Sitting on the first floor balcony of our house is like being in a movie hall. It provides me a ‘balcony’ view of all the ‘action’ in the natural world without causing any disturbance — the best seats in a cinema hall! Recently, as I sat in my ‘balcony seat’, a slender grey bird with a long tail sat on its perch, the wire fence surrounding our house garden. For a good 10 minutes the bird sat unobtrusively, watching everything around it, only moving its head occasionally to watch for any danger in the vicinity. Suddenly, the bird flew to the ground and came back to the wire perch. It had a large insect in its curved black beak. Ruthlessly, the bird beat the insect against the wire in order to kill it before gobbling it up.
I was watching the Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius Schach). The shrike is a common garden bird seen throughout India in both urban and rural areas.
It has a grey head and back and rufous colouration on its back and belly. With a bandit-like black mask around its eyes, and a short curved black beak, the bird looks menacing — much like an assasin. And an assasin it is for its prey! It feeds primarily on insects, small lizards, frogs and other small creatures.
The shrike is commonly called the butcher bird. This is so, not because of its ruthless hunting, but because the bird has an interesting habit.
The shrike eats part of the prey that it catches and impales the surplus food on thorns of bushes, and even barbed wire, creating a larder for itself. A food storehouse for the season when its prey base decreases or when it is not in a mood to hunt!
The long-tailed shrike is one of nine shrike species found in India, but is the one that is most widely distributed throughout India. In south India, the bird is called pey kuruvi in Tamil and yerra lilinchi in Telugu. The shrike is territorial, and will hunt in the same area, day after day, zealously guarding its territory from other shrikes. The shrike is pugnacious and aggressive. It will not hesitate to steal prey from other, more docile birds. Often, it can be seen chasing other birds that compete with it for food.
Just like many of you, I grew up in a city. And that is where my love affair with nature began.
Watching nature at work in my house garden, while walking to the bus stand, going to school, gazing out of my classroom window and observing the birds on the banyan tree in the school courtyard (obviously that was more interesting than what I was being taught).
Appreciating nature is the first tiny step towards conserving it. So the next time you get a chance, look for the butcher bird, observe it, and locate its larder if you can.