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Sunday, September 19, 2021
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Part I: When Mother Nature built her own Air Force

Much before manmade fighter aircrafts and gunships, nature had her own avian squadrons — the raptors

Written by Ranjit Lal |
Updated: September 12, 2021 9:34:07 am
sunday eye, eye 2021, ranjit lalKeeping Watch: A female shikra in woodland habitat (Source: Ranjit Lal)

In an air show, on a National Day or otherwise, we are blown away by our screaming supersonic fighters, bristling with guided missiles, zooming in perfect formation, or the big bombers or deadly, if grossly ugly, helicopter gunships clattering menacingly over us. But much before we learnt to fly, Mother Nature’s Air Force (MNAF) had covered all the bases with her avian squadrons: big bombers, stealth fighters, light combat aircraft, hoverers as deadly as any gunship. She equipped and armed them well, ensured only the targets be destroyed (eaten), with no collateral damage to other living creatures, and (unlike any other air force) a clean-up squadron, like the great carnivores, to clear the carnage left by others’ battles so that nothing is wasted.

The calibre of the weapons and equipment varied according to the targets. But the basics were the same: targeting equipment — powerful, binocular, night vision (multiple times better than ours), hearing as good as any radar’s, a sense of smell, terrain-and-target-specific body design, flight ability and muscle power.

For weaponry: talons and beaks. Talons like great hooked grappling irons with grizzly bear power, and that wickedly curved bill that could rip out the beating heart of a kill, shred it and offer a delectable fluttering valve to a fledgling with a tenderness that would make any mother smile.

The eagles were the big bombers: huge, heavy, magnificent, with telescopic eyesight, awesome wing power and skull-crushing talons. Targets could be airborne (cranes) or ground mammals and reptiles (hares, foxes, snakes, baby deer, or foolishly cavorting monkeys). From way above, the target is spotted and locked on. The bird banks steeply, losing height and then straightens out into its screaming dive, following the panicked target relentlessly. It clocks nearly 320 kmph (the golden eagle) before flaring out its tail to brake. With its talons extended as it hits, it drives the great hooks deep, its beak snapping to dislocate the victim’s neck. If it has a family to feed it will take off with its heavy burden. The male, mostly, does the hunting and the female (larger, fiercer) guards the nestlings. Eagles have big, broad, forceful wings to support their weight and broad tails to help them manoeuvre. So awed are we that many smaller countries, besides some big superpowers, have these as their national emblems!

Somehow, menacingly easy-going are the harriers — helicopter gunships — that wing low and slow over fields, marshes and reed beds, looking down, with their owl-like disc-shaped faces, funnelling in rumours from rustling reeds to their ears. They brake, lose height, hover and drop — on a coot or duck, not as savvy as the rest. Harriers have long, fairly broad wings and long, rounded tails. Other hoverers include brick red flint-etched kestrel that takes rodents and insects, and the easy-flying black-shouldered kite with its intense ruby eyes. The osprey, a unique hoverer and fisher, has talons adapted to grip slippery fish.

Easily the top guns of aerial combat are the fastback-winged falcons. Right at the top is the wanderer, that is the peregrine, a jungle-crow-sized, dark-eyed, dark-headed, moustachioed falcon, found worldwide, designed for sheer speed as it morphs from combat aircraft to guided missile. It begins its attack from high up, clocking a terminal speed close to 400 kmph as it spears after doves and starlings. No bird hit at this velocity has a hope in hell. Peregrines are now colonising skyscraper cities like New York, from where they pick off blue rock doves at will. Their wings are long, smooth and tapering, their tails long.

Smaller hawks, like the shikra and goshawk are deft, dodgy fighters that scramble from a perch (woodland copse) to ambush their targets — small birds, rodents and reptiles. Their blunt, short wings help in twisting and turning speedily at will through needle-hole gaps in branches. I once saw a shikra come out of nothing and take down a pied starling with a heart-stopping “whump!”

Buzzards are broad-winged, bulkier and seemingly lazier, “generalists” as they quarter fields and open ground for rodents and lizards. Owls comprise MNAF’s “stealth fighters”. Mostly night-flyers, they are equipped with enormous eyes, rotating, radar-disc heads, asymmetric ears, and a sound-deadening plumage: a barn owl may waft past you and you’ll never know it, especially if you’re a rat, until it screeches in triumph and you become dinner!

Kites and vultures comprise the “recovery” squadrons. They clear up the carnage left by others, or the remains of any dead animal. Kites may take living creatures, too — birds or small rodents — but the vultures will wait till a fatally wounded animal dies or is utterly helpless.

Most raptors hunt singly, though great migratory squadrons follow migrating targets, picking off kills on the go. Next week, we’ll meet MNAF’s non-raptorial squadrons.

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)

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