Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Shikra Barbet Saga !

There are many birds found in cities. They range from seed eaters to fruit eaters, insect eaters to bird eaters, rodent eaters to fish eaters. But the most common and my personal favorite for observations is a small bird called the Shikra. 

glum looking shikra
The Shikra (Accipiter badius) is a small raptor (or bird of prey if you prefer) present in the concrete jungles of the human world. It preys on a variety of animals and birds. Some of the favorite preys are small birds like bulbuls, barbets, animals like squirrels, and a large variety of insects ranging from flying termites to large sized grasshoppers. An occasional young and inexperienced snake and an unlucky gecko also add to the menu. It makes its nest is tall well shaded trees. Well, enough of describing the bird, I have a story to tell about its life.
I love to see the day to day behavior of these birds, for they never cease to amaze me! One might think of them as just “birds” or “bird brains” and something of lesser intelligence to us humans. But some of the things birds are capable of, just leaves you dumbfounded when you are a witness to the incident.

There is one incident that sits vivid in my mind. I was on my terrace one beautiful morning, photographing flowers from an African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) when a pair of shikras’ came and sat quite close by. They seemed to be in an argument, for they did not stop calling and screaming for the next ten minutes. Soon after the male, very typically, left the place and flew far away. The female shikra I guess was in a foul mood and she sat on the branch like a feather ball with a glum look on the face.  Little did the shikra and I know that the branch she was sitting on was the top part of a White cheeked Barbet’s (Megalaima viridis) nest.
Barbets (Megalaima spps) make their nests in dead branches of trees. Some face the entrance facing the ground, some prefer it vertical. The White cheeked Barbet usually makes the nest vertical. They excavate by removing parts of the dead branch with their beaks and creating a hollow inside. The reason they choose the dead branch is that the wood is soft and can be easily removed by scraping it off with the beak. Their beaks, by the way, are not hard like the woodpecker’s to chisel, so they choose softer wood and “chew” through.

Shikra sitting right above the nest

Barbet peeking out of the nest

Well, here is where the actual story begins. The shikra is sitting on the top and the barbet nest entrance is below. A barbet peeps out to see whether the noisy couple has dispersed. The shikra sees this and with wings open just parachutes down on the barbet’s neck. Just as it lands on the neck, the barbet pulls in, into the hole. Now imagine this situation, the nest is on a dead branch which is vertical, the shikra has caught the barbet and is not willing to let go, but, it has no foot hold! The barbet on the other hand, has the talons digging into its neck, in the very comfort of its own nest! Awkward situation, where the predator and the prey both are equally at advantage and disadvantage AND both not willing to let go as there the stakes are high! For one- its life and home, for the other – first meal of the day ready on a platter but not able to get it out.
So… here I was standing and watching from the terrace, a spellbinding spectacle, the barbet pulling in and the shikra with one leg in the hole pulling out. This drama was, however, cut short. Before the natural fate of the struggle could be seen or predicted, it came to an end with a bunch of keys hitting the already surprised shikra on the neck. The next moment saw the shikra on a nearby branch and the barbet on the cemented sidewalk, both shaken a little after the incident, one looking down and the other looking up, wondering what in the world had just happened!!
The shikra, gaining its senses back quickly dove at the barbet (which was now a sitting duck). This time it went for the kill like there was no tomorrow, just to be hit again in the face by a bunch of keys. This time completely bewildered and mightily pissed at the invisible assaulter it decided to cut the chase a bit short and flew away. The barbet’s side of the story however came to realize soon after. This barbet was a young one! Though it had all the feathers and had grown well without any physical defects, it had not yet mastered the art of flight. 

By the time this drama was cut short by my trigger happy uncle throwing a bunch of keys in the air to discourage the shikra (or that’s what he “meant” to do) I was down on the ground floor. At first he thought the barbet was injured due to the fall and thus could not fly. But after checking for injuries, (while giving an explanation to uncle as to how he had disrupted the natural order of hunter and the hunted) I came to the conclusion that it was a fully fledged, yet young, Barbet who did not know how to fly.
The poor barbet was put into a box and a couple of friends who work with the animal rescue team came and assessed the situation. All of us wanted the barbet to go back in the nest, but the branch was dead, which means it could snap and fall with a little extra push by a human. Thus, it was decided with a little disappointment that the barbet be sent to the rescue centre.

Thus ended the shikra and barbet drama. 

Oh! By the way, my uncle’s reason to distract the shikra and not actually hit it was he wanted to save the poor barbet from being killed. I’m sure the shikra cursed my uncle at that point of time (first the husband and now a human – one majorly pissed off female shikra!!) because the keys he was throwing in the air got caught in a small branch. So, a second rescue attempt was launched to retrieve the keys. After everything had settled down, he must have said sorry to the barbet and I a thousand times over and quietly slunk away.
Thus ended the uncle drama. He never tried to “help” anymore without asking first.

Now the shikra has got chicks of its own and so have the barbets. But neither came back to the same tree ever again. They are around though… see them on a daily basis ! and thats another story !