Monday, April 4, 2011

The Oxymoron Of The Northern Shrike - Death Of A Songbird


Northern Shrike, Phippsburg, Maine March 2, 2011
Two Northern Shrikes photographed in Pembroke, Maine March 31, 2011. Note that each is on a different type of utility wire.

Northern Shrike in Pembroke, Maine with a caterpillar capture. I was photographing this bird on the wire above when it swooped to the ground in front of me and whisked up this delicacy.
     Now here's an oxymoron for you, the Northern Shrike is a predatory songbird. In my  ideal world, birds would be one or the other, either precious little singers, chortling and warbling in the trees telling us all is well with the world, or killers, but not both. Like most humans, I need a certain amount of order and logic. I like to compartmentalize things and when they don't wrap up in tidy packages the way my mind wants them to, I'm left confused and agitated.  My brain gloms onto discrepancies between sometimes glaring realities and what I want to be true. I want to believe in the tidiness of good and evil, right and wrong. The truth is, birds, no matter how lovely, must eat and some of them eat other birds, as does the Northern Shrike.
   Shrikes sit on wires or prominent elevations like this weather vane to hunt. They tail dip if alerted or courting, as do mockingbirds. Shrikes miss very little of what moves below them, suddenly launching in a tight tuck to the ground to snatch a catch. Like some hawks, they do a little hover flying when scanning fields. The Latin species name of the Northern Shrike, Lanius excubitor, means "Butcher watchman." The shrike has a hooked, sharp bill for tearing flesh and killing prey. They don't have talons, like other predators, so they can't grasp onto food. Instead, they impale their kills onto thorns or sometimes, the barbs of barbed wire. Early observers thought this to be wanton killing, but it allows the shrike to then pull bits of flesh away from the large insects which make up the bulk of their diet, or rodents and sometimes other birds. Food items that are too big to consume in one sitting are also stored by hanging on thorns or in the crotches of branches to be consumed later. This adaptation helps shrikes to survive periods of food scarcity. These food caches are also part of courtship displays by males seeking to impress females with their hunting skills. Usually, the caches are found about three feet off the ground and in the vicinity of nest sites. When I was younger I was often attracted to guys that had a "bad boy" streak. A guy that would hang a dead rat on a fence to woo me would have been right up my alley, too.
     At just under ten inches from bill to tail tip, the shrike is a powerful bird that will kill birds bigger than itself. The shrike comes up underneath and behind a flying victim then grabs the feet or tail snatching the unsuspecting bird from mid air or stunning it with it's strong bill.  The Northern Shrike is also a talented songster with an appealing,  melodic warble. They have been known to mimic the songs of smaller songbirds to lure them to their deaths. They are also easily confused in the field with Northern Mockingbirds, known too for their splendid ability to mimic and sing.
     In North America, there are two kinds of shrikes, the Loggerhead and the Northern. Their ranges overlap slightly during the winter. In Maine the most commonly seen is the Northern Shrike, also called the Great Grey Shrike in Britain. Shrikes are boreal birds of the taiga and northern forests. They migrate slightly south of their summering range for the winter. In southern Maine, Northern shrikes are usually seen as migrating birds. This year, there have been higher than usual numbers of them reported. They are territorial birds most often seen singly, though they do form monogamous mating pairs for the breeding season. Males and females look very much alike. Both build the nest, incubate and care for young. Shrikes are not endangered, though habitat destruction has likely resulted in reduced numbers. Pollutants, especially heavy metals, find their way into shrikes by way of the rodents they consume.
     Long ago I was suddenly fired from a job I desperately needed and truly loved. The event so devastated me that it  was the last job I had in health care as a registered nurse. I still have a Maine nursing license and will probably take it to my grave, though I no longer practice. I maintain my license, not because I think I might one day want to return to work in health care, but because for over half of my life, being a nurse was my identity. People often said to me "Wow, a registered nurse, huh? I could never do that kind of work. It takes a special person to deal with all that stuff. Blood? Yuk! Not me! Thank God there are people like you; I couldn't do it." I had a lot of pride wound up in being that special person they talked about.     
     And, in nursing, I wasn't just any nurse, either; I was the cream that rose to the top. I had a career with a capital 'C.' As a supervisor in a rural community hospital where there weren't doctors after supper time, I ran from one crisis to another. We nurses handled everything, the strokes, the heart attacks, the respiratory failures, car accidents, overdoses, all of it, until a doc could get out of bed and get there. It wasn't uncommon for the nurses to manage a case even when a doctor did show up because they weren't always as experienced as we were, or even sober. I took care of sick, terrified and often dying people, their families and my staff. As the interface between nurses, doctors, patients and families; I was the problem solver; and frequently, the hero. I thrived on the adrenalin rush coursing through my super star veins. I loved what I did for work and it was me. For decades, I lived and loved the crises and stories and glory.
     Then one day, all of a sudden it was over. Without warning, I was called into an office and fired. Flimsy reasons were given, thin excuses to cover the human resource depatment's decision. I hadn't done anything wrong! Outraged, I forced them to try to explain to me what was happening, but they said their decision was not performance based. "The patients and your co workers love you. You are an accomplished clinician, but it's just not working out. We need a comfort level," is what I was left with to make sense of the catastrophe that became my life.
    I was at first, filled with rage and wanting vengeance. In the hours when sleep was impossible, I plotted and planned how I would get back at them. I fantasized my vindication. I'd tear them down as they had torn me down! I wallowed deep in humiliation, confusion, anger and helplessness. Terrified  about money, I was scared for my children's welfare. I saw my whole life and future collapsing before  my eyes. The whys spun around in my tortured head night after night.  "It's just not fair! It's not right! Why? Why!!!????" I cried, howled, and ranted. I couldn't make sense of any of it. There wasn't a pigeon hole big enough or the right shape to stuff this bird into. I had done and been everything I knew how to be and yet, for some reason in the end, I was not good enough. That empty fact left me with nothing to hold onto and I slid deep into depression.
     I spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what had happened. Needing to make sense of it, to see the logic, I tried to find someone to blame. "Who did this," seemed a question with an answer that would restore order. A few faces and names linked to ordinary work place dust ups came to mind. Paranoia reigned my brain swamped by waves of rage from which I'd crash into grief. In the end, I never did know what was behind my being fired.  Eventually, it was just the passage of time that loosened my grip on the need to know. I had to get on with my life. But, I did conclude that at the heart of it was an error in my thinking, not my doing; I had forgotten that songbirds can also be killers. Most of the time, there's no right or wrong, just the need to survive.
    My employers were people just trying to do their jobs. They probably weren't the evil incarnate I was at one point sure of. Most likely, they don't even remember what for me remains one of the most painful events of my life. To this day, I don't know why I was fired, but I am pretty sure somebody simply did what they thought they had to do to survive. I was merely the one that wound up impaled on a barb.



