The shrike and the owlet

Sabi Sand | July 2019

The bush possesses an intricate network of intelligent conversation between species. A flow of cooperation using gestures and sounds which express various distinctive meanings. When out in the bush one only has to open their senses and become in tune with their surroundings to begin understanding these connections.

One story in particular became apparent one afternoon when a flock of white-crested helmetshrikes fluttered across the trees and made their way to land on a tall knob-thorn tree. I explained to my guests that these beautiful little white birds with brushes of black and grey always travelled in groups and are an excellent alarm system when finding predators. So excellent in fact that in a previous observation I had seen them ruin the hunt of a female leopard. On that occasion the helmetshrikes displayed an incredible performance of assistance to a lonely bushbuck female who walked along the upper bank of a dry riverbed surrounded by thickets creating low visibility. Whilst down below, barely a few meters away, a female leopard stalked progressively closer toward the bushbuck. Unfortunately for the leopard, a small group of helmetshrikes surrounded her and began incessantly “clicking” with a sound similar to when one clicks their fingers. The bushbuck noticed the alarm, turned to face where the noise was coming from and immediately spotted the leopard. With a loud bark from the bushbuck – the hunt was over. However, to observe the way in which these little birds communicated was what became most apparent.

The next morning we set out on game drive and came across a pearl-spotted owlet perched with its feathers all fluffed up enjoying the warmth of the first morning sunlight. Hardly a moment passed when a flock of helmetshrikes surrounded the owlet and began “clicking” continuously, alerting all other creatures nearby that danger was lurking. The morning’s peace was over for the owlet and it made a hasty escape from the bothersome helmetshrikes. Once again a demonstration of how important all species are in looking out for one another.

A day passed and we were on our final afternoon game drive, on our way back to the lodge. We passed the river and started to move up a steep incline, and just as we started to level something fell from the sky and landed on the road in front of us. It was the pearl-spotted owlet! It had fallen from the knob-thorn tree which overhangs the road, with a white-crested helmetshrike in its talons!! We watched, stunned, as the predator had seemingly come back for its revenge and held the shrike to the ground, suffocating it.

Three or four minutes passed until there was a rustle in the bushes next to us, and the owlet took off leaving the helmet-shrike unconscious on the road. With nowhere to go but rolling back down the hill or driving over the prey, we couldn’t move and so we watched and waited for what would happen and whether or not the owlet would return.

Miraculously, a few moments later, the helmet-shrike gained its breath and took off! We couldn’t believe it! This had been a fascinating turn of events with an ending we never expected!

In all the forms of communication between species, it can be difficult for us to completely understand every detail in the system – everything is interwoven. However, it’s the smaller tales like these that help us to learn why every call, gesture and sign given by these creatures is so important to one another’s survival.

On another note: To this day, almost a year later – the flock of helmetshrikes still sleep in the knob-thorn overhanging the steep road.