Just as in the animal world, there are hunters and predators in the bird kingdom as well. Raptors easily fall into the latter category, inspiring awe and fright with their sharp talons, hooked beaks, strong legs and feet, besides boasting excellent eyesight. Of the many raptors, there is one that is small but powerful. It is called the Shikra (Accipiter badius).
Belonging to the family Accipitridae which also includes eagles, hawks, kites and osprey, the Shikra is native to Asia and Africa is found in most of the Asian continent, besides being fairly widespread across much of Africa. With six sub-species as well, threats of extinction fortunately do not dog nature’s most excellent hunter.
Of the many Shikra sightings during my bird watching trips, one particular scene comes to mind. Camouflaged by the beautiful yellow flowers of the Indian Laburnum tree, was a Shikra basking in the golden rays of the sun. The flowers made a nice crown for this bird of prey. As I inched closer, the Shikra threw me a fierce look with its large piercing eyes before it flapped off to another tree.
Since then, I have watched and studied the Shikra from close quarters, with my balcony serving as a nice vantage point. One day, hearing the ‘pee-wee, pee-wee’ call continuously for about five minutes, I went to the balcony to find the Shikra perched on the tallest acacia tree. For months after that, I kept tabs on this bird of prey. Acacia trees, dense shrubs and bushes and small water pools lie just a few feet away from my balcony. Small birds like Sunbirds, Tailor birds, Ashy prinia, Oriental Robin, Red-vented bulbul, Munia, Babbler, Asian Koel and the Sparrow co-exist happily here. But then comes the Shikra and this happy party escapes within seconds into the dense vegetation. Even squirrels from a safe place give calls so as to announce its arrival. The Shikra’s yellow iris indicated it was a female.
The resident Shikra’s early morning diet consisted mainly of garden lizards, small birds and domestic fowls. The moment it killed its prey, robins, koels, squirrels and crows would be the first to call out. Holding its victim amidst its strong talons, the Shikra perched on a tree branch would rip off the feathers and skin of its prey. Crows trying to risk a bite would be driven off by its fierce stance. Feeding fast, even the small scraps fallen here and there on the tree barks and the ground below would be picked up.
Sometimes, the female Shikra chased birds and sometimes it ended up hunting field mice. For several days in a row, I noticed it arriving at the acacia tree around 1 pm preening and cleaning itself, turning its head this way and that waiting for squirrels and mice to emerge from their respective hideouts. A call an hour or so later indicated that its hunt had been successful. For the next 40 minutes, it gave its meal — the mouse — it’s undivided attention.
Not long after that, one day I saw another Shikra flying together with the resident Shikra giving out its typical ‘kik-ki kik-ki’ call.
By afternoon, the newcomer was happily feasting on a mouse on the ground below the acacia tree and noticing its red iris I made out that it was a male.
For me, the most enduring image of the Shikra was during the monsoon when drenched in rain it sat atop the acacia tree, showing off its lovely feathers as it attempted to dry itself.