It never fails to amaze me how many people come out for this gig. We had 120 birders this year, and some years there have been 150. Of course, two years ago we did have some last minute cancellations and a few no-shows. It's possible that the minus 12 degree temperatures had something to do with folks begging out.
A big thanks to Marc Nolls of the OOS and all of the expert birders who volunteer their time to organize this extravaganza and lead the field trips. Major props go to Nicole Cavendar of the Wilds and her staff for hosting us as they do every year. Not only does the Wilds open up and heat the normally shuttered restaurant for us to repair to at lunch time, this year they took everyone behind the scenes into the rhino and giraffe houses.
Between the birds and mammals, this field trip sported quite a diversity of observations.
Should you be a weaker animal, you'll do very well to stay out of sight of one of these beasts as we shall see.
Marek's excellent photo was taken in Poland. The Northern Shrike has a broad breeding distribution across the northern reaches of North America and Eurasia. Shrikes move southward as need be in winter to find food. We've got another, far scarcer shrike in Ohio - the Loggerhead Shrike. Loggerheads are far more southerly in distribution and experienced a boom and bust cycle in eastern and midwestern North America. Now that they've largely gone bust, only one or a few are found each year in Ohio.
Purple and brown denote the breeding distribution of Northern Shrike in North America. Our Ohio birds have certainly come a long way, and it'd be interesting to know where they come from. East or west of Hudson Bay? As shrikes can be long-lived for a songbird, it'd also be interesting to know if this Wilds bird or some of the others that show up at the same places each winter in Ohio are the same individuals.
Shrikes are well known for capturing and killing all that they can, which in the olden days of rampant anthropomorphism led to them being branded as wanton killers; evil scourges among otherwise delicate and golden-voiced songbirds. I'm sure that many a shrike has been offed by old-time naturalists incensed by the highly predatory habits of these feathered Vlad the Impalers.
The reason that shrikes go on killing sprees is to stock the larder for lean times. Cold northern winters can be tough to survive, and if a tasty vole presents itself, the shrike would be foolish not to take advantage, even if it is still sated from the previous meal. So, the excess plunder is hung in dense shrubs where it less likely to be discovered by ground-roaming mammals. The shrike will return to the cache later and devour its victim.
A shrike is certainly not an animal to be trifled with. They will attack nearly anything up to their size or even larger. There are reports of shrikes going after birds up to the size of Blue Jays and even Rock Pigeons. If the shrike gets the advantage, it'll snap the cervical vertebrae of its victim with a crushing pinch of its powerful bill. If that happens, its game over for the prey and that's a merciful thing considering how it'll later be dealt with.
A common belief is that shrikes impale their victims because their feet are too weak to hold it, so the bird wedges the morsel between some twigs or hangs it on a thorn and then tears it asunder. I don't know about this. Any songbird that can carry a chubby meadow vole that nearly matches it in weight can't be that weak in the feet. It may be that the shrike's short legs and body dimensions just make it difficult to grasp the prey in its feet and simultaneously reach it with its bill.
Once the victim has been secured, whether by thorn, barbed wire, or lodged between twigs, the shrike is free to use its raptorlike hooked bill to tear into the prey. While such manners may seem gruesome, the shrike has merely evolved a wonderfully efficient method of dealing with its food.
Let's just be grateful that shrikes aren't the size of condors or we'd all be in trouble.