Shrike

(This 923rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 30, 2008.)

 

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Northern Shrike — photo by Willie D'Anna

 

The robin-sized bird flew low over the pasture but then soared up to light on the very highest twig of a leafless maple. There it perched upright and appeared to scan the open fields below the tree.

 

It might have been a robin or a jay or a blackbird, but its actions suggested the possibility of a rarer species. It was too far away, perhaps a hundred yards across the field, to tell what it was without a better look, so I set up my telescope.

 

And indeed, there in the fifty-power eyepiece I found the bird I hoped to see. It was a Northern shrike.

 

Shrikes are achromatic birds, that is, "colorless" birds of grey, white and black. They are easily mistaken for another grey and white bird, the mockingbird, for mockingbirds also flash white patches in their darker wings and tail when in flight. However, my closer look through the scope showed the bird's black mask and heavy hooked bill, sure marks that told me that this was a shrike and not a mockingbird.

 

I have described that sighting as a single event, but it really represents an episode that I have experienced perhaps a hundred times over my lifetime of birding. The Northern shrike is an uncommon winter visitor here on the Niagara Frontier, a few beginning to appear in mid-October and all off to their breeding grounds in northern Quebec and Labrador by mid-April. A day of winter birding, especially along the Lake Ontario plains, usually turns up one of these birds.

 

Shrikes represent an example of convergent evolution. They are songbirds, their DNA placing them between flycatchers and vireos on our checklist, but they fill a carnivorous ecological niche similar to that of hawks and owls. Just like that of our smallest hawk, the kestrel, the shrike's diet is made up of large insects, small rodents and other birds. To serve that diet shrikes are armed with their down-curved hawk-like beak.

 

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Northern Shrike with a Downy Woodpecker

photo by Dave Spier
(See also Spier's blogs and an additional photo site.)

 

We have become accustomed nowadays to television pictures on nature programs of carnivores killing their prey, but for most of us watching a shrike fly after and catch a small bird like a goldfinch, drive it to the ground and sever its spine with a sharp blow is still not a pleasant experience. But that is the role of this species.

 

Many years ago in Rochester a group of us went to a home where a shrike had been reported. As we walked along the side of the house, the shrike suddenly dashed directly toward us around the corner. In its talons hung a beautiful male cardinal, then a rare bird in the north. Seeing us, the shrike quickly veered and flew off with one of the dead cardinal's red wings still hanging open. The homeowners had witnessed the shrike swoop in, quickly dispatch the cardinal and carry it off their feeder tray.

 

The shrike has a unique habit: it impales prey it has not totally consumed on a thorn or caches it in a twig crotch for later consumption. I once was surprised to see a chickadee feeding on a dead junco that was cached in this way. Clearly proteins come where you find them.

 

So those of you with feeders, be on the lookout for these so-called butcherbirds. I have already had reports of them this winter visiting regional feeders - as if you don't already have enough trouble with sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks taking your chickadees and finches.

 

I urge you not to dislike these uncommon birds. Like everything on earth, they have their largely predetermined life role. In fact it is we who upset nature by setting out dickeybird feeders and in the process creating these perfect smorgasbords for hawks and shrikes.

 

The closely related and difficult to distinguish Loggerhead shrike, a bird of the south, occurs here very rarely in summer. A pair formerly nested on my in-laws' property in northern Alabama and Bill Watson and I saw one of the dozen or so recorded locally over the past twenty years at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Now this species' population is being augmented by a project north of Toronto and hopefully we will someday see a few of those birds migrating through our region.-- Gerry Rising


Note: Rich Guthrie has written an interesting column about shrikes. You can find it at his blog.