COMMON FISCAL PORTRAIT

Ever watchful for a morsel of food to appear.

WHAT’S FOR TEA?

A Common Fiscal came to see what we were having for our tea:

One tasty bite was alright:

Some of your scone has gone?

Don’t look at me – I don’t eat tea!

That crumb on my beak you saw isn’t there anymore:

NOVEMBER 2019 GARDEN BIRDS

The heat and drought continues unabated, yet I have been blessed with another bumper month of bird-watching in our garden. Delightful visitors are the Black-eyed Bulbuls (their new name, Dark-capped Bulbul, doesn’t trip off my tongue yet) that frequent both the nectar feeder and partake of the cut apples, although I have occasionally seen them hawking insects too. Here a pair of them are seeking some respite in the shade.

The Black-headed Oriole is always a welcome visitor to the nectar feeder. It swoops down now and then to feed on apples too.

This Bronze Mannikin is perched on a branch with its beak agape while it waits for a turn at the seed feeder – mostly dominated by Southern Masked Weavers and Streaky-headed Seedeaters. Although they are said to eat fruit and nectar, I have not observed them doing either in our garden.

The Common Fiscal is a regular visitor – quite happy to inspect my breakfast or what we are having to eat with our mid-morning tea – and is often the first to inspect what has been placed on the feeding tray. There are two: one without a ring and this one that has been ringed. Checking through my archived photographs, the latter has been seen in our garden over a couple of years and must be resident near here. Both have been collecting fruit and flying off to what I presume is a nest in a neighbouring garden.

As much as we often malign Common Starlings in this country, they can be amusing to watch. They tend to perch on the telephone wire above the feeding area to assess the availability of food then come down straight, akin to the landing of a helicopter, to guzzle whatever is there as quickly as possible. This one appears to be voicing its dissatisfaction that a pair of Redwinged Starlings beat it to the apple.

I have mentioned before how important it is to provide water for the birds to drink and bathe in during this hot and dry period. This Laughing Dove is making its way to one of the bird baths, with very little water in it – I filled it up after taking this photograph. The bird baths get filled twice, and sometimes even three times a day of late.

There is a saga attached to the Lesser-striped Swallows which I will relate in another post.

The daily sound of the squeaky ‘kweek, kweek, kweek’ notes emanating from the Red-throated Wryneck has been frustrating as this bird has been so difficult to locate! I used the binoculars and managed to get a better photograph of this warbler-like bird from an upstairs window yesterday – see how well it blends into the lichen-covered branches of the Tipuana tree.

I cannot resist showing you this picture of a Red-winged Starling about to tuck into an apple.

The Speckled Mousebirds are going to bag a post of their own soon. Meanwhile, this one is waiting for an opportunity to eat the apples on the tray below. Note how well it too blends into its surroundings.

My November bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Barthroated Apalis
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Manikin
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin-chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Crowned Hornbill
Diederik Cuckoo
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesser-striped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Paradise Flycatcher
Pied Crow
Red-chested Cuckoo
Redeyed Dove
Red-fronted Tinkerbird
Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-throated Wryneck
Redwinged Starling
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Thickbilled Weaver
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift
Yellow-billed Kite

KEEPING AN EYE OPEN

There is little that the resident Common Fiscal misses when it comes to food. No matter what I put out on the feeder tray, it is there within minutes to inspect and taste. The fiscal is not above chasing other birds away either until it has had its fill – and lately it has been taking food away to feed its young. Here it is in a typical stance, keeping an eye open for the next opportunity to grab a bite to eat.

THREE BIRD BATH VISITORS

Birds need fresh water for drinking and bathing – never more so than during this drought – and so I keep the bird baths in our garden topped up daily. The one featured in the photographs below is an upturned lid from a broken garden light. These three birds visited the bird bath while I was having breakfast. The first is a Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris). It is a regular visitor and, of late, comes to inspect my breakfast or to see what we might be eating with our morning tea.

Directly translated, its Afrikaans name, Fiskaallaksman, means Fiscal Executioner or Butcher-bird. The latter is an appellation which is proving difficult for it to slough off in English and comes about from its habit of sometimes caching large prey on thorn ‘larders’. At one time it was also commonly known as Jackie Hangman for this reason. I also see it referred to as the Southern Fiscal and as a Fiscal Shrike, so take your pick. You can see its heavy hooked bill, typical of shrikes.

The next visitor is a Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra), one of at least two pairs that are nesting in the garden. I enjoy listening to their melodious phrases – often among the first of the dawn chorus – early in the morning and during the latter part of the afternoon. Their alarm calls are both persistent and distinctive and have attracted me to snakes in our garden twice and, more recently, to the presence of a Brown Mongoose.

