Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Cardinal falls prey to Northern Shrike
December 29, 2007
Steve Grinley

I don’t like ending the year on a down note, but this tale of pursuit and kill as told by Doug Chickering of Groveland is too good not to share:

“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, Saturday, December 22, in hopes of seeing this bird. We 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 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 it’s 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.”

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! 
Like us on Facebook! www.facebook.com/birdwatcherssupply