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Wildlife Preservation Canada

Turning the corner - efforts to save endangered bird pay off

Jul 07, 2008 10:25 ET

Eastern loggerhead shrike recovery

GUELPH - Just 11 years ago, the future of Eastern Loggerhead Shrike looked very grim. With only 18 wild pairs in the province, the species was on the brink of extinction. Now, a captive-breeding and release program to save this rare bird is producing remarkable results.

For the fourth year in a row captive-bred shrikes released to the wild have survived migration and returned to breed. An unprecedented seven captive-bred birds were spotted in the wild this year- making up more than a quarter of the number of wild pairs.

"This is a huge milestone," says Elaine Williams, Executive Director of  Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC), the Guelph-based non-profit organization spearheading shrike recovery efforts. "Although we still have a lot of work to do, we're clearly making a difference. Without the recovery program, the shrikes would likely be extinct today."

The breeding and release program has astonished the conservation world with its rapid success. In 2005, just four years after WPC began releasing captive-bred birds, the first one returned. This year, for the first time, two of the captive-bred birds spotted in the wild were two-year-olds.

"We're all thrilled to see birds that we've released return two years later," says WPC Species Recovery Biologist Jessica Steiner. "There's absolutely no question that our captive breeding program is increasing the wild population." This year, a total of 27 pairs were spotted in the wild - a 150% jump from their lowest point.

"Our return rates are also impressive," Steiner points out. "While the return rate for one-year-old migratory shrikes is only one per cent, more than five per cent of our captive-bred shrikes returned this year. It's a testament to the fitness of the birds we're releasing."

In addition to the captive breeding and release program, the recovery efforts include habitat restoration and stewardship, public outreach and applied research. Williams notes that the current success wouldn't be possible without the ongoing support of many landowners, volunteers and funders.

"Saving an endangered species doesn't happen overnight, so the vision and commitment of our supporters is crucial," she says. "We're particularly grateful to our largest private sector donor, Boisset Family Estates, the makers of French Rabbit wines, who stepped in to support us this spring when government funding cuts put the program into jeopardy."

/For further information: Still digital and video footage of Eastern Loggerhead Shrike are available.

About WPC:
Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC) is a charitable organization devoted to saving highly endangered animal species facing imminent extinction in Canada and internationally — species whose numbers in the wild are so low that a great deal more than habitat protection is required to recover them. Our conservation programs include research, captive breeding, reintroduction, habitat stewardship and public education — each a crucial part of species recovery — and all of our hands-on interventions are guided by scientific research and field data. For more information about WPC and the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike, please visit www.wildlifepreservation.ca.

About the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike:
The Eastern Loggerhead Shrike is a rare combination. It’s both a songbird and a bird of prey that hunts mice, insects and even small snakes and impales them on thorns and barbed wire. For the past fifty years, these so-called “butcher birds” have been disappearing from the Canadian grasslands where they were once a familiar sight. In Ontario, only a few dozen Eastern Loggerhead Shrikes remain in the wild.

About the Recovery Effort:
With the help of local landowners and volunteers, WPC has been breeding shrikes in large enclosures in their natural habitat and releasing them to boost the wild population. Since the captive breeding program was launched in 1997, more than 300 captive-bred shrikes have been released to save the wild population from extinction.

Another key part of the program is restoring the short grassland that shrikes depend on. Recovery efforts focus on the Carden Plain, the Bruce Peninsula and Napanee — areas where the black-masked birds were once a common sight. Last year, more than half the wild population nested in areas that had been restored.

In addition to the Boisset Family Estates funding through the LCBO Natural Heritage Program towards the captive-breeding and release program, the shrike recovery program is being funded this year by Environment Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Fund and the Province of Ontario’s Species at Risk Stewardship Fund.