Mixed Hunting Party
Volume 3 | Issue 1 [May 2023]

Mixed Hunting Party <br>Volume 3 | Issue 1 [May 2023]

Mixed Hunting Party

Peeyush Sekhsaria

Volume 3 | Issue 1 [May 2023]

I was perhaps in the 4th standard; we were on the ground playing. The bell had rung, but I hadn’t moved; I had noticed a bird in the sky, it wasn’t moving either; it was still – suspended in the air. All of a sudden it fell, like a stone, and, within a split second, hit the ground. I was shocked, I thought it was injured, perhaps even dead and I ran towards it. Just as I was getting close, it suddenly flew off. Its surprise flight woke me from my reverie, I realized I was the only one in that whole playground. I was not sure how much time had passed, I was late, I ran back to class. The memory remained with me, it wasn’t until a few years later, when I started birdwatching that I saw similar behavior again and was able to identify the bird as the Black-winged Kite, a stunning small bird of prey, about the size of a crow, with red eyes and a grey-white body with black shoulders, revealed when it sat with its wings folded.

Artwork – Peeyush Sekhsaria

The phenomena that had held me spell bound is called ‘wind-hovering.’ Some birds remain in the same place suspended in the air above a point on the ground by flying into the wind at a speed equal to that of the wind, and hover momentarily, and, if need be, use rapid wing beats and an erect tail position, working the wind current to remain in location trying to locate prey. The bird often relocates itself, by short lengths, often lowering its height, hovering at each step and then falls like a stone straight to the ground, breaking its fall at the very last split second catching its unsuspecting prey. Often these hunts are abandoned mid-way – the success rates are perhaps one in a hundred.


I had a dog. Mickey’s left-over rotis would often dry into hard pieces. I noticed that crows would pick these pieces, and, keeping them on one side, they would excavate the soil with their beaks, place the roti in the little depression and then cover the pieces of roti. They would do this a bit crudely but quite efficiently. I was surprised when I saw it and completely clueless. Then, one day, I saw a crow excavating the ground to pull out a dry piece. I realized that they quite remembered where they had stored the rotis for future use! But that was not all, the crows took that piece to a little plate with water we kept for the birds, carefully dipped the hard and muddy roti in the water for some time till it had gotten softened and cleaned. They were not only carefully storing food, but also were able to retrieve it and dip it in water to soften it to make it eatable! This was quite a match to the folk tale wherein a crow puts pebbles in a pot with very little water such that the water level rises and it is finally able to drink from it.

Photo – Raju Kasambe CC by 4.0

Excited at that young age, I thought that I had perhaps made a new discovery. However, as I grew up and read more, I realized that crows as well as many other birds store food to retrieve it later.

Crows, in their search for the tasty morsel, can end up being quite the cartoon. I remember reading a note by a birdwatcher – they had a fish tank in their balcony that had attracted the attention of a kingfisher, that the bird visited regularly, diving into the tank to catch fish. A crow was observing its actions. One day the crow, to the utter surprise of the birdwatcher, tried copying the kingfisher and dived awkwardly into the fish tank, only to almost drown itself! It somehow managed to fly out, wet, confused and harassed.


A melodious chee-chee-chee-chee-vi caught my attention. I saw a pair of birds with the most charming hop, step, dance routine, catching flies. They were literally on a roll and seemed to be effortlessly catching a fly every 5 seconds. They were mostly on the ground and at times amongst the lower branches of the cheeku tree from where they launched their short dance attacks. They seemed more like insect charmers, with the insects coming out of their hiding, wanting to be caught by them. A bulbul joined them for some time.

I am talking of the fairly common, quite bold, and charming dancing beauty of our backyards – ‘the fantail flycatcher.’ But how does a fantail’s dance routine work?

Prancing, the fantail flycatcher hops left, then hops right and then hops forward with the rapid fan-like opening of its tail. Then, flushing out insects that are otherwise lying well camouflaged on barks or hidden amongst leaf litter, it quickly chases them and captures them with an audible snap of its beak in an elegant acrobatic manoeuvre.

This charming routine has not gone un-noticed – it is called nachan in Hindi, nachrya in Marathi.

Photo – Koshy Koshy CC by 2.0


The land around where our family had shifted to must have been farmland once. We moved there in 1985. While our plot was slowly and surely taking the shape of a garden with fruit trees, vegetables, rose plants within a chainlink fence, the neighbours’ empty plot was a grass field that would come into its element as the winters crept in, changing to a golden-brown green, talking to the breeze as if in a symphony. The neighbour’s plot that I could see from my room window was my bird mini-universe.

