The name “butcher bird” sounds like a character out of a gothic murder mystery novel. But this nickname belongs to the loggerhead shrike, an endangered songbird whose eastern population’s breeding areas have shrunk to two small pockets in Ontario. With less than twenty breeding pairs remaining in the wild, conservationists at Wildlife Preservation Canada are working to prevent the eastern population from disappearing through a captive breeding program that releases juvenile shrikes to stabilize the wild population.
Loggerhead shrikes are slightly smaller in size than a robin, but their heads are large relative to their body-size, earning them the name ‘loggerhead’. The ‘butcher bird’ nickname comes from how they catch and store food. “What’s neat about them is they’re really one of the only truly predatory songbirds,” says Jane Hudecki, Shrike Conservation Breeding Coordinator for Wildlife Preservation Canada. Loggerhead shrikes will chow down on mice, frogs, grasshoppers, and beetles. “Since they are a songbird, they lack strong talons. So they use their beak, or hawthorn bushes, or barbed wire in the environment to impale their ideal prey and then tear off manageable chunks with their beak.”
The eastern population of loggerhead shrike is a grassland bird, preferring to nest in flat, open areas with a scattering of trees and shrubs. Hudecki says they can usually be found in alvars, environments where a thin layer of soil covers limestone bedrock. The dwindling population can now only be found breeding in two parts of Ontario: one close to Orillia and another near Greater Napanee. The eastern population of loggerhead shrike migrates out of Ontario for the winter, heading down to the northeastern United States, but little is known about where exactly these birds go in the winter.
Loggerhead shrikes face a variety of threats, but “first and foremost it’s habitat loss,” says Hudecki. “Because they really prefer these very specific grasslands, and because these types of grasslands are often found on limestone plains, there are unfortunately developments encroaching on the habitat space that they use to breed and build their nests on.” Land use changes in loggerhead shrike habitat can include quarry and housing developments.
With so few loggerhead shrikes remaining in the wild in Ontario, Hudecki says the birds are a ‘high-priority’ species for recovery efforts. Hudecki, with the program’s lead biologist Hazel Wheeler, coordinates an annual conservation breeding program that includes the partner facilities African Lion Safari, the Toronto Zoo, Mountsberg Raptor Centre, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. The facilities breed loggerhead shrikes, which are raised in captivity by their parents until they reach thirty-seven days old. The juveniles are then transferred to field sites in the two Ontario breeding zones.
“We keep them there in release enclosures before doing a soft-release, where they are allowed access to the wild but are provided with supplemental feedings. Field staff monitor them closely to make sure they’re getting the best possible head start in the wild,” says Hudecki.
“Being able to work hands-on with an endangered species is so amazing,” says Hudecki. Watching the young captive-bred shrikes make their first flight out into the wild, Hudecki says, “was really strangely sad, but also really hopeful, seeing them take flight into the wild for the first time, realizing they don’t have a wire enclosure over their head.”
Loggerhead shrikes, like other songbirds that call Canada home in the summer, face a perilous journey when migrating south for the winter. Crossing major urban centres is tricky business for a small bird; they have to steer clear of artificial lights that can lead them astray, reflective windows, fast cars, and predatory domestic cats. You can help the eastern population of loggerhead shrike and other songbirds have a smooth migration by turning your lights off at night, applying window decals to prevent collisions between birds and reflective glass, and keeping your cat indoors.
If you cottage near Napanee or Orillia and spot a loggerhead shrike, the Wildlife Preservation Canada staff want to hear about it. You can e-mail your sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re a birder and want to go the extra mile, Wildlife Preservation Canada has an Adopt-A-Site program where volunteers take the lead on surveying for shrikes.