary school teacher, replied timidly.
Vaid had bought a pair of pigeons as pets for Rs 300 from a pigeon seller outside the mosque; he later discovered that one of them, with striking black, grey and white feathers, had a paralysed neck. Vaid brought the pigeon to Charity Birds Hospital in the premises of the Digambar Jain temple in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. He had intended to leave the bird there, but Kumar, a veterinary compounder at the hospital, admonished him, and told him to take it home. “If it were your child,” Kumar said, “could you have deserted it like this, at a time when it needs you the most?”
Earlier that day, on the ground floor of the hospital building, I had met Pramod Jain, a member of the hospital’s managing committee, who took me through the institution’s history. “The hospital was started in 1930 by our ancestors,” Jain said, “with the idea that there are plenty of veterinary hospitals all over the world, but not a single one catered exclusively to birds. Here, allopathic treatment was provided to birds.” Jain explained that construction of the hospital was begun under the instructions of Acharya Deshbhushan Maharaj, a Jain spiritual leader. “The foundation stone was laid in 1957 by Anand Tartarai Pandit, the then police commissioner of Delhi,” Jain said.
After my meeting with Jain, I proceeded on a tour of the hospital, a two-storey structure with wards on both floors, and an open terrace. Entering through the main door, I found myself in Ward 1, a corridor lined with birdcages. An owl with rich ochre plumage slumbered in one of them. In another stood a dove with only one leg, claws firmly clasping the floor of its cage, a large tumour above its left eye hindering its vision. Severely injured birds, with twisted necks, fractured limbs and broken wings, occupied the 400-odd cages of the two wards. I came across a parrot in its cage, its pale-skinned body devoid of feathers. “Someone had probably fed it with sweets, leading to a skin problem,” said Ram Dulare Gupta, who joined the hospital as medical supervisor after retiring from his regular job a few months ago. As I moved closer to take a look, the bird, too, moved towards the door of the cage, weakly twitching its unfeathered wings.
“Smaller birds are often attacked by bigger birds, cats and dogs,” said Gupta. “Sometimes they get electrocuted by a wire. At times birds come in such a frail condition that they need to be fed. Some can’t swallow solid food, so we give them Cerelac or protein powder.”
On the second floor of the hospital is the general ward, with more spacious cages, which allow the birds to attempt flight as they recover from their illnesses and injuries. A bird’s condition is carefully monitored and when a doctor deems it fit, it is taken up one more set of stairs to the open terrace, where it is provided food, and where it can rest until it is ready to fly away. According to Jain, approximately 16,000 birds are released in this manner every year.
As I made my way down from the terrace, two boys brought in an injured pigeon. Rameshwar Yadav, another compounder, who has worked at the hospital for 15 years, picked up the bird and found it bleeding profusely from a wing joint. To begin treating it, he plucked a couple of feathers, causing the bird to flinch in pain. “You see, feathers when plucked can grow back,” Yadav said. “But if you chop them off, you take away a bird’s ability to fly.” He applied medicine to the wound, bandaged the injury and put the bird into one of the smaller cages. “She will take her time,” he said with a smile. “But before you know it, she will be high up in the sky again, fluttering her wings, flying towards the horizon.”