Bird of the Week

Photo courtesy Charles Martinez

This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the northern shrike.

These unusual songbirds are seen in our area, at the southern edge of their range, only in winter or early spring and not very often. They are territorial and aggressive even outside the breeding season, and are known to attack birds as large as ducks that pose no threat to them. They defend large territories, about seven acres around the nest and more than 360 acres as a hunting territory.

This robin-sized bird is a fierce predator and strictly carnivorous. It preys on birds, small mammals and insects, often killing more than it can eat when hunting is good. The excess is stock-piled, wedged in forks of tree branches or impaled on thorns or barbed wire for later consumption.

In brushy, semi-open habitats, northern shrikes are often seen perched conspicuously on wires, bushes or trees, scanning the area for prey. They also hunt from concealed perches where they wait for small birds to come close, or hop through bushes to startle prey into the open.

Adults are big-headed, gray birds with black wings that show white patches. Like the similar loggerhead shrike, it wears a black mask, but the northern’s mask narrows and does not go over the eye or across its thick, hooked bill.

Around 90 percent of the northern shrike population breeds in the boreal forests of Canada, where insects are abundant in summer. Billions of birds breed in this globally important area, which stretches 3,500 miles from Alaska across Canada to the Atlantic.

Although the northern reaches are still intact, each year millions of acres are clearcut to feed our demand for toilet paper and other products of logging.

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