In Our Backyard | Environment

The Shikra is a bird that embodies brains and bravery

The male Shikra   | Photo Credit: Abhishek Gulshan

The talents of the Shikra (Accipiter badius) have long been known. Great courage, coupled with intellect as a hunter, making it one of the easiest to train and tame (this is illegal now), made the Shikra the most common bird used in the art of falconry across the country in pre-independence times. Falconry is the keeping and training of birds of prey, especially the falcon, and hunting with them, a practice still prevalent in Pakistan and a few Gulf countries.

The bird’s brilliance had several eminent colonial British ornithologists express awe at its capability to hunt and adapt. The Shikra is one of the commonest hawks in India. Its name has been derived from Urdu, and the Hindi word, shikari, meaning hunter. It justifies its name with majesty . As the apex predator in the urban avian world of Delhi, watching the Shikra hunt makes a lasting impression.

The size of the small, stout hawk (at 30-36 cm), is no indicator of its skill and ability. The adult males are ashy-blue-grey above with fine brownish-orange, barring on underparts, with deep orange-red eyes. The females are comparatively larger and more brown, with their eye colour varying from deep yellow to orange-yellow. Juveniles have more pale-brown upperparts with pale dull yellow eyes. Their tails are ashy brown with dark bands, and they have a black mesial stripe running down from the white chin across their throat. Their wings are rounded and they have a long tail.

The female Shikra

The female Shikra   | Photo Credit: Abhishek Gulshan

Shikras frequent open jungles, and even urban gardens and avenues. It avoids dense jungles and deserts but is found in every other type of habitat, preferring areas with plenty of large trees. To hunt, it either takes a low, stealthy flight along the treeline, pouncing on an unwary bird or animal. Sometimes, it soars high in circles and dives down at the sight of prey.

Its diet consists of lizards, frogs, grasshoppers and small birds and fledglings, but it is sometimes brazen enough to go for bigger birds like the Greater Coucal, Spotted Owlet and even bats.

The Shikra most often can be observed flying from one tree to another, with rapidly flapping wings, followed by short glides, and disappearing into the foliage.

It is rather a noisy hawk, and the shrill call of notes titu-titu is a familiar sound prior to and during establishment of pair bonds and when breeding. Their nesting season lasts from April to June, which is quite an interesting time to observe their behaviour from a distance.

Their nest looks like a loosely built cup of twigs and sticks, untidy, much like that of crows. They aren’t exactly homely birds. However, they do take precautions by building their nests usually in trees, well screened by leaves in order to reduce any kind of outside disturbance. In cities, they can be aggressive, defending their nest from crows and other creatures (even humans). Both males and females incubate the eggs (they believe in equality) but males are the primary food-bearers.

It was the Shikra’s attempt to hunt in my garden, that made me notice the bird properly for the first time. For over a month, a Shikra would perch on a tree near my house, eyeing squirrels in the neighbourhood. The exceptional patience, discipline and skill displayed every single day completely won me over. Though I don’t remember it preying on the squirrels successfully, it did manage to fly away with rodents, insects, a skink (a kind of lizard), and my heart.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 1:41:22 PM |

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