I watched the grass play with the light and breeze, and so did a beautiful species of bird. Active, swift, acrobatic – no insect in the air was spared. With a long-pointed beak, a long green tail with additional straight wires, this bird was the little green bee-eater. It could have easily been called ‘Insect Decimator.’ The name ‘bee-eater’ comes from their reputation as bee catchers and in some areas this bird does pose quite a problem to bee-keepers. They hang around in pairs or groups, take off at lightning speed, almost invariably coming back to their favourite perch with a well-secured insect. Then they indulge in a crazy exercise of beating their heads wildly on the left and right in quick succession, beating the insect such that it kills the insect and removes its sting along with other hard undigestible parts of the exo-skeleton before it is swallowed. People in Maharashtra found the behavior a bit mad and named it veda raghu, veda meaning ‘mad’ and raghu meaning ‘parrot,’ coming from its parrot-like appearance. I would simply call it a head-banger! Other than their head-banging habit for removing hard parts of their insect prey, I was amused to discover that, like some other birds like the owl, they also regurgitate pellets made up of hard indigestible parts of their prey from their mouth.

Artwork – Peeyush Sekhsaria

Shrikes, especially the long-tailed shrike is a fairly common bird in the drier parts of our country. Medium-sized birds with an I-don’t-care attitude, they sit on a pole or branch from where they launch their attacks and look like small birds of prey. Names of birds often describe them in striking ways. Its scientific name ‘Lanius’ and its Marathi name ‘Khattik’ describe a special behavior of the bird which resembles that of a butcher.

There was a lemon tree in our garden which had grown well over my height. A shrike used to often sit on the barbed wire fence close to this tree. One day, I saw a lizard impaled on a thorn. I decided to keep a watch. However, when I went back the prey was nowhere to be seen. It was unbelievable, I was seeing what I had read for real, a butcher had been at work. But why do shrikes really impale their prey? While shrikes have a pretty powerful curved claw-like beak, powerful head, and neck, and, in that sense, do resemble small birds of prey, they do not have the talons, that is the strong legs and claws that we see in birds of prey. While shrikes can hunt small prey like lizards, frogs, small snakes, and birds they do not have the powerful talons required to hold while feeding on it. This is where impaling helps. They also do this to store food for later consumption. This method of impaling is almost unique to shrikes. Some from the species are also known to catch and impale toxic grasshoppers. They wait for a couple of days for the insect’s toxicity to go away before feasting on them. And to show how this ‘butchering’ behavior is important to the shrike; in certain species the male will try to charm a female by showcasing a variety of food that he has impaled. This may include colourful non-food items. When a shrike couple has young ones, the male is known to impale its prey, often eating off the head and the female harvests the impaled food to feed herself and her young ones.

A few years ago, while I was birding at the base of Sinhagad Fort in Pune, I noticed small blood stains on a rock at the edge of the stream. The blood stains seemed fresh. Excited that I was close to a kill, I started looking carefully. To my gory surprise I noticed a small bird impaled in a thorn of the karonda shrub; its head was missing. I quietly moved away, for the Butcher was back.

Artwork – Peeyush Sekhsaria


The bulbul is a very common garden bird found widely across the country. Quite bold and used to humans, it often nests in small potted shrubs, its nest is a tightly woven semi-circular cup like nest.  Lately I have even seen it nesting on curtain rods inside homes, either an indication that there aren’t enough suitable nesting shrubs, or it can’t resist the hospitality of some homes. Till quite recently, I thought that the bulbul to be a frugivorous bird, relying on berries and fruits. However, this changed sometime back when I saw them carrying praying mantis and caterpillars to their nest. Clearly the young ones needed some insect protein! I had also seen in other birds like sparrows, who though largely relying on grain and seed, take insect protein to feed their young ones.

The work table in my bedroom overlooks the terrace of the neighbour’s bungalow. Birds come visiting this terrace – they have their favourite spots, one of them being a parapet wall corner, where a bulbul often came with its catch. It was the nesting season and so it often came with still wriggling freshly caught caterpillars, thrashing them awkwardly and vigorously, and carrying the dead insect to its nest. However, one afternoon, as I was toiling away at work I was in for a surprise. The bulbul arrived with what seemed like an unusual catch. I initially thought it to be a frog. I immediately left what I was doing and picked my camera. As I trained my camera on the bird, I realized that it was a house gecko. Its tail was absent – clearly the gecko had tried all the tricks in its arsenal including that of discarding its tail. It seemed certainly dead and lifeless, but the bulbul was still trying to kill it or was trying to break it into smaller pieces. After spending a decent time and still not being successful it flew away with the specimen.

