Foam Lake Birding No. 26

No. 26
There are many times when I have a lot of trouble deciding which bird to write about. As an underlying principle, I try to feature a bird that is here in season so that people, who are interested in birds, can literally go out and identify them after reading one of my articles. Because there are so many different birds around, the decision is not as easy as it might seem. On the other hand, sometimes a birding event occurs that makes my decision for me almost instantly. This week’s featured bird is one such example.
On October 20th my wife and I were having morning coffee and watching the birds at our feeders, when suddenly they all took off in one large flock leaving the backyard completely deserted. For a moment we did not know what had frightened them, but then we “saw” our answer. A shrike had landed in our ash tree and was observing the proceedings in our backyard. It sat quietly for a few moments and then flew off. Even though nothing exciting happened this time, I “had” my bird - the Northern Shrike.
Worldwide there are 74 shrikes, but only three in North America, one of which is a very rare vagrant from Asia. Locally, there are two shrikes – the Northern and Loggerhead. The former, as its name suggests, is a northern bird that is a winter resident only; the latter is a summer resident that migrates to the southern USA and Mexico for the winter. The two are almost identical in every way and only an experienced birder can tell them apart in the field. However, there is no need to become frustrated. Around here, they occur only in their respective seasons and are never together in any seasonal overlap.
Whereas the Loggerhead has been decreasing (dramatically in the East), the Northern appears to be more common. In all my years of observing birds, I had never seen a Northern Shrike until the last ten years or so. Now, I see them almost every winter, usually sitting in a tree surveying the area for prey.
The Northern Shrike is a Robin-sized bird that kills and eats prey far larger than one would expect for a bird its size. Its menu includes large insects, mice and its favourite – small birds. By sitting motionless, quietly and partially concealed, it launches a surprise attack on unsuspecting birds. The birds scatter, but the shrike picks out one and chases it. It quickly catches up to the fleeing bird forcing it down to the ground or to a branch where it pecks it to death with its powerful beak. The victim is then impaled on a thorn or barbed wire to be eaten later.
I happened to witness this event in our backyard on December 17, 2006. The photo shows the victim, a Common Redpoll, lying in a heap on the snow with its beak pointing upward to the right and the Northern Shrike perched above it. Originally, the Redpoll was impaled just to the right of the Shrike, but it fell off. I have photos of the impaled Redpoll also, but the Shrike’s head was covered by a branch. By the time I had moved to get a better shot, the Redpoll had fallen off. I decided to print the later shot as it clearly shows the white shrike with black wings and eye mask.
I feel privileged to have witnessed such an event; which, though common, is rarely seen by man. To some it might seem gruesome, but in nature there are no such values. The Northern Shrike was doing only what it was designed to do. To fully appreciate “Mother Nature” one has to accept her on her own terms – warts and all.