A bird on a wicker stared at us intensely as we looked fretfully for an elusive Quail in the grass at Bosila under a threatening rain cloud. The bird was a Long-tailed Shrike, and it was looking inquiringly into our eyes. We were unsure if his severe look was reproaching us for ignoring him or pacing the grass where his favourite insects live.
We did ignore the bird on the wicker, perhaps, because we had seen the Long-tailed Shrike a hundred times before. Since it is seen often, we hardly ever take a second look at it. But being under its penetrating gaze, we took a good look at it and really liked what we saw. It was a healthy adult decked in befitting colours for the upcoming breeding season. The bird had every right to rebuke us for overlooking him.
In spite of the deepening darkness and a drizzle, the brave Shrike started to chirp softly like a Sparrow. Obviously, it was a male bird mimicking the song of a sparrow to impress the females. The usual song of the Long-tailed Shrike is a series of loud, shrill croaks – somewhat like a frog in distress. But the male can imitate the songs of other birds, including the House Sparrow.
Although the garish shriek of the Shrike has given it its name, the Long-tailed Shrike is pretty good at mimicking the agreeable calls of many birds and some mammals besides. That capacity of mimicry, however, has not served the Shrikes very well in the past centuries. Many Shrikes have been living wretched lives as cage birds and participating in bird-song contests in many Southeast Asian countries.
Fortunately, the Long-tailed Shrike has not become a pet in the Indian Subcontinent, perhaps, because it is a meat-eater and not very congenial to keep indoors. It is also very fierce and ever-ready to use its sharp claws and robust bills to inflict considerable injury to its handler. Those attributes saved it from persecution in Bangladesh except in the hilly regions where it is hunted for its flesh.
Even without persecution, the population of the Long-tailed Shrike in Bangladesh is becoming small because its food is not so abundant anymore. Its foraging opportunity in this country is shrinking since it feeds only on large insects, small reptiles and tiny birds. Moreover, it hunts only on the ground. That is why a single Shrike needs a lot of ground to get its daily supply of fresh meat.
The falling population of Long-tailed Shrike is depressing the populations of our beloved Asian Koel and several other species of cuckoos in Bangladesh. The Shrikes consistently worked as the foster parents to the Koel and the cuckoos. The robust Shrike has the unique ability to raise a second brood of its own in the same nest after fostering the cuckoo chick.
Shrikes are popularly called 'Butcher-birds' because they often impale their prey on thorns just as the butchers hang their animals to slice up. The generic name of the Long-tailed Shrike is Lanius which means 'butcher' in Latin. Loggerhead Shrike, the only endemic Shrike of North America, keeps a shockingly large larder of dead prey on the trees after a spell of good hunting days.
The great American naturalist and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau saw the Shrike build its larder on trees by the famous wetland named Walden. In a poem titled 'The Shrike', he expressed his delight at a diligent Shrike looking agog at the larder it gained. Here are his first four heady lines:
Hark-hark- from out the thickest fog
Warbles with might and main
The fearless Shrike, as all agog
To find in fog his gain.
Although the two American continents have only a single species of resident Shrike, Bangladesh has two of them. The most common one is the Long-tailed Shrike, and the rare one is called the Bay-backed Shrike. Besides those two residents, we have four more species in winter: Brown Shrike, Grey-backed Shrike, Burmese Shrike and Isabelline Shrike. Even a fifth, the Great Grey Shrike, was seen once in the past century.
In winter, the Long-tailed Shrike is greatly outnumbered by the migratory Brown Shrike in Bangladesh. The larger and dominant Long-tailed Shrike quite charitably allows the smaller migrants to live alongside and share its hunting grounds. They probably have different menus and do not compete for food.
We have never seen the visiting Brown Shrike attacked by a Long-tailed Shrike, although it often hunts small birds such as Prinias and Ioras. It may well be the manifestation of tolerance towards a fellow family member. It may also be the hunter's cost-benefit calculation; since the visiting Shrike is as much a sharp-clawed and strong-billed warrior as our resident Shrike. Brown Shrikes are not as attractive prey as the Prinias.
We greatly appreciate the Long-tailed Shrike's inclination to share its territory with the visiting Shrikes in winter, whatever may be the underlying reasons. Like us humans, the resident Shrikes could have felt outnumbered and threatened by the migrant population even when they eat a different menu.
We call Shrikes the Butcher Birds, but the epithet does not befit the bird as much as it does to us, humans. The Shrikes seem to be much more judicious than the human butchers at exploiting the limited resources of the earth and better at sharing the planet with other species.