Quite frankly, they look like the snazziest executioners you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting before they give you (especially if you are a lizard or small rodent) the coup de grace. Shrikes, with their axmens’ masks, glittering black eyes, bull heads and heavy-hooked bills, look like they mean business. They’re medium-sized birds, about as large as mynas or bulbuls. Thirty species have been identified worldwide, of which we, in India, have listed 10: we’ll meet three of the most commonly seen here. They’re complete carnivores, and what they do is not pretty.
Say you’re a little lizard or a grinning frog, or a nasty little rat or husband-eating praying mantis snuffling around in the grass. Suddenly, this thing lands on your back, and before you can squeak or wriggle, hammers down what seems like a heavy boathook on your head — splintering and smashing your delicate skull.
You won’t know much more because it’s now ripping out your brains and wolfing it down. When it’s finished with the starters, it’ll pick you up and impale you like a seekh kabab on a thornbush or barbed-wire fence and hang you to dry like biltong. Various reasons have been given as to why you may get this treatment: the birds have an eye on the future when the pickings may not be so good and so need to stock up their larder. Gentlemen shrikes stock up larders in order to impress the ladies. The drying up of the meat concentrates the microbes and vitamins in it, and, so, may make it even more nutritious. Also, if the prey contained poison — as some frogs, lizards and toads do — the drying process tends to make the venom less potent. Some shrikes have been observed to impale toads on thorns and then skinning them, because that’s where the toads secrete their poison. At any rate, this charming work ethic has earned them the sobriquet of “butcher birds”.
You’ll find shrikes perched straight-backed on the tops of thorn-bushes or fences, or telephone poles, keeping a glittering eye out on the ground beneath. They like lightly wooded scrub country, preferably thorny, and even gardens, orchards and cultivation, depending on the species. The moment they spot a movement, they’ll dive down to investigate and execute. They’re very partial to their neck of the woods and will guard it jealously from interlopers. In India, they’re mostly resident though some local migration does occur.
As you would expect, by and large, they’re harsh-voiced birds too (“chrrr!” “kwi-rick, kwi-rick!”). They maintain quite a repertoire of calls, with each having a different meaning. For example, one to warn chicks of danger and another to warn rivals to stay away. But even these snazzy executioners sing like angels when they are in love. When I first heard a grey shrike sing (a dulcet number), I couldn’t believe my ears and was looking around for some hidden bulbul maestro. His cousin, the long-tailed shrike, sings a soft solo soliloquy for maybe 15 minutes at a stretch and is a consummate mimic of other birds. Salim Ali has listed as many as 30 species, whose voices and songs this fellow can incorporate into his own, which makes him a remarkable bird linguist indeed!
While courting, some of these stone-hearted killers turn to mush and will not even dare to look directly at their beloveds. The besotted fellow will sit by his girl’s side, sweetly singing and softly chatting her up. He will look away from her and cuddle closer up to her, and happily she may respond. The pair is monogamous, at least for each season, and usually raises two broods through the summer. Three to six eggs are laid in a messy-looking cup-like nest made of twigs, grass and thorny stuff stuck and bound with cobweb mid-way up a tree or thorn-bush.
And just how snazzy are these birds?
The largest of the trio we shall meet here is the grey shrike, who is slightly larger than a myna. He or she (there’s no difference between the sexes) is clad in pearly silvery grey, black and white. The head and upper back are silver-grey, the broad mask across the eye black and the under-parts a lovely cottony white. His wings are black with a flashing white decal and the tail is long, graduated in black and white.
The long-tailed shrike, once fairly common at least in my neck of the woods, is smaller and dressed in grey running into rusty orange. He too wears the trademark black mask and likes open thorny country. His tail is black and rufous.
The littlest of the trio, the baybacked shrike, is bulbul-sized and is also, probably, the snazziest. The head is grey and white, the back a lovely, deep maroony-chestnut, the rump off-white, all set off by that deadly broad black mask. Its slightly tubby appearance somehow makes it look like a cute killer.
Several species of birds, like bee-eaters, wear masks. But, in most cases, it makes them look more like costume-party dilettantes. With shrikes, you know it’s deadly serious: These guys have a terrific sense of style all right. But, as that line from Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall tells us, “… the executioner’s face is always well hidden”.