Wildbuzz: Robber of shikar booty

The harrier, a migratory bird that winters in the region’s wetlands such as the Sukhna lake and Motemajra, steals prey from not only shikaris but also avian predators
A harrier scoops a Gadwall duck from the Keshopur Chhamb, Gurdaspur.(PHOTO: VISHESH KAMBOJ)
A harrier scoops a Gadwall duck from the Keshopur Chhamb, Gurdaspur.(PHOTO: VISHESH KAMBOJ)
Updated on Oct 24, 2020 10:29 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | ByVikram Jit Singh

Let us meet an unusual bird, one that would not beat a hasty retreat when the marshes and jheels would resound with the gunfire of shikaris (hunters) targeting migratory ducks and geese. A raptor adapted superbly for ferreting out prey sheltering in reeds and aquatic vegetation mats, the Western Marsh harrier would make haste for the site of gunfire because the canny avian hunter knew it could steal a dead duck or a wounded one by investing least energy!

Ornithologists of such impeccable peerage as the late Dr Salim Ali and Rishad Naoroji have in their books recorded this novel aspect of the harrier’s foraging behaviour from an era when shikar was an elite field sport. “It (harrier) is notorious for its habit of making off with wildfowl — sometimes as large and heavy as itself — falling to a sportsman’s gun with the utmost audacity, regardless of his shouts and gesticulations,” wrote Dr Ali. Naoroji adds to this fascinating vignette of natural history by stating that the harrier appears to “even associate gunshot sounds with an easy meal”.

The harrier, a migratory bird that winters in the region’s wetlands such as the Sukhna lake and Motemajra, steals prey from not only shikaris but also avian predators. Naoroji writes that a harrier was observed making off with a morsel after snatching it from a Greater Spotted eagle. Herons also face the prospect of harriers stealing or pirating the prey they have killed. However, in Nature a balance is often struck and so is the case with the ‘harrier thief’. Larger raptors like the Aquila and Pallas’s eagles or the formidable Black-necked stork can make off with the prey hunted by a harrier, thus saving themselves hard work in the field. This is akin to a tiger grabbing a leopard’s hard kill and the smaller big cat scooting off without a murmur of outrage. Here, poetic justice emerges as a sub-plot of Nature’s typically unjust ways, which are premised on the amorality of ‘might is right’.

When not filching kills, the harrier’s typical hunting behaviour is to “sail leisurely a few metres above the reed beds on motionless wings, occasionally boosted by a few heavy flaps, jinking in its flight from time to time and dropping into the reeds to seize its prey,” as Dr. Ali put it. A harrier can get rather nasty, too! A captured waterfowl can be deliberately drowned by the harrier to subdue resistance before the prey is defeathered for a feast.

A harrier is equipped with special features such as long, slender, unfeathered legs for reaching prey through thick grass, reed beds or tangled undergrowth. “The harrier’s facial disc containing large ear openings is bordered by an owl-like ruff of stiff feathers which probably enhances hearing by focusing on rustling of prey such as mice and small birds concealed in grass,” wrote Naoroji.

With a penchant for identifying weak, straggler, wounded or laggard birds in a flock, the harrier ensures good returns on precious energies expended while hunting. Just as it is alert to food prospects left in gunfire’s wake, Naoroji observed harriers flying in the aftermath of hunting sorties by the Pallas’s Fish eagle to spot any weak bird flushed and exposed by the marauding eagle’s terror.

An exhilarating photographic record of a harrier’s successful hunt skimming over dense aquatic vegetation is showcased in this column. It was the result of hours of painstaking field vigils by Vishesh Kamboj, a ‘birds in action’ photographer and who is by profession the additional chief judicial magistrate, Gurdaspur.

vjswild1@gmail.com

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Monday, November 29, 2021