Colours of Wildlife: Magpie Shrike

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Magpie Shrike

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Magpie Shrike by Willem

Here I have for you another bird I have a soft spot for! It's a Magpie Shrike, Corvinella melanoleuca, also known as a Longtailed Shrike. The scientific name means 'little black-and-white crow', but recently it's been proposed to classify it in a new genus, Urolestes. This looks very much like a magpie – clever, black-and-white, long-tailed birds of the crow family, familiar in Europe, America and much of Asia. No magpies live in Africa. However, in Southern and East Africa, these magpie-like birds thrive. They live in small groups, five to twelve birds, in dry, open savannah regions. From their conspicuous perches on the tops of trees or bushes, their lovely, flutey 'pee-peeleoo' calls carry far over the tall grass. Indeed, you usually hear them calling before you can see them. But seeing them is easy too. Their black-and-white coloration stands out boldly against the browns, greens and yellows of their habitat, and their very long tails blow in the wind or stream behind them as they fly quick sorties from their perches. With tail included, these birds reach a length of 50 cm/20". Those in East Africa have rather shorter tails than those in South Africa. Indeed, the tail in my illustration is on the short side for this species; they become really long, like a great banner advertising the vitality of the bird sporting it.

Sociable Shrikes

Despite their magpie-like appearance, these are not at all closely related to magpies or crows, but are true shrikes. Shrikes constitute a small family of predatory songbirds. They're perhaps the most predatory of all songbirds, some shrike species frequently catching small mammals or other birds almost as large as themselves, and sticking their carcases up on thorns or barbed wire fences. The shrike family is well-represented in Africa, with several species that are resident, and a few species that migrate in from up north, some travelling all the way from northern Asia and Europe down to South Africa every year. Magpie shrikes are residents, but do move around over short distance, so that sometimes they are common in one region, sometimes rare, having moved elsewhere in search of food. Apart from true shrikes, there are different African birds called bush shrikes and helmet shrikes, which are actually not very closely related to the true shrikes, despite having similar builds and habits.

Of the true shrikes, the magpie shrikes are the most social, always living and hunting in small groups. Unlike other shrikes, magpie shrikes are mainly insectivorous. They might catch small lizards and snakes also, but they don't feed on other birds or on mammals. They're also not known to impale their prey. They prefer open areas with short grass, so that the ground is visible, as they mostly target ground-living insects like grasshoppers. From their high perches they spy out a wide territory with their bright eyes, swooping down and trying to grab any mouth-watering little critter they spot.

Magpie shrikes not only live and hunt together in groups, but also sometimes join groups with other bird species, like drongos or scimitarbills. These groups are an example of mutual cooperation; different bird species target different kinds of insects, and what one bird passes over, is often grabbed by another.

Also when they breed, these shrikes are cooperative. Their nests are rather bulky cups made from dry grass and thin, thorny twigs, situated typically in an acacia tree. The female lays up to six buffy-yellow eggs. The male and female incubate; when the chicks hatch, the other birds of the group also help feeding them. In many cases, these are the older siblings of the new chicks. Instead of starting their own families early, they gain experience by helping their parents raise their younger brothers and sisters. This way they increase the percentage of their parents' chicks surviving to adulthood – chicks that share some of their own genes – and the experience they gain also helps them to better raise their own first brood of chicks when the time comes.

At present, magpie shrikes occur over a wide region with lots of suitable habitat available. They do not adapt well to man-modified environments: they absolutely need the wide expanses of open grassland dotted with thorny trees, avoiding the neat, manicured, pest-controlled gardens of the suburbs, though they might enter large parks if the grass of these is left to grow wild. In some regions, the habitat has changed to their detriment as a result of over-grazing by domestic stock, reducing the grass cover and stimulating encroachment by bushes and trees. But provided that the veld quality is sustainably controlled, they can co-exist well enough with domestic animals like cattle, goats or sheep. They occur plentifully in many nature reserves and game parks, and are at present not endangered.

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