BUTCHER birds are so called because they are reputed to have a habit of impaling on thorns their larger victims, or as much of them as they, owing to want of accommodation, are incapable of eating at the time of the murder. A bush which displays a number of impaled victims -: young birds, lizards, locusts, and the like -: is supposed, by a stretch of the ornithological imagination, to look like a butcher's shop. All that is wanted to perfect the illusion is a sign-board, bearing the legend " Lanius vittatus, Purveyor of Meat." I must here admit, with characteristic honesty, that I have never set eyes upon such a butcher's shop, or larder, as it should be called, for the shrike does not sell his wares -: he merely stores them for personal consumption. Nor have I even seen a shrike impale a victim. My failure cannot, I think, be attributed to lack of observation; for I never espy one of these miniature birds of prey without watching it attentively, in the hope that it will oblige me by acting as all books on ornithology tell me shrikes do. Every butcher bird I have witnessed engaged in shikar has pounced down upon its insect quarry from a suitable perch, seized the luckless victim upon the ground, immediately carried it back to its perch and devoured it then and there. I have seen this operation repeated scores of times. I, therefore, think I am justified in suggesting that the habit of keeping a larder is probably restricted to the larger species of shrike, and that these only impale their victim when there is still something of it left over, after they have eaten so much that for the time being they cannot possibly stow away any more. Jerdon, I notice, makes no mention of ever having seen a butcher bird behave in the orthodox manner. Colonel Cunningham, who is a very close observer of bird life, says, as the result of a long sojourn in India, that shrikes " do not seem very often to impale their victims, probably because these are usually easily broken up; but when they have secured a lizard they sometimes fix it down upon a stout thorn so as to have a point of resistance whilst working at the hard, tough skin." If any who read these lines have seen a shrike's larder, either in India or in England, I should esteem it a great favour if they would furnish me with some account of it.
Let me not be mistaken. I do not say that butcher birds never keep larders, for they undoubtedly do; of this I am satisfied. Thus Mr. E. H. Aitken says of the shrike: " It sits upright on the top of a bush or low tree, commanding a good expanse of open, grassy land, and watches for anything which it may be able to surprise and murder -: a large grasshopper, a small lizard, or a creeping field mouse. Sometimes it sees a possible chance in a flock of small birds absorbed in searching for grass seeds. Then it slips from its watch-tower and, gliding softly down, pops into the midst of them without warning, and forgetting all about the true nature of its deep plantar tendons, strikes its talons into the nearest. No other bird' I know of makes its attack in this way except the birds of prey. The little bird shrieks and struggles, but the cruel shrike holds fasts and hammers at the victim's head with its strong beak until it is dead, then flies away with it to some thorn bush which is its larder. There it hangs it up on a thorn and leaves it to get tender. . . . This is no fable, I have seen the bird do it." Again, the Rev. C. D. Cullen, with whom I have enjoyed many an ornithological ramble in England and on the continent of Europe, informs me that once in Surrey he came upon a shrike's larder, and on that occasion the " shop " consisted of the legs of a young green finch.
The usual food, then, of the butcher bird appears to be small insects. When a suitable opportunity offers, the larger species will attack a lizard or a young or sickly bird, especially a bird in a cage. Of the rufous-backed shrike Mr. Benjamin Aitken writes: " It will come down at once to a cage of small birds exposed at a window, and I once had an amadavat killed and partly eaten through the wires by one of these shrikes, which I saw in the act with my own eyes. The next day I caught the shrike in a large basket which I set over the cage of amadavats." But, of course, it is one thing to catch a bird in a cage and another to capture it in the open. Shrikes are savage enough for any murder, but most little birds are too sharp for them.
Fifteen species of shrike occur in India. The commonest are, perhaps, the Indian grey shrike (Lanius lahtora) and the bay-backed shrike (Lanius vittatus).
The latter is the one that frequents our gardens. He is not a large bird, being about the size of a bulbul. The head and back of the neck are a pretty grey. The back is chestnut-maroon, shading off to whitish near the tail. There is a broad black streak running across the forehead and through the eye, giving the bird a grim, sinister aspect. The breast and lower parts are white ; the wings and tail black, or rather appear black when the bird is at rest. During flight the pinions display a conspicuous white bar, and the white outer tail feathers also come into view. The stout beak is black, and the upper mandible projects downwards over the lower one. This further adds to the ferocity of the bird's mien. It is impossible to mistake a butcher bird ; look out for its grey head, broad, black eyebrow, and white breast.
The usual note of the shrike is a harsh cry, but during the breeding season, that is to say, from March to July, the cock is able to produce quite a musical song.
At all times the butcher bird is a great mimic. I am indebted to a correspondent for the following graphic account of his histrionic performances : " Of late one of these birds has daily perched himself on a neem tree in my compound and treated me to much music. His hours of practice are early in the morning and at sunset. He begins with his natural harsh notes, and then launches out into mimicry. I gave him a patient hearing this morning, and he treated me to the following : the lapwing, the sparrow-hawk, the partridge, the Brahminy minah, the kite, the honeysucker, the hornbill (of these parts), the scream of the green parrot, and the cry of a chicken when being carried off by a kite."
The nests of the various species of shrike resemble one another very closely. Speaking generally, the nest is a neatly made, thick-walled, somewhat deep cup. All manner of material is pressed into service -: grass, roots, wool, hair, leaves, feathers, pieces of rag, paper, fine twigs, and straw. The whole forms a compact structure firmly held together by cobweb, which is the cement ordinarily utilised by bird masons.
The nursery is usually situated in a small tree, a thorny one for preference, in the fork of a branch, or the angle that a branch makes with the main stem. Seen from below it looks likes a little mass of rubbish. As a rule one or two pieces of rag hang down from it and betray its presence to the egg-collector.
The normal clutch of eggs is four. The ground colour of these is cream, pale greenish, or grey, and there is towards the large end a zone of brown or purplish blotches.
The shrike is not a shy bird. I have sat within eight feet of a nest and watched the parents feeding their young. No notice was taken of me, but a large lizard that appeared on the branch on which the nest was placed was savagely attacked. The young seem to be fed chiefly on large green caterpillars.
Newly fledged butcher birds differ considerably from the adults, and while in the transition stage are sometimes rather puzzling to the ornithologist.