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Jo'Burg Days: Friends For Tea

...As I sit down he flutters anxiously around until he settles on the table within a few inches of my hand and sits, regarding me with a piercing black eye with a slightly malignant expression, until I bring out his daily treat. Then I scatter a few pieces of grated cheese on the corner of my table, and we contentedly enjoy our meal together...

Barbara Durlacher delights in dining with her feathered visitors.

I have written in the past about the multitude of birds in my garden, and the more I study them the more I recognise individuals by their characteristics and appearance. I also realise that many of the birds stay in their ‘home range’ and that they have also studied my behaviour and appearance.

This is particularly evident during the winter and early spring when they are nest building and feeding chicks, as then they incessantly demand the additional foods I put out for them. Many of them wait around within sight of my patio where I like to take my meals when the weather is fine. The mouse birds and grey loeries know that with sufficient ‘nagging’ and anxious body language to indicate their extreme hunger, they can galvanise me into putting out the chopped up apples, oranges, bananas and occasional pawpaw which these fruit eaters enjoy so much, but there is one little black and white fellow who is more confident that the others and comes to my table every time he sees me.

He, or perhaps it is a she, is a small black and white fiscal shrike who has developed a passion for grated cheese and he invariably arrives within a few seconds of me taking a seat on the patio. As I sit down he flutters anxiously around until he settles on the table within a few inches of my hand and sits, regarding me with a piercing black eye with a slightly malignant expression, until I bring out his daily treat. Then I scatter a few pieces of grated cheese on the corner of my table, and we contentedly enjoy our meal together.

I’ve studied this little bird carefully from close quarters, and noticed his ferociously curved beak as well as his dive-bombing sorties against his enemies, the doves, who - equally anxiously – saunter back and forth on the outskirts of our little group hoping for some crumbs from the rich man’s table. It seems pretty obvious that he is a shrike, one of the lesser raptors and commonly known, in South Africa at least, as a Butcher Bird from his rather unpleasant habit of killing defenceless small animals, and hanging them on barbed wire fences until they have dry enough to become a tasty snack.

Where I live however, there is an elderly gentleman who is a great bird expert, and he has assured me that from ‘my’ little bird’s markings, it is not a shrike or Butcher Bird, but a flycatcher. Although I would love to have both these two species in my garden, they do not, I think, exist together in such close proximity in a suburban garden, especially as their food requirements are different and the flycatcher would become the prey of the fiscal shrike.

Whichever they are, they are charming additions to my garden and it gives me many hours of pleasure watching their antics. But with all the comings and goings between the various inhabitants, I still have not solved one big question with reference to my little Butcher which is, that of his/her sex. You see, every time I put out his food (I’ll continue to use the masculine pronoun for the moment) he quickly gobbles down a couple of mouthfuls and then, loading his beak with as much as it can carry, he streaks off to somewhere not far away where presumably, he or maybe she, has a nestful of ravenous young, all yelling for their meal.

The intriguing thing about this behaviour is that occasionally, when she loads her beak with cheese and streaks back to the nest - and from the number of sorties she makes it seems that she is feeding not only the kids, but granny, granddad and all the aunts and uncles as well - time and again, sitting on an observation post only feet away, is another identical shrike who, in most instances, takes absolutely no notice of the activity on the table. And again, as far as I can tell, he never comes down to the table for a bite or two of delicious cheese.

Are they a married couple, or are they two separate species, one a flycatcher and the other a fiscal shrike? Perhaps they are two male birds, or perhaps my half-tame little bird is a female with chicks, and the other on the fence post a mature male from last year’s brood who, without a family to provide for has no interest in becoming habituated to human food, and dislikes cheese?

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Hot News!

The mystery about my little bird feeding such a big family has resolved itself into two clumsy fledglings both of whom have prodigious appetites; to my delight, today I saw the little family in the high branches of a nearby tree for the first time. A few minutes later, the stronger fledgling flew to the back of the chair (pictured) where he stood for a second or two yelling for food. Meanwhile Mum was filling her beak with cheese. Then together they flew to a high branch and I watched the youngster as he scoffed the lot.

Both the young birds are at that clumsy stage where they can fly short distances and hop from branch to branch, but they are too uncoordinated to fend for themselves. A few minutes later, while the stronger bird waited on his branch for the next mouthful, he tried to grab a bee in midair and missing it, flopped to the ground.

In about a week they will be fully independent and it’s thanks to the efforts of the cheese-maker and the hardworking mother that our local bird population is richer by two tiny individuals.

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