From time to time you stumble across stories that deserve a wider audience, not that this little blog would carry much weight in the sub-continent from where this story comes.
Earlier today a post on the Bangalore Birds internet group sparked my interest in the life and work of Madhaviah Krishnan, an Indian journalist who for a remarkable 46 years wrote a column for The Statesman of Calcutta called ‘Country Notebook.‘
I’ve had a look at a few of his columns and they compare more than favourably to that other long-lived exemplar of nature writing, The Guardian’s Country Diary, which has run – albeit with many different writers – for at least 100 years.
But singlehandedly penning a column for 46 years wasn’t the only string in M. Krishnan’s bow.
According to the Wikipedia entry for M. Krishnan he:
… initially wrote in several Tamil magazines. In 1942, he was offered employment by the Maharaja of Sandur near Bellary in Karnataka. Krishnan took up this position and the works he undertook included being a schoolteacher, judge, publicity officer and a political secretary to the Maharaja.
He spent a lot of his time wandering in the wilderness, observing nature, tried grazing sheep, breeding pigeons to work in a pigeon postal system and writing. His essays on wildlife photography were published in The Illustrated Weekly of India in a series entitled Wildlife Photographers Diary.
He also wrote in The Hindu by the pen-name of Z.
In 1949, Sandur was unified in the Indian republic. From 1950 he wrote a bi-weekly column in The Statesman of Calcutta … from 1950 to February 18, 1996, the day he died.
Here is one of his pieces on the Shikra, a small raptor that was republished in The Statesman last December. It was first published on 8 February 1953 in The Sunday Statesman.
For mine it is as fine a pice of nature writing as you’ll find.
Thuggery in the treetops
FOR the past month, I have been hearing the thin, high, petulant “Ki-kiyu” of the Shikra, and occasionally I have seen the bird in the dazzling midday sky — whirring along on quick, blurred pinions, then sailing in an ascending circle on still, round wings, the long tall spread like a half-shut banded fan.
There are two of these hawks about that call and answer in the same querulous tone, though they seem to keep a certain distance apart. By these tokens I know they are a courting pair that will later nest somewhere near, probably in the clump of mangoes a quarter mile away.
Ordinarily, the shikra is not given to high jinks and public appearances, for it lives by thuggery and thugs do not proclaim themselves. It lurks in obscuring foliage, waiting for the unsuspecting victim to approach before pouncing down on it, and when it goes from tree to tree — its passage announced by the shrill twitters of little birds and the alarmcheeps of squirrels — it keeps low and flies direct and fast.
Even when it goes coasting the fields, as it does at times, it hugs the contour of each dip and hollow and takes good care to keep below any line of trees so that it may arrive unexpectedly at the next field. It is capable of determined pursuit and speed over a short distance, but furtive means and attacks from ambush are what it favours.
But just before it pairs and breeds, it takes freely to the air and goes soaring on high.
Its harsh, grating voice then changes to a high, frequent “K-kiyu”, a call that is exchanged all day from the wing and even from perches between the courting pair. To human ears, few bird calls are more expressive of tantalised impatience at the slow, tedious progress of love imposed by nature! However, the call is also used at other times.
I have heard an angry shikra, attacking crows, repeatedly indulge in this call — it seemed louder and less plaintive then, with a challenging ring in it, but this was probably because I heard it from so near.
When the sun sinks behind the trees and night is imminent, sparrows and other small birds flock to their roosts and the shikra is well aware of this opportunity.
It lies in wait, huddled in some thick-leaved trees, and if a little bird alights near by it makes its plunge, flinging itself bodily through twig and leaf. Often enough the quarry escapes, and then the hawk may fly swift and low to another tree, or lurk on in the same ambush. There is no rule governing its behaviour on such occasions, except that it fails quite frequently in its dusk hunting. One February evening I followed a shikra from 6.25 pm till close on seven o’clock — it made three attempts to snatch its dinner in that time and, having failed, flew away over the horizon when it was almost dark.
The shikra is capable of fine courage, too, when there is need for courage. It can tackle mynahs and birds almost as big as itself, as the old-time falconers knew well, and it will fight even larger birds on occasion.
Once I was watching a shikra eating a bloodsucker on the branch of a neem, when first one jungle-crow and then another came up and settled on a branch close by. The hawk resented their covetous glances and their sidling closer, and abandoning its prey it flung itself at the intruders with a torrent of “Ki-kiyus” — I was amazed at this onslaught, for the crows were larger birds and by no means incapable of fighting, moreover there were two of them.
So impetuous was the attack that all three birds came tumbling down in a frantic ball of black and barred feathers, that rolled about on the ground below for moment before resolving itself into two crows that fled for dear life and an angry, open-beaked hawk. Both crows must have been grabbed simultaneously, one in each taloned foot, for this to have happened, but incredible as it may seen, it did happen.
I would much like to tell you how the victor returned to the hard-won meal and consumed it in triumph, but in fact this incident ended even more like a story. For while the hawk was routing its enemies, a third crow made an unobtrusive appearance on the scene, by a rear entrance, and few away with the dead lizard, even more unobtrusively!
You can see some of Madhaviah Krishnan’s photography here.