You might notice a drop of water on its beak as it had just lifted its head when I clicked on the camera. These robins chase each other around the garden from time to time yet are quick to scurry for cover in the undergrowth when alarmed. I think they have become used to me for one or other of them sometimes perches not far away and sings regardless of my presence. Its Afrikaans name  is Gewone Janfrederik – Ordinary Jan Frederik – which relates to rhythmic phrases in the song of the Cape Robin-chat which sounds like ‘Jan Frederik’ if you listen very carefully as the variable short passages of musical notes, always start with low slurred whistle cherooo-weet-weet-weeeet.

The third visitor to this bird bath is a familiar one I have featured before, the Olive Thrush (Turdus olivaceus), as it is a frequent caller, whether it is to drink or to bathe. This time I am showing you a rear view of one, also with a droplet of water on its beak.

The Afrikaans name is Olyf Lyster – I presume Lyster means Thrush (i.e. Olive Thrush) but it doesn’t appear in my dictionary. The richly melodic song of the Olive Thrushes also form part of the dawn chorus. I cannot resist quoting this stanza from the poem Olyf-Lyster by Evelyn van der Merwe, which not only describes the call, but hints at the familiarity the thrushes develop towards people. This stanza refers to the thrush obviously waiting for the speaker to stand on the veranda (with the implication that she will be bringing food for the thrush):

Elke oggend douvoordag

Trap jy doudruppels met jou fyn toontjies plat

En hoor jou skril twieeet – twieeet roep

En sien jou wag dat ek moet verskyn op die stoep

You can read the poem in its entirety at http://www.woes.co.za/bydrae/gedig/olyf-lyster

 

IN DEFENCE OF THE COMMON FISCAL

This strikingly handsome bird is burdened with an unfair reputation for cruelty. Imagine being known as Jackie Hangman, the Butcher Bird, or Fiscal Shrike. What is in a name you might ask – a lot, especially if the connotations of it are negative! What does hangman bring to mind? Synonyms for butcher include destroyer, killer, murderer, slaughterer, and slayer. Fiscal is a word associated with budgets, bursars, and being pecuniary. These names have come about because the Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris) is known to sometimes impale its prey on thorns – or even barbed wire fences – for later consumption. If you visit the interesting blog run by the De Wet family at https://dewetswild.com/2018/09/26/common-fiscal/ you will find a photograph of a rather large frog impaled on barbed wire.

Does anyone condemn a spider for catching unsuspecting moths or beetles in its delicately spun web? Are spiders considered cruel when they wrap their prey in silken thread to eat later? Are people who work in abattoirs and butcheries condemned by society and treated like outcasts? We have to eat, some may argue, and would rather someone else did the killing, the cleaning, the cutting up and the packaging of the meat that we buy in neatly wrapped polystyrene packaging in the supermarkets or carefully wrapped in butcheries so that we can store it in our refrigerators or freezers for later consumption. Perhaps if we had to kill for our daily meat, more of us would prefer to bake our daily bread and grow our own beans and pumpkins. We have to eat. The Common Fiscal has to eat too. Its diet consists mainly of insects, although it has been recorded as eating small birds, reptiles and rodents too. I have frequently observed these birds eating seeds, fruit and even food scraps in my garden. This one has just been pecking at apples on the feeding tray.

As they also eat locusts, crickets, and caterpillars they should be appreciated for ridding gardens of potential pests – they perform a valuable function. Usually the Common Fiscal makes itself conspicuous by perching on an exposed branch or fence post from where it closely observes its prey before dropping down to catch it. This Common Fiscal is cleaning its beak on a branch.

The next time you are in a game reserve or see a Common Fiscal in your garden, watch it carefully: it often returns to the same perch over and again. I suspect they have marked out territories for the ones I see in the Addo Elephant National Park, for example, appear to be fairly evenly spaced from each other and they seem to scare away any other birds that venture into their space.  I see their aggression relating to food sources when there is something to their liking on the feeding tray, such as the bacon rind this one is eating.

A Common Fiscal will not tolerate other birds feeding with it – the Black-collared Barbet doesn’t either and the size of the Red-winged Starlings ensures a solitary meal for them too. It has been claimed that this habit of theirs negates efforts to create a bird-friendly garden. A glance at my monthly garden bird list is proof that this is not the case.

Their hooked beaks are adapted to their diet – nature finds ways to fill niches – and are described by the uninformed as ‘cruel’. Have you ever carefully looked inside your pet cat or dog’s mouth? Why do tourists marvel at the sight of a lion’s teeth and yet shrink from the beak of a Common Fiscal? Large raptors are described as ‘majestic’: what are their beaks and talons designed to do?

Despite its unfair reputation, I consider the Common Fiscal as being well worth having around for they definitely do much more good than harm!