It’s time to ask you all about your bird feeders… Do you have any unusual birds to report?
Laura Prior does. She has a shrike visiting the feeder and was aghast when it killed and ate another bird “before her eyes.”
Although it’s not pleasant to watch this, the carnivorous, predatory shrike is simply behaving as it must in order to survive.
Its sighting prompted me to telephone Tony Beck, well-known Ottawa Valley birder and a life-long Pontiac cottager, at the family cabin on Leslie Lake. Here’s a paraphrase of our conversation regarding shrikes:
KF: Tony, would Laura’s bird be a northern shrike?
TB: There are two shrikes that can be seen here, the loggerhead and the northern shrike. The latter summers in the north but overwinters in our region. Although loggerheads are here during summer, and although they sometimes overwinter here, they are not what you’d call “expected” in the Outaouais. Without seeing it, I would expect this one to be a northern shrike.
KF: Shrikes are gray birds with black wings, and a black “mask.” How can you tell them apart?
TB: The loggerhead is a smaller bird, and darker. It’s voracious, like the northern shrike, but eats more insects like dragonflies than birds.
After chatting with Tony, I referred to my reference books. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds describes shrikes:
Northern shrikes: “Unusual among songbirds, shrikes prey on small birds and rodents, catching them with the bill and sometimes impaling them on thorns or barbed wire for storage. Like other northern birds that depend on rodent populations, the northern shrike’s movements are cyclical, becoming more abundant in the South when northern rodent populations are low. At times they hunt from an open perch, where they sit motionless until prey appears; at other times they hover in the air ready to pounce on anything that moves.”
Both birds, reports the Audubon book, are “robin-sized” though the Northern is described as being “9-10 1/2 inches (23-26 cm). Pale gray above, white below, with faint barring on underparts and a bold black mask ending at bill. Black tail with white edges. Stout, hooked bill. Usually seen perched in the top of a tree in the open.”
Of the loggerhead, the book notes, “8-10 inches (20-25 cm). Slightly smaller than a northern shrike, pale gray above, white below, with black face mask extending over the bill, dark crown.”
The long description of the loggerhead observes: “In the southern half of North America this species is the counterpart of the northern shrike of boreal regions of Alaska and Canada. In behavior and choice of habitat the two species are essentially similar although the loggerhead preys on insects more than its northern relative. Its flight is undulating with alternate rapid fluttering and gliding. Since it has no talons, it impales its prey - usually a small bird, mouse or insect - on a thorn or barbed wire fence to facilitate tearing it apart then or at a later time; hence its other name, “butcher bird.”“
Here we have an example of a bird using a “tool” to assist it in performing a critical, natural function.
Although impaling prey on a hawthorne or other such device sounds gruesome, shrikes are predators and have figured out that such tools assist them to survive.
Have any of you ever come across a bird or rodent so impaled?
I have never seen this, though the National Capital Commission possess a most excruciating slide of a shrew impaled on a hawthorne tree. It’s a fascinating photograph which they permitted me to copy: the photograph inevitably brings an “Ewwww, gross” from kids who see it - and adults are shocked. The photo is made all the more pathetic because the shrew’s tiny front paw clutches the thorn, as if it was trying to pull the thorn from its ear, dying in the attempt.
The slide is important for another reason: it reminds us that Nature isn’t “kind.” Every creature has to eat, and, depending upon where it is on the food chain, it may very well be a favourite food of something else.
Have any of you seen shrikes? Have you, like my neighbour Laura Prior, seen one at your feeder? While I was chatting with Tony, I described them as being an “uncommon” species, which he said was apt. Keep your eyes peeled, birders, and let me know if you see these fascinating predators.
I have seen them here on the Steele Line, but years ago. So did Tony: he saw shrikes here north of Quyon about 10 years ago, he recalls. A solitary tree in a nearby field on the Steele Line near the corner of the Wolf Lake Road was a favourite perch for what I assume, during summertime, was a Loggerhead shrike. Unfortunately, about 10 or 11 years ago, I found two loggerheads squashed flat on the Steele Line, and I’ve never noticed them along this road since that time. (Unfortunately, I’ve seen indigo buntings dead here, too.)
So I was delighted with Laura Prior’s news, and hope that she continues to see the northern shrike on her property.
Tony tells me that there have been lots of owl sightings recently, here in the Outaouais. Reports of great grays, even hawk owls, are coming in. Both are diurnal species, meaning that they are out and about in the daytime, particularly at sunset and early in the morning.
Another exciting species that is becoming more common is the golden eagle, again seen here on the Steele Line and other roads that hug the base of the Eardley Escarpment. The sanctuary of Gatineau Park is crucial for these species, for their nests can be relatively undisturbed along the ridge.
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based in Quyon, and is a keen birder who welcomes your bird news. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 458-2090. Check out her website at www.chesleyhouse.com