It was one of the last warm days in October before the rains came. The air was dry and still. The leaves were turning shades of celery and saffron and the low-set sun imbued the grasses with a gilded glow as I walked along a dirt road beside a scruffy plain.
I was looking for birds newly arrived for the winter or migrating through for points farther south. Western meadowlarks, kestrels, short-eared owls, and northern shrikes were on my list. It seemed these travelers were a bit late this year. I wondered if the unusually warm weather had detained them to the north.
It was a perfect afternoon for birding. I heard the humming wing-beats of a flock of surf scoters taking off from a nearby bay, the buzzing of bees, a remnant chorus of crickets, and the whirring aerial acrobatics of the last dragonflies of the season. Mostly, though, there was golden silence in the grass.
Then, just ahead of me, a silver blur swooped down from an elderberry, snatched a grasshopper from the roadbed, and retreated to its perch to feed upon the prey. It was a shrike – a robin-sized predatory songbird just arrived from its breeding grounds in the open spaces of boreal forests along the taiga/tundra boundary of Canada and Alaska.
Shrikes have bold yet understated coloration. Their most striking physical feature is a black mask set against soft gray plumage above with black tail and wings, and white wing patches. The throat and chest of the adults are white, as well. These shades of gray, black and white are perfect camouflage for the monotone winter landscape that will soon be upon us.
The shrike I encountered was perch hunting from boulders, small trees, and shrubs along the road. I watched it repeat this behavior several times as I stood in the shade of a crab apple tree. On two occasions, having retrieved more grasshoppers, the shrike flew to a blackberry bush and impaled the insects on the thorny barbs of the vine. There it used its small, shiny black feet to hold the hoppers in place while it fed.
And so, I witnessed the hallmark characteristic of this fine bird: spiking its prey in a manner that, in the early days of ornithology, had lead to its scurrilous reputation as a heartless evildoer and a killer of harmless quarry.
The northern shrike (Lanius excubitor) is still called “ butcher bird.” In Latin, its name means, “butcher watchman”. The shrike is known for its hunting prowess often taking prey such as small birds or voles equal to its own size. It lacks talons and thus has adapted the behavior of skewering its victims on thorns or lodging it in the crouch of tree branches so it can gain leverage while it feeds. It dispatches prey by forcing it to the ground, then using its strong hooked bill to kill with a series of bites to the neck.
The “butcher bird” appellation comes from the shrike’s proclivity for hanging impaled prey upside down much as a butcher might hang meat in a locker. There sited, the shrike, or its offspring, can easily feed on the carcass.
Looking back at early literature on birds, shrikes had the reputation of being bloodthirsty and wanton killers, for they would often dispatch more prey than they could immediately consume. Contrary to hyperbole, the hanging strategy was a way to cache food for future use in lean times, or for the birds to mark their territories.
In my studies, I return occasionally to the works of an early naturalist Nelje Blanchan, author of Bird Neighbors published in 1904. I read her descriptions not so much for their scientific accuracy as for a window into the attitudes of early birders toward our feathered friends. While some species were held in high regard others, like the shrike, were characterized in a more unflattering manner.
About the shrike Blanchan wrote: “ Not even a hawk itself can produce the consternation among a flock of sparrows that the harsh, rasping voice of the butcher bird creates, for escape they well know to be difficult before the small ogre swoops down upon his victim, and carries it off to impale it on a thorn or frozen twig, there to devour it later piecemeal Every shrike thus either impales or else hangs up, as a butcher does his meat, more little birds of many kinds, … than it can hope to devour in a week of bloody orgies.”
She continues: “What is our surprise when some fine warm day in March, just before our butcher, ogre, sneak, and fiend leaves us for colder regions, to hear him break out into song! Love has warmed even his cold heart, and with sweet, warbled notes on the tip of a beak that but yesterday was reeking with his victim’s blood, he starts for Canada, leaving behind him the only good impression he has made during a long winter’s visit.”
And now, the supposed evildoer has returned to San Juan Island for the winter to abide in the grasslands and make its living. It arrives at the turn of seasons – in the midst of clear, calm skies that will soon turn sullen, wet, and wind blown.
I am a great admirer of the shrike. I have watched these birds for years. Far from being the bloodthirsty villain of early literature, I find the shrike a calm and peaceful presence on the plain - elegant in its demeanor and countenance. In winter it is a solitary sojourner. For me, that characteristic adds to its attraction for it is in solitude that I usually observe it.
My early October encounters with the shrike reminded me this is a creature of habit. Most birds – and many other animals - have what scientists call site fidelity. They show a high degree of reliability in their movements between breeding grounds and overwintering habitats. Many birds return to the exact location of their birth and to a familiar winter retreat, a staging area prior to migration, a food-rich stopover during migration, or even a traditionally safe place to molt. Bird banding studies have proven this to be true.
Think for a moment how in the early spring you may see a hummingbird levitate in front of your kitchen window as if to announce its return and encourage you to put a feeder back in place on the porch. Is it the same bird that visited you the year before? There is evidence to support that possibility, and don’t we wish it to be true?
I use site fidelity – and my own experiences over the years – to locate shrikes (and other birds) each fall upon their return to the island. It often takes only a few minutes scanning a particular open habitat to spot the handsome bird perched atop a glacial erratic, an elderberry, a hawthorn, a blackberry vine, or even a sign post. Any vantage point will do.
This fall, I returned to watch that shrike by the road until the warm air turned into cold rain. It was not always there, but I hoped it was nearby. During my first encounter, I photographed the bird and enlarged the image. I could discern pencil-thin ripples of gray barring across its creamy breast, and a black mask that was not yet fully formed. These details told me it was an immature bird, on its own for the first time at this wintering ground. Was it akin to the adult shrike I saw here last year or had this youngster simply been first to claim its niche in this ideal habitat?
The robust bird with the silver sheen seemed wary and often looked for cover in the same crab apple tree I had earlier used as shade. Its keen eyes constantly scanned the open ground. Grasshoppers abounded, so it was easy hunting for the first-timer – good practice for the leaner times that might be ahead as Pacific storms blow across this scape and send wildlife to cover.
By the second week in October, all still seemed right in the shrike’s world. The last turkey vultures and savannah sparrows were heading out for southern climes as the meadowlarks began to arrive. A pair of northern harriers cruised the prairie as they always do this time of year. The transition into winter had begun.
The shrike remained patient with my continuing appearances along the roadway. It was graceful and concise in its swift, fluttering flight over the grass, and agile enough to pick insects out of the air while still stationed at its favorite perch. I saw no hint of the villain of times long ago – only a highly refined bird with an ingenious sense of how to capture and hold its prey and to survive in a world where its natural habitat may change or even disappear from one year to the next.
It is fascinating to observe how birds work - how each species has its own survival strategy built around a perfectly adapted physical form that has evolved to thrive in a specific ecological niche. And, it is good to know that our attitudes towards birds can change, too.
So, here’s to the northern shrike - former “butcher bird” and now esteemed for its beauty, its ingenuity, and its unique place in our midst. Look for shrikes in open fields throughout the islands and, if you are lucky enough to spot one, may I suggest a few complimentary words might be in order.
SAN JUAN NATURE NOTEBOOK BY SUSAN VERNON.
SALUTING THE SHRIKE / text and photographs © 2012 by Susan Vernon. No part of this column may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.