Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Taiga Shrike

This morning, while wandering through South Platte Park, I encountered a northern shrike, hunting from a barren tree in a lakeside meadow.  A native of the taiga across Alaska and Northern Canada, this species spreads south to the northern and western U.S. during the winter months when its smaller cousin (the loggerhead shrike) has moved on to warmer, more southern climes.

Generally solitary in winter, northern shrikes hunt from an exposed perch in a tree or tall shrub, dropping to snare songbirds or small mammals with its hooked beak and talons.  Its habit of storing excess prey by impaling it on thorns or barbed wire has earned it (and other shrikes) the nickname of "butcher birds."

By mid spring, northern shrikes return to their breeding grounds, favoring the open woodlands where boreal forest meets the Arctic tundra.  There they nest in stunted conifers, adding large insects to their diet and that of their growing youngsters; in a landscape of ephemeral pools and perpetual summer daylight, that prey is especially abundant.