Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birds Fall Prey to Shrikes
December 03, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     As the cold moves down on us from Canada, so do some of the northern birds that will be with us for the winter. There have already been several snowy owls spotted on Plum Island and on Crane Beach in Ipswich. Large rough-legged hawks can be seen hovering over the fields on Plum Island. There have been scattered reports of evening grosbeaks, redpolls, and pine siskins, the latter finding their way to a finch feeder in Newbury. Small numbers of red crossbills are feeding on pine cones on Plum Island.

     Also on Plum Island, another winter visitor, a northern shrike, was seen and photographed. The adult shrike looks a bit like a mockingbird – gray above, white below, with white in the wings. But the shrike has a shorter tail and, appropriately, a black mask. A closer look reveals its hooked bill, and like a raptor, it is a predator, feeding mostly on insects and other birds.

     Doug Chickering of Groveland shared this tale of a shrike pursuit and kill almost ten years ago, which I will share with you again:

     “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 (“The dark Snow Owl”) out in the marshes by the Wardens (a.k.a. sub headquarters). Lois and I had come out this morning… in hopes of seeing this bird…

     “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 come 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 and Lois, 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 its 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 do 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.”

     Keep an eye out for shrikes in your own backyard as well. Like Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, shrikes can also stake out backyard bird feeders. Many years ago we watched a shrike take a house finch from one of our store feeders. We watched as all the other feeder birds, from chickadees to blue jays, scolded the shrike as it momentarily wrestled the house finch on the ground. The outcome was the same. The shrike had breakfast that morning as well

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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