Northern Mockingbird, Phippsburg, Maine May 27, 2010
Mockingbirds are easily confused with Northern shrikes. They have a pointed, not hooked bill, are a little larger and have a longer tail.


For some of the information, thanks to:
wikipedia.com
allaboutbirds.org
whatbird.com


Sibley, David A., The Sibley Guide To Birds (2000)  Knopf: New York (2001) pp 340-341
Robbins, C.S., Bruun, B. & Zim, H., A Guide To Field Identification - Birds Of North America (1966),Golden Press: New York ((1966) pp242-243
CLICK THIS PICTURE!


47 comments:

  1. Wow,you did it again !! What great photos. The shrike is a beautiful bird,also a very good hunter,eh??

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  2. Great post on the Shrike. We have nurse practioners here to help doctors in areas where there is a shortage of doctors. You would go to one as a first response and be refered then onto the right path. I know that the Cdn medical system came under attack during the fight to get state health care in the US, but the addition of nurse practisioners is a smart way to improve the system. By the way public radio here followed up on the TV ads sponsored by the right wing which featured Cdn dissing the system, but all of them were either fraudelent or the people were not treated because the treatment was questionable or for cosmetic reasons. Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

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  3. What a stunning bird the shrike is and beautiful photos to match,it's great to see birds we don't see in the uk keep it up. Have just updated my twitchers photography blog
    i hope it's as good as this one
    best wishies

    Chris

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  4. Wow I learned a lot on your shrike!! Very nice and interesting post.. Congrats and thanks.

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  5. Thank you, Chris, topshot, Gary and bmc for the reads, views and comments. I put quite a bit into the research on my essays, so I'm glad that people learn something from them. Very gratifying it is!

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  6. Dawn Simmons Fine commented on your post in Birders who Blog, Tweet and Chirp.
    Dawn Simmons Fine 5:24pm Apr 4

    Glad you didn't impale them on barb wire:)

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  7. Dear Robin, The shrike on the steeply thing is lovely. We eat more meat than he does. Can't hold his nature against him. He looks so soft and lovable. Your essay made me so sad. How that must have hurt and rankled and given you no peace of mind for weeks and weeks. I am so easily bruised by criticism of any kind. I got into several painful attacks in my attempts to be a responsible member of the conservation commission, and I always went into a spin. I am glad now to be just a private citizen. What you went through is appalling, and I wish it hadn't happened to such a good warm kind friend. And from what you wrote, it took your warmth and comfort away from many people who needed it desperately.love, always, Jo

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  8. Kristen Lindquist commented on your activity.
    Kristen wrote: "Like your shrike!"

