Late last month I received a special request in the mail. Linda Larocque, an agronomist with Shawville’s Agricultural Service Centre, requested my assistance in publicizing the plight of the loggerhead shrike.
The Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada has identified this bird as being one of the most endangered species in Eastern Canada.
The endangered classification means “species are threatened with immediate extinction or extirpation,” meaning that although they may be found elsewhere, they are no longer here in Canada.
The CWS is now conducting studies to determine which regions represent the most likely habitat for the bird.
And because of its open pastureland dotted particularly with hawthorn trees, the Pontiac figures prominently in most likely habitats for this just-smaller-than-robin-sized bird.
Therefore, the CWS seeks YOUR HELP.
Almost robin-sized, the it “is a grayish bird bearing a black mask, hooked bill, black and white wings, and a black tail with a black border,” as the CWS flyer notes.
Identifying features are the black “line” that connects the black beak through the eye, and beyond. This slightly curved line almost but not quite connects to the start of black coloration on the wing. Looking straight-at the loggerhead shrike, it does appear to have a thin “mask,” since this black line extends rather like a bandit’s bandanna, on either side of the beak.
Do note the hooked, curved beak which identifies this bird as a successful predator.
The northern shrike, also endangered, lives in our region from October to April.
The northern mockingbird also resembles it. However, if you hear the bird you think could be a loggerhead shrike burst into a long series of melodious songs, you’ve discovered the mockingbird, not the shrike.
The best way to learn how to identify birds is through purchasing a good bird identification book and a pair of binoculars. There are many books on the market and Shawville’s The Equity sells some.
“Hawthorns are … small trees or large shrubs, under 8 to 10 m tall, with rough, shreddy bark, conspicuous spines or thorns on their branches, and simple, alternate, coarsely toothed or sometimes lobed leaves, which are deciduous. The flowers are 5-petalled, white or pinkish, and arranged in flat-topped clusters at the ends of short twigs. They are often very showy. The fruits, or haws, resemble miniature apples, but are clustered, thick-skinned, and range in colour from reddish orange to scarlet to black.” (p. 138, Edible Wild Fruits and Nuts of Canada, by Nancy J. Turner and Adam F. Szczawinski, ISBN 0-88902-751-X)
There are a variety of species of hawthorn, and predictably, they grow in different habitats.
However, the bushy shrub-tree in the Pontiac is a white-flowering species most commonly seen in open pastureland.
Another name for the shrike is the butcher bird. Why?
A predator species, the shrike’s diet is mostly insects… But it has developed hawk-like tendencies. It also eats small rodents and birds which it impales on the hawthorn’s thorns. It got the name “butcher bird,” therefore, because people thought this action resembled how a butcher hangs meat on a hook.
Perhaps, but this clever bird is actually using a tool. It has learned to use the hawthorn’s thorns in a way that holds its prey while it eats it.
The CWS flyer that I received in the mail from Linda Larocque notes: “This species is relatively easy to spot because it perches high on top of isolated trees and shubs, fenceposts, utility wires, etc., to observe and hunt its prey.”
Its flight pattern is “a fluttering, gliding motion showing large white patches on their wings and white stripes along the outside of the tail. When hunting, shrikes usually swoop down from their perch, flutter close to the ground across open areas, and then fly up to land on another perch.” (CWS Hinterland Who’s Who series, Loggerhead Shrike.)
“Loggerhead shrikes are interesting and useful birds. They consume large numbers of grasshoppers, a major pest of agricultural crops in western Canada. The few birds that they take are inconsequential. In spite of their beneficial habits, shrikes were pictured as masked villains of the bird world by some natural history writers of the past. Today, as people become more knowledgeable about ecology, there is much greater appreciation of the role of predators in nature.” (ibid)
Please help. If you see this bird, or if you want more information, please contact:
Benoît Jobin, CWS, Environment Canada, 1141 route de l’Église, CP 10100, Sainte-Foy, Québec, G1V 4H5. Tel: 418-649-6863; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
And another thing, while I’m discussing this. Don’t you think it’s time to re-think our use of pesticides and herbicides? Organics pose their problems, I know. But so do chemicals. By contaminating the food chain, our dependency upon chemicals is affecting other species, from insects to mammals… from fish to loggerhead shrikes.
Not to mention you and me.
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based in Quyon, Québec. Feel free to contact her with story ideas or comments at email@example.com