It’s been my all-time favourite city bird, so much so that I even cast it as the hero in my first book, The Crow Chronicles. Also, over the last month or so, a pair that has been nesting in the Nicholson cemetery next door has been shrieking at me to write about them and are doing so even as I write this. Of course, they’ve only shown themselves fleetingly, you hear their piercing calls, “ki-kee! ki-kee!” and catch a brief glimpse as they weave and jink between the branches and boughs, but they have also posed for me on occasions, glowering fiercely at the camera out of yellow or blood-orange ringed eyes.
Meet the shikra, a diminutive hawk, smaller than a crow, with the fighting spirit and flying skill of a World War II Spitfire. The ladies are usually dark brown, with a delicate rusty basket-weave on the breast; gentlemen can be silvery-grey with the same patterns. Youngsters are more heavily stippled, with dark vertical streaks down the breast. They’re found pretty much everywhere in the country and here in Delhi, I’ve often heard their cries while waiting at traffic lights in the greener parts of the city. (Amazing how no one else hears them!) They nest between February and June, building a messy platform of twigs high up in leafy trees like neem, tamarind and mango, and also for the record, in eucalyptus trees.
There’s a fierce do-or-die spirit about them, they’re the sort of bird you’d think would take on a goonda golden eagle without hesitation if they thought they was doing the right and just thing (like some brave people take on the might of the government). And watching them hunt can stop your heart and make your brain short-circuit with awe. Late one evening, I was watching a medley of mynas coming home to roost, gossiping at the top of their voices about how they’d spent their day. A small dark gliding missile suddenly swooped out of the surrounding trees, weaving masterfully through the myna flock where gossip turned to instant panic. For one pied myna, it was too late. Claws out, the shikra whumped straight into it, rose slightly, then dropped down to the ground, the struggling myna clamped in its claws, on its back, squawking desperately. For a brief moment, alarm calls rang out and then there was quiet as the rest of the flock realised that one of them had been taken, but at least they could now sleep in peace. On the ground, the shikra mantled its victim, looked around defiantly and began plucking its dinner, feathers flying this way and that. Eventually, it flew up into a tree to eat at leisure.
On another occasion, I had spotted a male, keeping watch from a bare branch of the fishtail palm (since deceased) in the garden. It was completely exposed, but very still. I settled down for lunch and heard a muffled whump through the dining room window. This time, it was a parakeet that had been flattened.
This ambush-assassin has short rounded wings which flap swiftly and a longish tail enabling it to weave and swerve at high speed through the lightly wooded country it prefers. It’s rather like one of those insane skiers slaloming down precipitous mountainsides. Small animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects make up its diet — though on one occasion I suspect it had something larger in mind…
On a solitary ramble through the Delhi Ridge, I was trying to follow one through a thorny scrubby patch and seemed to have lost the bird. I stood still to take stock and suddenly, instinctively, ducked. Out of the trees, the shikra homed straight at me, its golden eyes blazing, whizzing inches over my head and weaving away through the trees. Alarmed babblers and mynas and squirrels called in its wake as it disappeared, leaving me to figure out whether I had just survived an attempt on my life!
Naturally, such a solitary serial assassin is not a favourite with other birds. Crows will mob it and babblers, mynas, bulbuls and parakeets start a hullabaloo when they spot one. The shikra has no option but to duck out of sight until the bedlam dies down. And when it does and the birds forget…
Often, the birds like circling high in the sky, fluttering with quick, pulsating wingbeats and while courting, will (like many raptors), engage in aerial acrobatics the Red Devils or crack sky-divers would envy (and be foolish enough to emulate). They’ll steeple upwards, free fall somersaulting, hover with slow deliberation, or stoop breathtakingly. Both parents build the nest and feed the brood and up to five eggs may be laid, though I suspect fratricide might take place in this family too if rations fall short and times are hard. They may use the same residence year after year — a friend reported that one pair had been nesting in the same tree for more than five years. Many raptors are known to extend and embellish their residences over the years — just as we do (usually illegally though).
If you’re ever down in the dumps, or have been squashed or wronged or done an injustice, and feel you’re really up against odds, go seek out the shikra. Oh yes, it’ll glower witheringly at you, no sympathy there (“why the heck are you feeling sorry for yourself, get a grip, man!”) and then its defiant, challenging cry, “ki-kee! Ki-kee!” will ring out and make you set your jaw and curl your palm into fists and stomp off to take down the enemy, no matter how big or bad he is.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher