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The Kingston Whig-Standard

Local shrike numbers at record low

Rare predatory songbird disappearing from local grassland habitats, experts say

Friday, March 19, 2004 - 07:00

By Jennifer Pritchett

Local News - One of the world’s rarest birds has declined in population to the lowest point ever in the Napanee area, says the Federation of Ontario Naturalists.

The eastern loggerhead shrike, the only predatory songbird in existence, is an endangered subspecies of the shrike family. The Napanee plains, a grazed grassland largely used for cattle farming, is one of the world’s most populated habitats of the rare bird.

But since last year, their numbers in Napanee have been falling at an alarming rate.

“This is the lowest point we’ve seen yet in that area,” said Chris Grooms of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists.

In 2002, there were 25 eastern loggerhead shrike pairs living on the Napanee plains. By last year, there were only half that number recorded.

Today, the Kingston Field Naturalists will unveil two outdoor displays to raise awareness of the endangered songbird. The two displays, located in Newburgh and Blessington, tell people about the bird and its rare grassland habitat within the Napanee Limestone Plain Important Bird Area.

Across Ontario, there are roughly 25 Eastern Loggerhead Shrike pairs, including 12 pairs identified in Carden Plains near Orillia.

Smiths Falls was once one of three primary habitats for the bird, but recently only one has been seen in the area.

In eastern Manitoba, seven pairs have been spotted.

“I would doubt there’s more than 100 pairs in the world,” Grooms said.

The eastern loggerhead shrike likes to sit on the tops of small trees, utility wires or fence posts and swoop down on its unsuspecting prey.

The bird is known to spike its kill with its strong hooked beak before eating it.

Somewhat smaller than a robin, the loggerhead shrike feeds mainly on larger insects like grasshoppers but has been known to attack bigger creatures such as snakes and voles.

Apart from their singing abilities and predatory nature, little is known about the birds.

What cause their decline in the Napanee area isn’t known, but biologists believe that the worldwide decline of the birds is linked to a loss of cattle farms and grazed grassland area, which is their preferred habitat.

Elaine Williams, executive director of Wildlife Preservation Trust Canada, which is trying to boost their population, has several theories on the decline.

But up to this point in the research, nearly everything from the birds’ migratory habits to their declining numbers is a mystery, she told The Whig-Standard in an interview in 2002.

She also said heavy use of agricultural pesticides and road-kill deaths may be possible causes for their declining numbers.

“They’re intriguing little birds, fascinating, but a challenge,” said Williams, who was scheduled to speak about the decline last night at Queen’s University.

Through captive breeding centres at McGill University, the Toronto Zoo and a private facility in Ingersoll, Ont., biologists monitor the birds’ behaviour and ensure they’re fit for the wild before they are released.

Fourteen birds that were equipped with markers for identification and sent into the wild in August 2002 at a cattle farm near Smiths Falls haven’t been located, said Grooms of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists.

The birds, whose chances for survival were said to be good, were supposed to increase the Canadian population from what was then an estimated 108.

Biologists will continue to experiment this summer with release strategies in hopes of increasing the population.

Today’s sign unveiling will begin at 11 a.m. at the Hilltop Variety and Gas Bar in Newburgh and at 12:45 p.m. near the Blessington Store in Tyendinaga Township.

The public is invited to attend a tour of the Napanee Limestone Plain Important Bird Area at 11:20 a.m.

Members of the public are also asked to report sightings of the rare bird to the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Team at 1-866-833-8888.