WORDS ON BIRDS
Birds Fall Prey to Shrikes
December 03, 2016
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.
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.
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
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.
Bird Watcher's Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
192C State Street
Newburyport, MA 01950
years of service to the birding community!
Like us on Facebook!
Index of Recent