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  9. Robin--Amazing photos. I was also very moved by your story and loved how you used the shrike as a metaphor. My husband went through an incredibly painful period with work that resulted in him walking away from a relatively high-paying job. He ended up doing two years of seasonal work while he tried to sort it all out and make a transition back to conservation. He just started a new, year-round job last week that makes me think we're through the transition. There's very little that cuts as deeply as being fired (or having nasty, vindictive bosses that you need to escape). Thanks for sharing your story.

    Julia

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  10. Thank you, Julia. I never know when I write essays about things as personal as this whether or not people will connect to it. It's a wonderful thing for me to have people reach out and say that they do. Thank you for that. Interestingly, I make my money now in the summers working as a gardener. Your husband and I share that. Pulling weeds helps me keep my head clear.

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  11. Hi Robin, love your blog, and enjoy sharing it with a few PA friends.... what whould make it even better would be if it included some of your camera settings...like how you captured the moon so beautifuly...and what kind of lens you are using to shoot birds.....

    thanks Meghan

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  12. John Briggs commented on your post in Birders who Blog, Tweet and Chirp.
    John Briggs 8:29pm Apr 4

    Love the photos Robin! Haven't seen any yet, although we usually see them here. Should be soon.

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  13. Meghan, Thank you. I don't include photo metadata because I'm just too lazy to add one more thing to the blog, though I have thought of it a few times. I do have that on my photo web site on all images, and most of the blog images go into the galleries on that site. You can find it at htt://robinrobinsonmaine.smugmug.com Thanks for suggesting something. I always appreicate ideas for how to make my work more appealling to folks.

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  14. Timely blog Robin- with a family member just losing her job- it's a hard thing to go through- especially when there seems to be no "real" reason ever given! Having worked with you as a nurse- I KNOW you were one of the best- and I too, will never understand their reason for doing that to you! Sad for all of the patients you didn't get to help!!! Definitely a sad loss for nursing profession. Your pix were great too- as always!
    Love,
    Ms. Boo

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  15. Wow, what an incredible, insightful post Robin. The information on the Shrike is excellent as are the photos. Thank you too for sharing such a personal story. I work in the medical field also and find that, with the fluctuation of patients and staff (including non-productive, i.e. administrative staff) most of the firings I have seen are for monetary reasons. The staff that has been at a facility the longest and therefore is at the top of the pay scale, get canned and new, inexperienced grads are hired at half the cost during the next upswing. Sad and idiotic.

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  16. Boo, Thank you for being my staunch ally. I love you, too. Oh, and thank you for the read and comment.

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  17. Thank you, Larry for the veiws, reads, comments and compliments. You are a splendid photographer and so it's especially flattering to me. And, I agree about the firing business of frequently being striclty about money. I think that is, as the saying goes, "penny wise and pound foolish." That's when the gross irony of hospital and heatlh care administrators blathering about quality of patient care being their priority really shows itself to be a dismall falsehood.

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  18. Hi Robin. Far better imaages than any of the fleeting glimpses I've had of a local wintering Great Grey.

    I lost my last job through so called restructuring, where many of the experienced employees were levered out. Whilst it was hard to accept, in all honesty it was the best thing that could of happened. Tough on the finances but at least I have all the time in the world to enjoy the wildlife.

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  19. Frank, thank you. I agree that in the long run, my experience was that my life became very different after that, and much better. I've never made as much money, but I'm much happier.

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  20. Shawn Weigelt commented on your note "The Oxymoron Of The Northern Shrike - Death Of A Songbird".
    Shawn wrote: "Very nice photos, Robin! I didn't see a single shrike this winter here in the Pacific Northwest. Most birds are predators of other creatures when it really comes down to it though, including passerines. Shrikes just go for larger prey on occasion and are better suited for tackling them. Not good or bad...just how it is."

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  21. Harry Tyler commented on your note "The Oxymoron Of The Northern Shrike - Death Of A Songbird".
    Harry wrote: "Enjoy your nature-notes......keep them coming"

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  22. Great photos and a very interesting post. Often things don't make sense. Wish they did though!

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  23. A beautiful bird and lovely images Robin you have a real talent.
    Very sorry to hear your news.
    Please accept my best wishes for the future.
    Take care mate.

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  24. Very interesting post.Good luck for the future.

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  25. Harry, Thanks. You know you couldn't stop me from posting about the wild things! Or the not so wild, either. :)

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  26. Thank you, Neil, Mick and Andrew. Having people like you looking at what I do for "work" now and making your comments is a big improvement over working in hospitals anyway. And, my future is now and I'm happy as a pig in pooooo. Pigs probably wouldn't appreciate that I said that, would they?

