Published January 20, 2013, 06:05 AM

Northland Nature: A shrike lingers at the bird feeder

Recently another wintering bird came to mingle at the feeders. The bird was about the size of a blue jay with black wings and tail, a gray back, a white belly and a black mask. I was watching a northern shrike.

The weather this month so far has not always been winter-like. Temperatures have shown a huge variation, from 15- to 20 below as we began the month, to near 50 above just ten days later. Again, the average temperature for the first half of the month has been several degrees above normal.

Instead of the usual snowstorms closing schools, we had a shutdown due to ice. By mid-month, we had more precipitation in the form of rain than in snow. Looking back on December, I find it interesting to note that the average for the first half was about 23.5 degrees Fahrenheit, nearly nine degrees above the usual; but in the latter half, the mercury recorded only 12.7 degrees, about two degrees below the norm.

Mild temperatures with limited snow keep much of the local wildlife active. And in the small amount of snow that does coat the ground, I have found tracks of about twenty kinds of critters. A deeper snowpack and more frigid conditions would have limited many of them. But despite these weather conditions, I find that the bird feeders have remained very active, perhaps because feeding habits were established in the early winter of late December and are now being carried into the mid-winter.

Extreme conditions on either end do bring some changes, but even here, birds do show up. Subzero temperatures or snowy conditions seem to invite most to the feeders, while on mild days, fewer arrive, showing me that they really don’t need these handouts to cope with winter.

Each day, I expect to see the regulars, seven kinds that are here mostly in the morning. These include the ubiquitous black-capped chickadees, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches and three kinds of woodpeckers: downy, hairy and red-bellied. Each of these six species is present only in small numbers. It is the seventh kind, the common redpoll, that appears in flocks.

The redpoll arrival began early this season, and by December, a few had come by. More discovered the seeds, and by late in the month, about forty were here. Two weeks ago, I counted a flock of eighty, and just a few days later, this group had grown to be an estimated one-hundred-fifty. Among these tiny common redpolls were a couple of the whiter and larger hoary redpolls. Blue jays and pine grosbeaks had earlier come by, but not recently; and though I’ve seen pileated woodpeckers often, they avoided the feeders.

Recently another wintering bird also came to mingle at the feeders. The bird was about the size of a blue jay with black wings and tail, a gray back, a white belly and a black mask.

I was watching a northern hhrike. Unlike the other feathered feeder-frequenters, the shrike flitted back and forth quickly and never did alight on the seeds: it had come to the feeder to try to feed on one of these smaller birds.

Shrikes are classified as songbirds, but with a sharp hooked beak, they take on the role of predator. It has a beak like a raptor, but not the talons on its feet. It needs to strike its prey fast and then take the victim and impale it on something sharp, such as a thorn of a tree or maybe barbed wire. Here, it uses its beak to dismember its prey and feed on it, being unable to do so with its feet. This feeding technique has earned this unusual predator the nickname of “butcher bird.”

The one that came to our feeder scattered the small birds and appeared to come up empty-handed in its quest for food. It flew off. However, the next day it was back, and it seemed to stay around. Stranger still was the fact that the bird did land on the feeder. It returned several times to a section of the feeder that I could not see from where I was.

Since shrikes do not eat seeds, I decided to take a closer look. I went out and found out why it was going to the feeder: Here on the outer wall of a screened feeder, the shrike had placed its prey, a redpoll, and was in the process of feeding on the impaled bird. Apparently, the shrike had caught a redpoll and found the feeder to be an adequate site to store it.

The continuous presence of the shrike was keeping other birds away, so I removed its catch, allowing feeding to return to normal. The shrike has moved on and the feeders now hold only seeds and suet. But for a short time, a shrike had its own meals at the bird feeder.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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