Muhammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad
Muhammad Saud holding a black kite and Nadeem Shehzad with an Egyptian vulture in their office at New Delhi Image Credit: Supplied

When brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Muhammad Saud brought home an injured kite in 2003 and nursed it to health, they had no inkling that their act of compassion was paving the road to finding their life purpose. Over the next two decades and despite financial constraints, cramped space in their home, and a lack of knowledge in treating birds, the brothers persisted in the noble work to rescue over 26,900 birds. And, are still counting.

Catapulting them into unbelievable realms of glory and fame is the documentary, All That Breathes, tracing their life mission. Directed by Shaunak Sen, it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and Best Documentary at Cannes. (The documentary was also nominated for an Oscar this year.)

Growing up in Delhi, the duo recall how they would often spend time observing black kites swirling in the sky. The magnificent birds would occasionally swoop to grab a piece of meat thrown to them. ‘Black kites are abundant here in Delhi,’ says Shehzad, in a video interview. In the background I can hear quacks, chirps and songs of several birds in different pitches.

‘It is normal to see the azure sky dotted with black kites,’ adds Saud, before elaborating on how the lives of the birds are affected when they cross paths with that of their namesakes– the vibrantly coloured paper kites used in competitive flying.

Kite-flying is common in New Delhi especially between August and September when it gains momentum.

‘With a flick, a kite string spruced up with manjha (a starchy paste of powdered glass coated on the string to cut an opponent’s kite-string during competitive kite flying contests) easily slices through a bird’s wings, debilitating it. And the bird drops to the ground.’

Saud and Shehzad working on a bird in their fisrt treatment room-1679561090030
Saud and Shehzad working on a bird in their first treatment room Image Credit: Supplied

If, earlier, cotton strings coated with manjha were used, the introduction of nylon strings in the market has added to the misery of the raptors. Unlike cotton strings that snap easily, the sturdy nylon string leaves a deep gash on the bird. Sometimes, the threads remain suspended on a tree’s branch trapping a bird and ultimately it starves to death.

The first time they came across an injured bird was when they were teenagers. Finding an injured kite they took it to a nearby bird hospital where, however, it did not get proper care or treatment, and died.

The same story was repeated with another injured kite.

The next time they found a wounded bird, the duo decided to take it back to their home and treat it. That was in 2003.

Referring to books and taking guidance from vets, they began their journey rehabilitating injured birds.

Initially the death of the birds affected them. One kite died of a sinus infection as the brothers were clueless about treating it. Another bird separated from its mate went into depression. ‘It used to hit its head on the enclosure till it met its end,’ recalls Saud, a hint of pain in his voice.

However, they soon learnt how to treat the birds and began to see success.

The first kite that the two brothers treated-1679561093677
The first kite that the two brothers treated Image Credit: Supplied

From 2003 to 2010 they rescued around 485 injured birds. The family business of soap dispensers was doing well and they dug into their pockets for the treatment of birds. Occasionally friends and relatives pitched in too. With word of their altruism spreading, more injured birds were reported and donations began trickling in leading them to set up a charitable trust.

‘We receive 3,000 injured raptors every year, most of them injured by kite strings,’ says Shehzad, who together with Saud co-founded Wildlife Rescue ( in 2010, a charity that provides medical treatment and rehabilitation to injured and sick birds.

In the early years, the brothers worked from their ancestral home in Shah Ganj. Injured kites were kept in their basement and on the roof. A bedroom table doubled up as a treatment station. Among the rescued birds were some hatchlings that had fallen from a nest.

‘Our home was like a cage housing humans and birds,’ says Shehzad, with a laugh.

Remembering an owlet that had become part of the family, Saud says: ‘It was intelligent and understood our moods well. One day, I was sitting near the bedroom window when it perched on my shoulder and began making soft squeaks as though trying to tell me something. It took me a while to understand what was worrying it until I looked out and noticed a large kite perched outside the window. The frightened owlet was alerting me.’

In 2010, when Wildlife Rescue was registered, the number of injured birds they began to receive increased and, consequently, their workload increased. Before they realised it, the brothers were spending more time on the birds and less on the business. ‘Post-Covid, our business has been affected. We feel the pinch sometimes when we cannot meet family requirements,’ says Saud.

While black kites are native to Delhi and can be seen circling over slaughterhouses and dump-yards, the brothers have also rescued black-eared kites– a migratory species that flies into India from Mongolia and the Russian Steppes in winter.

The brothers have had their share of injuries when the birds attacked them during rescue operations. ‘Their talons are sharp. When we capture them, they get aggressive. Their grip is so powerful that if it is holding onto your one hand, you can’t free it with your other hand. You need someone’s help. The scar on Saud’s chin bears testimony to a talon story,’ says Shahzad.

An expert in treating birds

For one who was not inclined towards biology and never completed college, this self-taught kite expert can hold a class on the best approach to surgery for birds. The wing of a bird is similar in structure to that of the human upper arm and comprises humerus, radius, and ulna held together by tendons and muscles, says Shahzad. ‘There is little or no surgery done in conventional bird hospitals of India. The wounds are treated to heal. We have developed a protocol that works well and surgery is done under anesthesia. In those birds where wings are severed by kite strings, the muscles and tendons are sutured back into position,’ explains Shehzad, who was appointed Honorary Wildlife Warden of Delhi.

A Still from 'All That Breathes'_
A still from All that Breathes Image Credit: Supplied

‘The bandages are removed after a fortnight. It takes around 20 days for the bird to reactivate the muscles and relearn how to flap its wings. Deep wounds need more than a month to heal.’ In 2021 he visited the USA for training in bird rescue operations. At Wildlife Rescue he is assisted by Dr. Jay Prakash Pandey, a veterinarian.

A typical day at Wildlife Rescue begins with staffers, Mohammad Umar and Salik Rehman picking up injured birds from various bird hospitals and bringing them to their premises in Wazirabad Village (North Delhi). The wounds are examined and birds are administered first aid. Some birds that are dehydrated are put on a drip. The veterinarian takes over next. Post-treatment, they are shifted to open enclosures on the roof so they can fly free.

What lesson have the birds taught them?

‘The importance of family,’ says Shehzad, father of a little girl. ‘There were cases where monkeys attacked the nests and the parent birds put up a fight. Some died, and some were left injured by monkeys. Yet, till the end, they were there for the family. We too need to devote enough time for our families.’

Salik Rehman in a still from 'All That Breathes'
Salik Rehman in a still from All that Breathes Image Credit: Supplied

Mention must be made of the duo’s parents and spouses, who clean the enclosures and feed the birds in their absence. ‘When we brought the first bird home, my mother never protested nor questioned us,’ reminisces Saud. She worked hard to give them a good education and hoped to see her sons as a doctor and an engineer.

‘After we established our organisation she said, ‘You are living my dream’.’