I was intrigued by this observation, I also kept wondering as to whether the bulbul would manage to tear the gecko down to manageable portions to feed its young ones, for the gecko was much longer and robust than any of its insect prey. It doesn’t really have the beak or sharp claws to be able to hold and tear the prey. I did a bit of research on the internet to find at least two interesting notes in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley, the doyens of bird watching in India, noted of a case wherein the bulbul fed a young gecko to its chick which died while trying to swallow it. In the second note dated 1999, a hilarious one, the bird attacked the gecko, in true gecko style the gecko dislodged its tail, which started trembling wildly, the trick worked, the bulbul went after the tail and the gecko escaped.

I also found a video. About a minute into the video, a bulbul alights on its nest carrying a gecko whose tail is missing. Its young ones are pleading for food in typical chick style with mouths wide open and trembling heads, giving an impression that if you didn’t feed them immediately, they would die. However, only after trying for about 30 seconds, the bulbul was able to put the gecko into the open mouth of one of its young ones. In the handling of this large prey the bulbul parent didn’t show any capacity unlike say a bird of prey where the gecko would have been torn to smaller pieces to feed to its young. This unusual behaviour begs a question: the bulbul clearly goes out of its way to secure protein in the form of geckos for its young ones, but, at the same time, it does not have the beak and claws to handle the prey and probably ends up making life difficult for its chicks. Why does it do so, then?

Photo – Peeyush Sekhsaria


I was on the phone, looking out of the window on the first floor of our Pune house at a beautiful Bahava tree.

It seemed like something small moved rapidly, I looked carefully to see the female of a purple-rumped sunbird. It feeds largely on flower nectar but also insects and that is what it seemed to be doing, intently looking around in a tree with no flowers. The swift stroke-like flight of another bird caught my eye – it came in and went back in the same split second. And there I saw it flit again – the white-browed fantail flycatcher. Just as I was appreciating its hop-turn-fan-dance-flit-catch routine, I noticed deeper in the tree another bird, a sparrow … Looking closer, I found that it was slightly smaller, slimmer, sharper with a clearer black-and-white pattern, the cinereous tit! It seemed to specialize in bowing its head, intently looking at the bark and finding insects. Just as I was trying to see where the female sunbird had vanished; a stunning orange-coloured bird caught my eye: a small minivet! And if the male is around the female cannot be far away either, and there she was, on the right, slightly yellowish, not as striking but elegant all the same. From the corner of my eye in the neighbouring kachnar tree, I noticed an Oriental Tailor Bird hopping around, scanning every leaf underside and then upper-side, move to repeat again. How were five species of birds and six birds in total, all of the same approximate size and more or less at the same height within the Bahava within 6 feet of each other, looking for the same food, but not fighting each other? Well, this was surely the famous party, the mixed hunting party also called the mixed hunting flocks where birds get together to hunt, without really competing but actually helping one another.

The Fantail flycatcher clearly flushed out insects through its dance routine, to then fly quickly to catch its prey, the Minivets seemed to find their insects by close examination of the leaves and seemed to be also flying short sorties, whereas the sunbird and tailor did this by carefully scanning leaf after leaf and the smaller branches, from the underside and upper side, the Tit seemed more intent on careful scanning of the tree bark for its prey. I was not able to observe them for long as the flock moved on. I had seen this in the forests and read interesting accounts of them, but I was not expecting to see these phenomena. Hari Sridhar, who researched mixed hunting flocks in the forests of Anshi Tiger Reserve and studied over 250 such flocks, confirmed that this totally was a Mixed Hunting Party. His research had reported flocks of up to 55 individual birds of 23 species – while some of the birds seemed to profit more from the safety in numbers and some vigilant species, others profited from more efficient hunting, and some others from easier stealing; mostly the flock stayed together. Like Hari Sridhar says, a mixed-species flock is extraordinary in two different ways: the first is aesthetic; the other is ecological. While each of those five species is a joy to watch for their beauty, to see all five of them in one go, that too from my room window, in my garden was really something else.

Let the mixed hunting party begin!

Artwork – Bhargav Kumar Kulkarni


  1. Madhu Ramaswamy

    Piyush, this was a delight to read. Fascinating for what it told me about birds but also beautiful for just the love with which it’s been written.

    • Ramawtar Sekhsaria


  2. Kirtana Kumar

    What a wonderful essay…beautifully written, illustrated and with so much interesting detail about birds and their food habits. I’ve shared it with my family members, all who enjoy watching birds from their windows. Thank you.

  3. Apurva Shah

    A lovely essay on birds with interesting observations.

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