A friend contacted me via WhatsApp the other day: my phone has an appalling camera, but there is a bird in our garden – orange and yellow chest, carnivore type beak … any idea what type of bird this is? It makes a clicking meerkats type of noise and then also a crying sound. Even though the accompanying image showed a minute blob of yellow high up in a tree, there was only one explanation: a Grey-headed Bush Shrike (Malaconotus blanchoti).

My own image is nothing to brag about either, for they move very quickly and are rather photo-shy. These birds tend to be wary and forage in tangled growth, such as creepers, as well as among branches and the foliage of trees. I have seldom seen one truly out in the open for long enough to photograph it.

Grey-headed Bush Shrike

It was the clicking meerkats that clinched the identification for me even though the Roberts Bird Guide describes their call as a “repetitive and mournful drawn-out whistle, whooooooooo …” to which the Complete Photographic Field Guide Birds of Southern Africa helpfully adds “also loud clicks and dry ‘skeeerrr’”.

The Grey-headed Bush Shrike is strikingly attractive and one usually hears it before being able to spot it. I once had one perched above me while I was working in the vegetable garden (no camera at hand – of course!). It would swoop down silently to catch beetles, earthworms and caterpillars that had been exposed as a result of my digging. They also eat lizards, small snakes and bats. A lot of people do not like them because they – like the Burchell’s Coucal – also eat small birds. Our neighbour once complained bitterly that the ***** Spookvoël (ghost bird) had eaten the chicks out of the Greater Double-collared Sunbird nest that they had been observing from the time it was being constructed!

They also have to eat.


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