Wednesday 21 August 2019

Country Matters: Thorny larder of a butcher bird

MYSTERY: Impaled bird in fuchsia thorns in Kerry from reader Paul Johnston
MYSTERY: Impaled bird in fuchsia thorns in Kerry from reader Paul Johnston

Joe Kennedy

There is some mystery about the gruesome calling card which may have been left by an unusual bird in the beautiful countryside near Brandon in Kerry.

This is the Dingle Peninsula which thrusts out into the Atlantic to claim the country's most westerly point. An old Reader's Digest guide called 'Companion to the Emerald Isle' describes the landscape where "majestic hills soar green and purple over vast bowls of unspoiled valleys, glittering mountain streams tumble down to lakes, summer hedgerows blaze with fuchsias, and soft, golden beaches stretch for miles".

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Here in this bucolic landscape is the Conor Pass, the highest in the country, linking the north and south shores of the peninsula across the magnificent Brandon range with its mountain the second highest peak in the country. At the bottom of the Pass is verdant countryside to Cloughane on the waterside and Brandon harbour and a sweep of red sands at Ballyquin.

This beautiful part of Munster is little publicised as if those fortunate to live there wish to keep its secrets to themselves.

The bush of the bird mystery is a fuchsia, some of whose bells are now falling without tinkle to time and weather changes, and prospects of autumn.

The bird, a chaffinch, had met a sudden end in open country and was left nailed to its cross of sharp thorns in a thicket of scarlet.

It is assumed it was prey to a bird called a red-backed shrike (lanius collurio) or one of its relatives, the great grey, the lesser grey or the woodchat shrike, sun-loving visitors-by-chance from mainland Europe where they had earlier gone from tropical Africa.

The red-backed and greys would be possible, if rather rare, visitors to an Irish landfall at the wild, clear kindliness of Kerry. Some ornithologists have dubbed the birds as butchers, from their hunting practice of storing prey on spiky thorns and barbed wire.

Shrikes are medium-sized like fieldfares with proportionately large heads, strong hooked bills, long tails and striking colour patterns of brown back, ash-grey crown, black-and-white tail and unbarred white underparts of a rosy tone.

They feed on larger insects, small rodents and birds which they spear on bush and wire 'larders' for later consumption. They breed in open countryside in central and southern Europe and spend much time perched on wires and bushes watching for suitable prey.

Any appearance of a shrike in Ireland is deemed so rare as to prompt one source to suggest the possibility of the hand of a 'human shrike' at play with a dead bird impaled by a passer-by!

However, the birder-reader who took the photograph has pointed out that the thrusting of hand into bush would not be without painful hazards!

Paul Johnston, of north Leinster, has not been back to Kerry since, so he cannot say if the remains are still in situ or if the shrike returned for its Sunday lunch, having searched below ragged rain clouds with their misty rays of sun lanterns.

I am grateful for the image and for others which this reader has sent from time to time but which did not always make it into the allotted space.

Sunday Independent

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