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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 38

From Issue No 38

Love thy Butcher-bird

 

Common Fiscal (formerly Fiscal Shrike) – Lanius collaris
(Afrikaans:
Janfiskaal)

 

The Common Fiscal occurs over all of South Africa, although it is more common in some parts than others. It might be one of our best known garden birds, but is definitely not the best loved. It’s sometimes a case of giving a dog a bad name: they are quite often wrongly blamed for various crimes like killing the canary, or eating the young birds of other species from nests. It has attracted a great variety of names to describe these “bad habits”. The most common is Butcher-bird, then Johnny Hangman. In Afrikaans there are even more – Kanariebyter, Laksman.

The Fiscal is a small to medium bird, about 23 cm long. It is neatly attired in black and white: black on the back with a prominent white V; the chest is white (pure white in the male, with rufous patches on the sides in the female). It has a powerful bill, with a hooked tip and a tooth just under the hook, so it can inflict a vicious bite if held in one’s hand.

It is very territorial and can be very aggressive to other birds in the garden. It will occasionally attack other birds and may on occasion kill them. The food is mainly big insects like locusts and crickets, caterpillars and worms, so it is a very valuable bird in the garden, although it may chase away all other birds coming to your food table.

The reason I said they are sometimes wrongly blamed for various crimes, is that in some cases the real culprit is the Southern Boubou (Laniarius ferrugineus), a skulking bird that remains hidden in hedges and thick shrubs. The Fiscal and the Boubou often occur together, and then, when one’s canary is found with its head pulled off, or the chicks in the Robin nest have been taken, one automatically blames the very visible Fiscal. It is always seen in a prominent position on a pole or telephone line, and it is very noisy. It has a loud alarm call, which in the good old days quite often meant there was a snake in the garden, but snakes are unfortunately fast disappearing.

On the outside the nest is a rough structure with a neat wool-lined cup. 3 – 4 eggs are normally laid, occasionally 5. Through the years we have noticed that when the young fledge they remain with the parent birds for almost a month, then strangely one of the young will take over the area, and the parent birds move off and find a new territory a few hundred metres away. This behaviour seems to be quite general.

The name Johnny Hangman or the Afrikaans name Laksman is derived from the habit of impaling prey such as large insects, small snakes, lizards and even small rodents, on thorns or barbed-wire fences. The strange thing is that they never seem to return to the prey once it is impaled. It is not known why this wasteful practice is used.

Whatever is said about the Fiscal they are still well worth having around. They most definitely do much more good than harm.

One day while driving in the Helderberg Nature Reserve I saw a Fiscal, wings flapping and bouncing up and down in some grass. So I stopped to watch, as I thought the bird was fighting a small snake. The Fiscal flew off after about 15 minutes without anything in its bill. I went to see what it was all about. It had killed a 10-day-old Thick-knee chick! This was definitely a black mark against the Fiscal!

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A male Common Fiscal with four chicks eagerly awaiting a morsel

A male Common Fiscal with four chicks eagerly awaiting a morsel

A female Common Fiscal on her nest

A female Common Fiscal on her nest

Female Southern Boubou

The Southern Boubou resembles the Common Fiscal in size and markings, but is heavier and is distinguished by its rufous underparts. The two birds often occur in the same area

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