Wildbuzz | In irises, do roses dwell

The irises of the female northern goshawk, which alone was known as the ‘baaz’ or ‘shahbaaz’, changed from lemon yellow to an orange-red with age while the male goshawk or the ‘zurrah’ would sport blazing ruby eyes upon maturity
J. Wolf’s illustration carried in Burton’s 1852 book: a Shahbaaz hunting down a gazelle. (HT Photo)
J. Wolf’s illustration carried in Burton’s 1852 book: a Shahbaaz hunting down a gazelle. (HT Photo)
Updated on Dec 12, 2021 04:03 AM IST
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ByVikram Jit Singh

‘Goolab chasm’ or rose eyes or the light-eye ones was the vernacular name conferred upon hawks as opposed to ‘Siah chasm’ or the black-eyed ones bestowed upon falcons by the nobility of the sub-continent.

The irises of the female northern goshawk, which alone was known as the ‘baaz’ or ‘shahbaaz’, changed from lemon yellow to an orange-red with age while the male goshawk or the ‘zurrah’ would sport blazing ruby eyes upon maturity. The sheer beauty of the shahbaaz’s eyes was deceptive for it was a raptor enjoying a reputation for uncommon strength, tenacity, suicidal courage and viciousness in pursuit of prey. The changing roses in her aging irises were as if these had been sourced directly from the writhing prey’s frothing blood.

There are documented cases of large eagles such as the Bonelli’s bringing down fawns or even a large monitor lizard. In the bygone era, three to five Saker falcons would be set in a flying pack upon an Indian gazelle (chinkara) with the winged hunters not too infrequently impaled on the chinkara’s dagger-like horns. But it was upon the shahbaaz upon whom was lent the distinction of flooring an adult Chinkara all by herself; a mighty prowess that rendered her the esteemed bird of Mughal emperors, Sikh Gurus and Rajput rajahs.

In his volume published in 1852, ‘Falconry In The Valley Of Indus’, the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Burton, described the royal shahbaaz as one that could cost as “much as a (sum) fully equal to 200 pounds in England.” On a hunt with the Ameer of Sindh, Burton penned a vivid narrative of the shahbaaz killing a racing gazelle after braving the danger from dagger horns that repeatedly pierced her tail and thigh feathers.

“She swooped upon its back, deeply scoring the delicate yellow coat as she passed by. Then she descended upon the gazelle’s head, deafening it with her clashing pinions, and blinding it with her raking talons. As the victim, losing strength and breath by excess of fear, could no longer use its weapons (horns) with the same dexterity, the boldness of the Shahbaaz increased. Then the Ameer’s dogs, who had become ferocious as wolves, gained sensibly upon their victim. But even before the dogs had fastened their fangs upon the gazelle’s quarters, the unhappy gazelle was stretched, panting and struggling with the Shahbaaz straining every nerve to pin its head to the ground,” wrote Burton.

A heron with its catch at Sukhna regulator-end. (PHOTO: ANUJ JAIN)
A heron with its catch at Sukhna regulator-end. (PHOTO: ANUJ JAIN)

Blood eyes, lemon legs

Hawk-eyed visitors and walkers to the last pond at the Sukhna lake, where the regulator gates are situated, would have noticed blackish-white birds hunched at intervals in the bushes flanking the water. These birds seem virtually frozen in posture, like the nearby Buddha statue in the typically unquiet, Garden of Silence. Known as Black-crowned Night herons, these wetland birds are a resident species and some nest just a few hundred yards away on the tall trees that straddle the boundary of the UT Fish Seed Farm.

Adult herons are distinctly coloured with unblinking, dark orange to blood-red irises, dull green legs/feet that morph to lemon, orange-red or pinkish red in the breeding season, a greenish-black back and a handsome black crest sporting a few white plumes. The crest stands momentarily erect when herons express emotions at their nesting or roosting places, such as territorial spats. Immature herons are brown, streaked and speckled with rufous, buff and dark brown. Herons are prone to feeding at night, setting upon flights to and from their feeding grounds with vocalisations of a raucous ‘kwaak’ call. This characteristic call confers upon herons the common vernacular name, Kwaak.

The diet of herons comprises fish, frogs, aquatic insects, dragonfly larvae etc.


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