The Improbability of Shrikes
Predatory songbirds and all that is weird and wonderful
Last Tuesday, I drove a mile from my house into the chaparral. I wanted to see if there were any sycamore leaves left even though I was fairly certain they had all blown off the trees. We are getting to that time of year where the local leaves that work the best for plant prints are mostly gone. I don’t mind because I find myself watching the trees for weeks after, waiting for the coming change in seasons. I love the winter, but there is something comforting and tinged with possibilities in nature’s obvious shifts. So, when the trees finally start to bud, I feel a little spark of anticipation. You can’t miss things that are always there.
When nature has a choice, what is seasonally absent always comes back. Of course, we often don’t give nature a choice in these matters. Trees don’t unfurl their new spring greens and migratory hearts don’t come home to the unrelenting concrete of new logistic centers. I miss so many species I readily found in youth. You can’t miss what is always there, but no one wants the well of grief that comes from what will never be there again.
The sycamore trees were indeed bare. So, I strolled the chaparral, checking to see if the San Gorgonio River was flowing and investigating what remained of the vernal pools left in the wake of tropical storm Hillary. Then something nagged for my attention. It was a bird silhouette that I tried to dismiss as a scrub jay, but the search image in my mind rejected this answer. So, I tried again, guessing it was a mockingbird. Still, the search image didn’t line up. It was some sort of songbird.
I walked closer and from a direction where the bird wouldn’t be backlit, and I bumped it from its perch. As it flew, the sun caught the black mask across its eyes, and I recognized the alternating powerful wingbeats and glide of a predator. I haven't seen a predatory songbird in my stomping grounds for at least twenty years, but I was looking at a loggerhead shrike.
I love the improbability of shrikes. They are striking in their grayscale markings and in repose they look as fluffy and harmless as any songbird visiting a feeder stocked with seed. Yet, they absolutely earn their nickname “butcherbird”. They eat not just insects and small reptiles, but also mice and sparrows. You have to see it to believe it and more than one of my friends have told me a story about the utter confusion of witnessing their first shrike take sizable quarry.
In case this isn’t hardcore enough, they make up for their lack of raptorial talons by utilizing found weapons to dispatch larger prey. Thorns and barbed wire make excellent skewers and shrikes like to leave kabob caches of their conquests throughout their territory. In fact, a well-stocked larder makes them more attractive to the ladies.
In the early 90s, I flew hawks with my friends in places that are now under concrete. We would pace ourselves in a leisurely stroll that allowed us to take in the details of the land. We would often find ourselves huddled around barbed wire and an impaled shrike snack in awe. Hunting with a hawk seems congenial when you consider the tactics of a shrike. How was it possible that a small songbird could be so twistedly lethal?
I always wanted to understand the mind of shrike – to learn how they think. (Don’t judge me. How many documentaries on serial killers have you watched?) So, 30 years ago, when I had the opportunity to raise two shrike nestlings, I had grand visions of our friendship. I raised them on a hearty diet of mice, set up a feeding station for them on my balcony overlooking 100s of acres of rolling hills and put out barbed wire for them. I watched every day when they returned to their feeding station, hoping they would return to impale their own prey. (Now that I think about it, that is a seriously gruesome hope. What was I thinking, exactly? That I would enjoy my morning cup of coffee while admiring the work of Vlad the Impaler in miniature?)
My dreams of training shrikes were for naught though. They were indeed catching their own food, but they were doing their impaling in private. So, after a few weeks they stopped checking in for handouts and went about their wild lives without me. I was disappointed, but not as disappointed as I would be in the years to come when I would no longer find the grisly signs of the improbable shrikes.
The shrike in chaparral up the road from me lit on a wire and I jumped in my truck to go back home and fetch my camera. I pled under my breath for the bird to stay put. I wanted proof and I wanted a reference photo. When I found the shrike where I had left it and zoomed in with my lens, I let the awe of the moment wash over me. I felt like I had found a lost and well-loved memento. I felt like I was reacquainting myself with all the ways the world can be unlikely and uncanny.
Shrikes are not endangered, yet. Their numbers have fallen precipitously though, and it’s estimated that we have lost 75% of the population. Likely, their biggest challenge is habitat loss. They like open country that is interspersed with spiny shrubs, and biologists think they could rebound as long as they have the habitat they need. Now that I’ve seen one locally again, it makes me want to double-down on conserving habitat. It makes me hope that I might find a shrike cache in a mesquite bush so that I can point it out to a kid and tell her this story of things that are weird and wonderful.
When nature has a choice, the things that are absent return, even predatory songbirds. And I would rather not miss them anymore. I hope I won’t have to.
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