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:
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