Long-tailed shrike. Photo: V Santharam
The brown shrike (Lanius cristatus cristatus ) is ironically the shrike that seems to be most at home in and around Chennai, though it hardly has its hearth in these parts. A winter visitor, the brown shrike regularly crosses the spotting scope during the migratory season. “There is the sub-species of the brown shrike called the Philippine shrike. That is also a winter visitor in this region, putting in an appearance in different parts. I have seen it in the Adyar estuary. It is not as common as the nominate brown shrike species though. It looks just like the brown shrike, except that the head is grey and the flanks are orangish,” reveals V Santharam, ornithologist.
In glaring contrast, the resident shrike in this region, the long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach caniceps) plays the will-o’-the-wisp — for no fault of its own, but largely ours.
“Grassland and scrub jungles are the main habitat of shrikes and they may tend to inhabit agricultural lands that border on a scrub jungle or a grassland. Now, we have the problem of converting these areas into something else by planting trees and ‘improving’ them.That way, the long-tailed shrike around Chennai is facing a problem. Though a resident, the species is not common around Chennai. For it to thrive, the long-tailed shrike needs a good scrub jungle, a thorny scrub jungle,” explains Santharam.
On how to spot a long-tailed shrike when there is one staring you in the face, Santharam lists a few diagnostic features. “Though it is called rufous-backed, the long-tailed shrike has only a grey back. On the flanks, there is a reddish-orangish wash. The tail is blackish and is longer than that of the brown shrike.”
As a mimic, the long-tailed shrike can probably give the drongo a run for its money, being capable of vocally impersonating quite a number of other species.
“I have found the long-tailed mimicking the pied cuckoo and the red-wattled lapwing. The pied cuckoo call really had me thinking that the pied cuckoo was really where I was. When I looked around and saw where the call was coming from, it was the long-tailed shrike sitting there and making one noise after the other,” laughs Santharam.
The ornithologt recalls how many decades ago “we would see the long-tailed shrike in Vandalur — in the scrub jungle which is where the Vandalur zoo stands now — and adjacent hills where there are thorny scrub jungles. But even in those days, the long-tailed shrike was not very common.”
Santharam believes shrikes are a subject waiting to be studied in detail, particularly for the odds arrayed against them.
“The shrikes are a little higher up in the food chain. By the time the food that they eat comes to them, there would be some residues of chemicals and things that have built up and may be harming them. Grasslands and scrub areas being a casualties of development, it is a double whammy for the shrikes.”
Another shrike,namely the southern grey shrike, draws a blank in the Chennai region. Santharam notes: “It is probably no longer to be found in these places. There are however historical records. I have myself seen it in a scrub jungle off the Bangalore highway, in the vicinity of Chembarambakkam lake.”