Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Elusive Shrike is a Fierce Predator
November 02, 2019
By Steve Grinely
Doug Chickering found a northern shrike on Plum Island one afternoon last week. He spotted it along the refuge road just north of Lot 6 near Cross Farm Hill. Unfortunately, no one else could relocate it that day.
The northern shrike has gray and white coloration like a mockingbird. Instead of eating insects and berries, the shrike predates on small birds and mammals, much like a small raptor. Its black mark makes it look like the bandit that it is. Sometimes called the “butcher bird”, it is known to “skewer” its prey on a thorny branch for safe keeping until it is ready to eat it.
Margo and I were on the island the following day and birded the length of the island. We paid particular attention to the area where Doug had seen the shrike but we had no luck relocating it. We did see many ducks on the refuge, including the Eurasian wigeon at the Salt Pannes. We also eventually caught up with and elusive yellow-breasted chat at Hellcat.
Late in the day, we stopped at the Warden’s hoping to find some sparrows. We saw song, Savannah, and a chipping sparrow. After fifteen minutes of searching the area, Margo called to me: “I see the shrike”.
The northern shrike was perched atop a small bare tree fifty yards out in the marsh We put the scope on it and we had great looks. After watching the bird for some time, I could see that it had a good sized vole draped over lower branches in a bush and had been eating eat. It spent more time perched, apparently guarding its prey.
We called several birders that we thought might get there to see it before dark. A couple of them did. I suspected that the shrike would stay in that area and guard its prey for morning’s breakfast. A few birders did see the shrike there the next morning, but soon the shrike disappeared again, as shrikes often do.
Seeing the shrike at this location reminded me of this tale of pursuit and kill that Doug Chickering of Newburyport witnessed and shared with us some eight years ago:
“I had set up my scope by the new small shed at the Wardens. I had met Tom Wetmore when I first came onto Plum Island and he told me of seeing a Snowy Owl…out in the marshes by the Wardens (a.k.a. sub headquarters). …I had come out this morning… in hopes of seeing this bird. I also entertained the less likely possibility of catching up with the Hoary Redpoll that Tom and Rick Heil had found earlier in the week.
“As I scanned the far marshes looking for that familiar form in the snow I was aware of the persistent and slightly agitated chip of a Cardinal. It was so persistent that I looked up from my search and spotted the male Cardinal off to my left. I returned to my scoping.
“Ticking off Oldsquaw and Buffleheads and Goldeneye in the water and nothing upon the land, I became aware that the Cardinal chip was replaced by another call. This one completely unfamiliar to me. It was sort of a screech mixed with a loud chip and was clearly a call of distress.
“Looking up from my scope I saw the Cardinal streak by with another bird, a bird of the about the same size in hot pursuit. It was one of those mental moments that comes to all birders, a recognition that happens in a flash when the mind manages to combine observation with experience with a general knowledge of what is around, simultaneously. The Cardinal was obviously fleeing for his life, and the pursuer, was the agent of death. It was not a Hawk, not a falcon and even before I could acquire them in my binoculars I knew the Cardinal was being hunted down by a Northern Shrike.
“The pair swept around the Maintenance building on my left, over the parking lot, right over my car, around the building on the right and then reappeared on the other side, taking a big arc around me. I don’t know how fast a Shrike can fly but I can conclude that it can fly faster than a Cardinal when it puts its hungry mind to it. At first the Cardinal was holding it’s own, but as they approached a bush at the edge of the field the Shrike overtook the luckless pleading bird grabbing him by his back.
“There was a quick flurry of desperate flapping by the prey before the Shrike reached down and nipped at the nape of the Cardinals neck. It was just a quick peck, a single surgical jab. Then the Shrike immediately let go, dropping the cardinal and flew to a nearby perch. The Cardinal dropped and was clearly dead before he hit the snow.
“I have seen raptors subdue prey before. Many times before. I have seen a female Kestrel snatch a Horned Lark from the midst of the flock in flight. I have seen a Peregrine Falcon pluck a shorebird off the mud flats, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk wrestle a tough Starling to his death in the snow.
“But always there seemed to be a struggle, a death throe, a spasm of protest before succumbing. Not here. The Shrike didn’t hit hard, didn’t squeeze the life from his meal, but seemed to delicately dispatch the unfortunate Cardinal as if skewering him with a rapier. I was astonished, I was impressed, I was appalled.”