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Stock up early for the Sunday lockdown, say the shrikes

A brown shrike on a pile of axed thorny shrubs in Selaiyur. Photo: Prince Frederick

A brown shrike on a pile of axed thorny shrubs in Selaiyur. Photo: Prince Frederick

A brown shrike seems to haunt a massive heap of axed thorny shrubs with the persistence of the Drury Lane ghost. Neatly gathered, the pile of dry prickly branches is plonked on a piece of vacant land that faces a tree-lined bund of the Selaiyur lake. This land is flanked on one side — as also on its rear side — by a coppice of tall shrubs interspersed with trees. From the perspective of having a vantage point to spot prey, the shrike should find the greenery irresistible. The woodpile is high but not as high as most shrubs in the stand. Yet the migratory shrike is drawn to the woodpile dominated by axed prosopis juliflora dominate the woodpile.

Last week, whenever this writer swung by this space, the shrike would be in attendance. If it was not, it would pop in, in a matter of minutes. It would sit quietly for long — with an air of self-importance, if one put on the anthropomorphic glasses — and occasionally sally forth to retrieve a worm from the grassy patch below. Brown shrikes are highly territorial, even in their wintering grounds, choosing a space hardly be beset with any serious counter-claims from other avians. However, making a woodpile the focal point of its attention was rather intriguing.

The preference for a thorny woodpile seems aligned with a behaviour that has earned shrikes an unflattering comparison. They are known as butcher birds, for impaling their prey the way butchers hang a slaughtered animal on a hook. What better hooks in the wild than thorns?

A brown shrike on a pile of axed thorny shrubs in Selaiyur. Photo: Prince Frederick

A brown shrike on a pile of axed thorny shrubs in Selaiyur. Photo: Prince Frederick

The why is in fact more attention-grabbing than the how of it.

“Sometimes, after catching their prey, instead of eating it immediately, they would impale it on a thorn and keep it as a reserve supply,” explains V Santharam, ornithologist. “It is not that shrikes always sit on thorny bushes; they do sit on branches of bushes that are not thorny. But then they prefer thorny bushes because it is easy for them to put their excess food on the thorns and eat them at a later date.”

Probably, after all, the superior air one sensed from the bird’s deportment was not a figment of anthropomorphic imagination. The shrike just may be stuck up over the fact that it has supplies to last it many Sunday lockdowns,disdaining humans who fill provisionstores up to the rafters on Saturday evening to stock up on essentials.

A brown shrike on a pile of axed thorny shrubs in Selaiyur. Photo: Prince Frederick

A brown shrike on a pile of axed thorny shrubs in Selaiyur. Photo: Prince Frederick

“A shrike may not always put away food for later retrieval and consumption. This behaviour may be prevalent in certain species and certain habitats where food may be scarce. When it is hungry, it just has to return to the space,” Santharam elaborates. In these parts, the brown shrike being a winter migrant, it should find food in plenty and therefore, might only rarely have a compelling reason to play the butcher-cum-hoarder.

Shantaram notes that the long-tailed shrike and the southern grey shrike being residents in these parts, they may be spotted engaging in this behaviour “during the dry season or when they have young ones to provide for”.

These birds are largely insectivorous, but may take a lizard or even a toad, says the ornithologist.

When they impale the bigger preys, this behaviour may come out in bold relief than when it had to do with diminutive preys like worms. Raptors are known for making spectacular kills, tearing intopreys their size, if not larger. When they impale their prey, particularly big-sized ones, the shrikes may come across as displaying the ruthless power of a raptor.


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Printable version | May 17, 2022 12:29:29 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/stock-up-early-for-the-sunday-lockdown-say-the-shrikes/article38332090.ece