A band of screaming Babblers drew our attention to a sleek, grey bird sitting upright in the Jarul grove beyond our boundary wall. It looked pretty much like the Hawk Cuckoo that has been frequenting the grove since spring. But, unlike the cuckoo it had stern red eyes, a hooked bill and long pale legs with lethal talons! It was a Shikra - a bird that hunts lizards, squirrels, rats, snakes and small birds. No wonder the Babblers freaked out.
We rarely see Shikras in Banani though they are quite capable of making a living in the cities as well as in any other human neighbourhood. We do not get to see them often because they do not wish to be seen and are very good at staying under cover. Like most hawks, the Shikra patiently sits hidden in the foliage and surveys the ground for an unsuspecting reptile, bird or insect to prey upon.
We were particularly thrilled to spot the Shikra near our residence because only a week before, we had seen them in several national parks of Uganda, thousands of kilometres away. This avian hunter is widespread in large parts of Africa as well as Asia. Wherever it may live, it is called 'Shikra' - a name given in the Indian subcontinent and was circulated abroad by the English colonisers. Shikari, shikara, shikra or shikre – all mean 'hunter' in the subcontinental languages; and the bird is indeed worthy of that name.
The exceedingly long and strong legs, toes and talons of the Shikra are purpose-built to strike and kill its prey quickly. It usually watches its prey closely before swooping down on it and killing it by a single squeeze of its talons. We never saw a prey struggle for very long in the talons of a Shikra, even when the prey was as big as a partridge.
Shikra has always been popular with the falconers of the subcontinent. The sleek and lightweight bird had the reputation of a very brave, intelligent and indefatigable hunter. Shikra was often called a leopard with wings. Falconers considered the Shikra easy to train and very easy to handle. Shikras are still kept as pets at some villages in Pakistan and India although falconry as a sport or hobby has died out.
Our familiarity with Shikra explains why the Panjabi ghazal titled 'Mai ek Shikra yaar banaya' became so popular all over the subcontinent breaking through so many language barriers. By calling his beloved a 'Shikra' the great Indian poet Shiv Kumar evoked the image of a wayward and insensitive paramour in the following memorable lines of his ghazal:
It's a Shikra I befriended …
And let it peck at my core;
But in silence it departed
And came to me no more.
Fortunately, a real-life Shikra in the wild does not see their mate as an insensitive or wayward partner at all. In fact, a breeding pair of Shikras may well be the very model of connubial love, care and conviviality. The enthusiasm with which a male Shikra undertakes courtship routine and all subsequent household chores are exemplary among all the hunting birds called raptors.
Like most raptors, the female Shikra is quite a bit bigger than the male; and can handle the bigger prey with greater ease. The female is also coloured differently. It is more brown than grey; has brown spots on the chest instead of fine rufous bars; and most noticeably, its eyes are yellow rather than red.
We have seen the Shikras breed in the village groves, usually in the monsoon. After a week of aerial display they break little twigs with their strong feet to build platform nests in leafy trees. The nesting period happens to be the best time to observe and photograph these stealthy birds. We continue to see these silent hunters in many villages in Bangladesh although their population has been dwindling over the past decades.
The Shikra that fortuitously visited our neighbourhood was obviously a lovely male. From our vantage point we could see its red eye, steely-grey wings and tail; but not the fine rufous lines of its chest. The hysterical Babblers were screaming in the Jarul grove ever more loudly to drive the Shikra away.
The Babblers' histrionics did not go in vain. The Shikra moved away to a Sissoo trunk focusing its attention on an auburn gecko lurking in the bush down below. The gecko had heard the alarm raised by the Babblers and knew what to do when the Shikra made its move. Gecko turned green and dived into the thickets quickly.
The thwarted Shikra sat still, poised and unruffled. Perhaps the wise bird did not have a very high hope of success ever since the Babblers began the rumpus to broadcast his presence. The life of Shikra has never been easy; patience has been a part of his hunter's psyche.
Predictably enough, the Shikra did not attempt to threaten or chase the marauding Babblers out of the grove. This astute hunter is not known to have anger issues. We never saw a Shikra attack a critter vengefully. It hunted for food; not retribution.
Soon the Shikra took off silently and vanished into the eventide. It definitely knew that there would always be a new hunting ground and a new prey when a new day dawned.