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  27. Another gem on birds and a valuable lesson in life.

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  28. Awesome shrike photos!!!
    I was fired in 2007...never found another job so I scrape up income by doing freelance work of all kinds--from dog sitting to artwork--its not always easy--but I'm so much happier not having a jerk boss in my life anymore!

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  29. This is what blogging is all about. Fill my eyes with brilliant photography, my mind with interesting insights, and my heart with emotional energy.
    You portray this interesting duality, a naivety in combination with a jadedness that would make the Shrike an apt reflection of your disappointment. In this I certainly feel your angst.
    To lose a skilled emergency professional to the antics of bean counters and politicians makes me see red. I hope your anger one day turns into tenacity and you resume your calling.

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  30. Now that is one great post. Shrikes are interesting birds and must be dreaded in the bird kingdom - looks like a songbird, but eats them.

    Thanks for the personal story.

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  31. Sondra and Springman, thank you for all of that. You guys make me feel great, my vindication of sorts after all. Springman, I have my calling in this work on this site and I feel great about that. Eileen's remarks about being in the end, happier, apply to me as well. I don't feel now that I have lost anything, nor has the rest of the world. If that job loss had not happened to me, I wouldn't have become the photographer, writer and all around nut job that I am today. The world be a little less rich. :0

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  32. Thank you, Bill S., for the read, view, comment and compliments. In my life, I've seen fewer than half a dozen shrikes, and three of those this month. They provided so many wonderful platforms for writing and photography, too.

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  33. Wow! What a story, Robin! I always had an enormous respect for nurses. They made the hospital what it was for the patients. The doctors were just passing through. I remember as an intern how much I depended on knowledgable nurses to help me when I fumbled. To have been dismissed for no good reason that you could see, what a blow to your ego! Shrikes are cannibals; they savage their own kind; you drew a very apt parallel there.
    Nice photos!! The first one looks like a juvenile with the light brown scales on its chest.

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  34. Hilke, Thank you. I think that first is a juv. for just the reason you said. Somehow, I knew you would have been a physician who appreciated nurses, and most likely, all the other staff that make a place run, too. Thanks for that. I'm pleased my metaphor worked. A writer never knows for sure.........

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  35. Shrikes are such interesting birds, and not because they are particularly beautiful, but because of their unexpected behavior. Really wonderful post, and great connection to to your personal story! (Really well written too!)

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  36. The pictures are fantastic, the episode poignant, your musings about it today profound. Yeah, most bad stuff that hits us isn't the result of others' malevolence; they're just doing what they think they need to do for themselves. But it needs "the passage of time" to get past the hurt and figure that out.
    AtHomePilgrim
    April 07, 2011 07:08 AM

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  37. Robin, shrikes are not the only creatures with strange behaviors. While watching a gray squirrel one early Maine spring (before the daffodils were up, let alone out) I noticed a gray squirrel eating something yellow. My first thought was a daffodil but then I saw two feet protruding from its mouth. The feet belonged to a yellow finch.

    While in Banff, Canada, my husband and I watched an elk cow gnawing on what appeared to be a leg shank bone.

    In both instances they undoubtedly had needs for minerals unavailable otherwise.

    Thank you for so beautifully in prose and photos sharing your personal story.

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  38. AtHomePilgrim, Pat and Anonymous, thank you all. Your reads and comments and compliments are important to me. I know there is tons of stuff to see on the net. That my work stands out enough for you to take the time is beyond wonderful.
    I have been impressed by how this story touched so many people. I'm glad I could get across the experience well enough.

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  39. what an insightful post and gorgeous pictures. i am an lpn and i especially enjoyed the story, thanks for sharing!!!

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  40. Thanks, Debbie. Who knows, you and I may have worked together some where along the line, at least in spirit, eh?

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  41. Stunning post, we are always on the lookout for several shrike species during migration, we usually have Woodchat Shrike, Redback Shrike,and Great Grey Shrike in the UK as lost migrants and sometimes Great Grey overwinter. They rarely breed in the Uk due to loss of habitat, shrikes are a staggering species. Thanks for the post,

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  42. Sam and Lisa, Thanks a million of the kudos! How cool to have followers of my work in the UK. Shrikes are pretty nifty. It's been a big year for reporting them in Maine.

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  43. Okay.....I've looked at five of your posts. (Don't yet know how to find more). I understand why you are one of Christine's favourites.
    Chrissie Pissie
    April 12, 2011 04:34 PM

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  44. Excellent, as always. I always look forward to your posts.
    whirlwind
    April 12, 2011 04:46 PM

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