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Bruce Mactavish: The menacing shrike

Bruce Mactavish photo — 
The black mask and hooked bill give away the true nature of the northern shrike.
Bruce Mactavish photo — The black mask and hooked bill give away the true nature of the northern shrike.

The northern shrike is a robin-sized bird. Birdwatchers look at them with at a twinge of excitement because it is a very uncommon bird. Bird feeder watchers view a shrike with a mixture of excitement and dread because shrikes are meat eaters.
Shrikes are conniving sneaky birds with an evil intent. They are built and shaped like your typical songbird. The shrike uses its air of innocence to get close to its prey. A trusting bird might suspect something suspicious about the actions of shrike. Perhaps a little annoyed as the persistent shrike follows it around and around in the trees. It could be too late before the bird realizes the shrike’s purpose is as dangerous as a hawk. The shrike does not have feet like a hawk but uses its hooked bill to grab its prey.
Northern shrikes eat small birds, field mice and large insects in season. They nest in Labrador and come south as far as the island of Newfoundland in winter. They are never common. In fact northern shrikes are almost a rarity. During years of low vole populations in Labrador very few young shrikes are produced. In the past two winters almost no shrikes reached the island. This fall they seem to be on the upswing again.
Neighbours Yvonne Dunne and Clara Dunne in Renews are having mixed feelings about the northern shrike visiting their properties. No doubt attracted by the house sparrows and juncos at their feeders they were excited to see the shrike, but they hope it will not catch the beautiful Baltimore oriole currently starring at their feeders.
The shrike at Renews and another one that Cliff Doran photographed in Trepassey this past week were a dirty brown colour showing that they were birds hatched this summer. Adult northern shrikes are a handsome cold gray with black wings and tail, and a black bandit’s mask over the eye. Despite their reputation, consider yourself lucky if you encounter the northern shrike.

Grouse with spring fever
Grouse get a touch of spring fever in the fall. No one is sure why it happens but ruffed grouse can be heard drumming on nice days in the fall. Not quite with the same intensity as spring but still a pleasant sound of spring in the fall. The young grouse having been part of a family bevy following behind mother grouse all summer and are now dispersing. They have a peculiar method of leaving home called the crazy flight. The young fly at high speeds in random directions for kilometres at a time sometimes crashing into buildings and windows. They have an odd record of showing up in completely non-forested habits at lighthouses or in an urban backyard. Blair Drover’s photograph of a male spruce grouse displaying before a female on the lichen-covered forest floor at Sandy Pond, Terra Nova National Park was a hit on the Newfoundland Birdwatching Group Facebook page. The male spruce grouse is truly a stunning looking bird in the fall season.

The wild food crop
With the leaves mostly off the trees we can get a clearer idea of the magnitude of the dogberry crop. Wow! It is quite incredible. It should be a great winter for robins, flickers, waxwings, pine grosbeaks and purple finches. And according to legend there will be lots of snow but mild temperatures this winter. There is a good crop of seeds on the balsam fir and white spruce trees. So far we are not seeing much in the way of finches capitalizing on this excellent food source. There is still time for them to show up.
The birch trees also have a bumper crop of catkins. Their seeds last only for a month or two in the fall but right now American goldfinches and juncos are going gangbusters on this high-grade food source. All this seed available in the wild is going to mean a shortage of birds at the bird feeders at least at the start of the winter season. Is it OK to start your birdfeeder now? I say yes, let ’er rip. There have been some frosty nights in most areas now. Enjoy.

Rare bird news
Vernon Buckle, the one-man Labrador birding team has turned up another exciting rare bird near his home at Forteau, Labrador. This time it was a slaty-backed gull. We have had these before, in fact almost every year since the first in the province at St. John’s in January 2006. But the slaty-backed gull is from the Russia and Japan areas of the world. In recent years, perhaps because of a less ice-choked passage way through the Arctic island of Canada, a few are making to the Atlantic Ocean. Otherwise things have quieted down in the rare bird finding department even though it is still prime time. As we always say — it just takes one bird.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at

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