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The Kingston Whig-Standard

Bird's apparent decline concerns species recovery biologist


WILDLIFE: Eastern Loggerhead Shrike population in Napanee area drops from about 10 pairs to five this year

It seems the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike may be losing its battle to flourish once again in Ontario.

In 2006 there were 18 pairs of the endangered species counted in Ontario. Over the next years until 2009 this number climbed to 31, and experts such as Jessica Steiner, a species recovery biologist with Wildlife Preservation Canada, were optimistic efforts to preserve the creature's habitats were on the right track.

But this year the number has dropped to a surprising 22.

And this decline has naturalists and biologists perplexed.

The most abrupt slump has occurred in the Napanee area, which has hovered around nine to 10 pairs each season from 2006 to 2009. However, it has dropped to just five pairs this year.

"A lot of birds have returned with no mate and they have moved to help a pair raise their young in a joint co-operative manner, so that is a good sign," Steiner said. "We know they are breeding here and leaving, but we don't know why they are not coming back."

The Eastern Loggerhead Shrike is a black, white and grey mix of predator and songbird.

It is slightly larger than a robin and depends on open grassland habitat interspersed with trees and shrubs. It has a hawk-like beak that lets it kill prey such as small mice, frogs or snakes.

Because it is a songbird, it has no talons, so it impales its dead prey on thorns or barbed wire. In the summer, it eats mostly insects.

Investigators have attached humane devices to try to determine exactly where the birds winter and they have some general ideas, Steiner said.

"And that is where the problem is, because they breed here and leave to winter, but don't come back."

The suspected wintering grounds are Arkansas, Florida Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas but nothing is definitive, Steiner said.

Kurt Hennige, 54, has been fascinated by subspecies of the shrike since he was a child in Germany. Today he is Wildlife Preservation Canada's shrike biologist in eastern Ontario.

He's not convinced the drop-off in Napanee is as significant as it may seem, because other shrike habitats in the Carden Plain benefit from being populated with birds bred in captivity and released to return there.

"I think Napanee could benefit from a program such as that," he said.

Hennige said he is not convinced anyone really knows the location of the birds' wintering grounds. They would be likely desert-type grasslands, similar to their breeding grounds here, he said.

There could be many factors for the shrikes' decline, both Hennige and Steiner said.

Steiner said it would be a "big leap" to conclude that the BP oil disaster could have affected the delicate birds, but added, "(The shrike) could just as easily be impacted as anything else that we know could be affected by any huge disaster taxing the ecosystem and habitat."

But Hennige and Steiner suggest the extreme cold winter in parts of the United States this past year would likely have had a bigger impact on the birds.

They are also susceptible to becoming road kill because they wander closer to the road to look for prey than other birds, Hennige said.

"What we really need is to prove to those Americans we know what we are talking about that our birds are going down there and not coming back," he said.

American experts tend to focus on other species related to the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike and do not make it a high priority, he said.

Back in the 1960s, there were up to 100 pairs of the birds in the Kingston and Napanee area. They thrive in shallow grasslands, pastures with shallow soil where cattle or horses graze.

The red cedar in the Napanee area makes excellent nesting areas, when it is thinned to the right degree.

"We have had great co-operation from farmers here. They let us go on their property to thin out the trees and bushes and help repair fences," he said. "They contribute their labour and some money, too, and it is a win-win for everyone."

Other local birders, stewardship councils and groups such as the Kingston Field Naturalists help in the recovering and maintaining the bird's habitats and keeping track of their locations.

"This has been a wonderful community for all its effort," Hennige said.

Environment Canada and Canadian Wildlife Service has recently decided, under the Species at Risk Act, to develop a draft recovery plan for the shrike in Ontario areas where the birds nest.

The draft plan has identified a critical habitat for the species' survival. It has identified in total 108 patches (totalling 6,805 hectares) in the Napanee and Carden core breeding areas.

A public consultation meeting is being held Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. in Napanee at Roblin Community Hall.

The recovery strategy sets goals for the number of shrike pairs in the short term (five years) medium term (10 years) and long term (25 years and up.)

If you are a landowner with Loggerhead Shrike on your land, the activities you are carrying out are likely currently compatible with the birds' needs, federal officials note.

But the federal government has outlined activities that can destroy the birds' critical habitat including:

* Removing important habitat features, (shrubs) or impaling sites (thorny shrubs) and nest trees and/or fragmentation of the habitat on your landscape.

* Residential developments including non-farm rural residential residences.

* Conversion of grasslands to cropland.

Public consultations will continue in the next months.

Asked why it is so important to go to such trouble for one small species, Hennige said, birds like the shrike, which live off grasslands, are declining at a rapid rate and indicating a serious change in habitat and our ecosystem.

"If you protect the species, you protect the habitat and you protect the ecosystem. That is what counts," he said. "The shrike is like the canary in the mine shaft."