(706) Lanius excubitor lahtora (Sykes).
THE INDIAN GREAT GREY SHRIKE.
Lanius excubitor lahtora, Fauna B. I., Birds, 2nd ed. vol. ii, p. 285.
This Indian representative of the English Great Grey Shrike is found throughout the Central and Northern plains of India, extending as far South as Belgaum on the West and thence through the Deccan and Central Provinces to Eastern Bengal, where it has been found as far as Calcutta as a straggler only. In the North it occurs from Sind to Behar and is a resident breeding bird in the Western drier districts of Bengal. It is entirely a bird of the plains, though it occurs on the high dry uplands of the Deccan at about 2,000 feet and is very common in many of the more desert regions. In the Himalayas it never occurs, so far as has been recorded, above some 1,500 feet and, even at this elevation, I have no knowledge of its breeding, while, for the most part, the dense forest and heavy rainfall over the greater part of the foot-hills of the Himalayas would suffice to shut it out from these areas.
It is not a shy or retiring bird and frequently breeds in the more arid waste land in the vicinity of villages, and is also common near many towns but, apparently, never builds its nest in gardens or compounds, which are probably too green and too wet for its liking.
They seem to be extremely common round about Delhi, where Bingham counted thirteen nests in an evening’s walk. So, too, round Lucknow, where Jesse, on several occasions, came across many nests in a single day’s nest-hunting.
Its choice of a situation for its nest varies somewhat. Blewitt, describing his experiences in the neighbourhood of Delhi, says that, in selecting a tree, “if it has a preference it is for the close growing roonj-tree (Acacia leucophlcea).” Most observers, however, seem to think that on the whole it prefers trees which are not very densely foliaged. Thus Reid and Jesse both found that round Lucknow small Babool-trees growing in open country were favourite nesting places ; Butler says of the nests he found round Deesa that they were generally placed “in some low, isolated, leaf¬less thorny tree (Acacia sizyphus, etc.), from 6 to 10 feet from the ground.” It is never placed at any great height and, whilst most nests are built in branches under 10 feet up, few are placed over that height, while others are as low as 4 or 5 feet only.
The nest is a very large, bulky cup measuring anything from 5 to nearly 8 inches in diameter and nearly as much in depth, whilst the egg-cavity may be from 3 to 5 inches across and about the same in depth. Hume, however, gives rather more shallow dimensions. He writes :—“Generally the nests are very compact and solid, 6 or 7 inches in diameter, and the egg-cavity 3 or 4 in diameter and 2 to 2.1/2 in depth, but I have come across very loose and straggling ones.”
The materials of which the nests are composed vary very greatly and, as Hume remarks, it is very difficult to generalize about them. Coarse grass, grass-roots and small twigs, the latter often thorny, perhaps constitute the favourite articles and form the greater part of most nests. On the other hand, the outer parts of some nests are built almost entirely of the flowering ends of grasses. In many nests wool, hair, fur and, sometimes, feathers are worked in with the other materials, wool especially being often made use of. Besides these, odd scraps of rag, skin, bark, vegetable fibre and other oddments may all be found from time to time as component parts of various nests. The hning is more often of grass and roots than of anything else but, here too, wool and hair are often sub¬stituted for, or mixed with, the grass, while Hume found some nests lined with “silky vegetable fibre, mostly that of the putsan (Hibiscus cannabinus). Blewitt found one nest lined entirely "with old cloth pieces, very cleverly and ingeniously worked into the exterior frame-work.”
They seem to he rather fond of building in company, though, in some cases, it may be that other birds build their nests in the same trees as the Shrikes in order to obtain the protection of these bold defenders of their own young. Nor is their faith in the Shrikes betrayed by the latter stealing their young for, I believe, in no instance do the Shrikes kill the young of those birds nesting under their protection, a curious fact which also obtains with many other birds, both Raptores and others.
Blewitt once found four nests of various birds in one tree within a foot of one another. Aitken similarly found four nests in a small Babool-tree, although, when found, only one was occupied.
Often the Great Grey Shrike will return to an old nest and lay in it a second year, sometimes repairing it and doing it up properly, but sometimes just making use of it in its dilapidated condition, without any attempt at reconditioning. Blewitt refers to this habit, and adds : “It is not only, however, in old nests of their own species that these birds make a home in the breeding season. At times they take possession of fabrics clearly not the work of any Shrike. Quite recently I found a pair of L. lahtora with four eggs in a small nest entirely woven of hemp, the bottom of which was thickly coated with the droppings of former occupants. Again, on the 8th June a nest was found on a roonj tree. This wonderful nest is entirely composed of what I take to be old felt and feathers.
“Evidently this nest was not originally made by the Shrike, but, as would appear, was taken possession of by it, after the brood of some other bird had left it.”
The birds breed practically throughout the year, as eggs have been taken from January to October. Hume writes :—“The Indian Grey Shrike breeds from January to August, but the majority of my eggs have been obtained during March and April.” This seems to be the general rule and few eggs are laid before March or after July, but a great many in May and June.
The number of eggs laid is most often four but five are not un¬common and, occasionally, three are incubated. In appearance the eggs—for Shrikes’ eggs—are dull, and do not vary very greatly. The great majority of eggs agree with Hume’s description:— "Typically the eggs are of a broad oval shape, more or less pointed towards one end, of a delicate greenish-white ground, pretty thickly blotched and spotted with various shades of brown and purple markings, which, always most numerous towards the large end, exhibit a strong tendency to form there an ill-defined zone or irregular mottled cap.”
The ground-colour in my own series varies from a quite bright pale sea-green, through dull pale grey-green and buffy green, to a very pale dull buff or yellowish-stone colour. The markings range in colour from a dull light brown to a deep, almost blackish- brown, with secondary blotches and spots of lilac and neutral tint, a few of these being unusually deep in colour for secondary markings. The blotches are, as a rule, of some size, but a few eggs are more speckled than blotched, and occasionally the blotches are still bigger and then generally fewer also. In a few eggs the secondary marks are more numerous than the primary, but this is rare.
One hundred eggs average 25.9 x 19.7 mm. : maxima 28.5 x 20.4 and 27.9 x 21.3 mm. ; minima 23.0 x 20.3 and 25.3 x 18.1 mm.
706. Lanius excubitor lahtora
(706) Lanius excubitor lahtora (Sykes).