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A shrike visits the birdfeeder

Looking at the head of a northern shrike, we can see the black "mask" and the hooked bill. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A northern shrike perches on a branch above a birdfeeder. Note the black wings and tail. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

The weather of January 2017 may best be understood if we divide the month in half. During the first two weeks we experienced what most of us would call real January conditions. On several days we woke to subzero temperatures — even colder than minus 20 in many part of the Northland — and with frequent small snows, not big storms, we had about 10 inches recorded. The dry powdery snow cover of about a foot in the woods and on the ice of the lakes was indicative of our winter. By the time we reached mid-January, the average temperature was about 4 degrees above zero, compared to the normal of 10 degrees for this time. And then we moved into the second half of the month.

Mild temperatures that reached into the 30 appeared. This is really not that unusual. Nearly every January has a few such days that we call the “January thaw.” It varies in length, but normally it is a few days to a week. This year it stretched into a longer time. Temperatures climbed through the 30s and into the 40s a few times, making this January thaw feel more like a “pseudo-spring.” These conditions bring a response to the wildlife that live here.

The length of daylight between sunrise and sunset has not changed from the norm and true hibernators will not likely wake. Other sleepers, however, may rise and move about on these days. It is not unusual for raccoons, skunks and even chipmunks that have slumbered in much of the past weeks to be seen active in our yards during mild winter days.

Others of note are the birds. While chickadees may sing a “fee-bee” note, nuthatches give more nasal “yank” calls and woodpeckers drum. Banging their stout bills against tree trunks and branches to make loud “drumming” sounds is how many woodpeckers advertise their territories. This was not much of a surprise since I heard them earlier in the winter, but when the deeper and more resonating drum of the pileated woodpecker echoed through the woods, I stopped to take note and make visible confirmation of this huge woodpecker.

Other bird responses have been on the feeders. It was interesting to observe that while many birds of 10 species and maybe more than 100 individuals came in the cold weather, far fewer arrived during the mild days. Perhaps they are using this time to feed elsewhere, telling us that they really can survive quite well without our handouts. But there was more to see at the birdfeeder.

It was a day about mid-month when I saw a quick change. I had gotten used to seeing a large group of birds arriving and feeding on sunflowers and suet each day in the morning. After a breakfast and sporadic visits during the next few hours, they returned for a late afternoon snack.

By this time of winter, the feeder-feeders had settled into the regulars: chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, jays, purple finches, goldfinches and a couple of redpolls. As dusk lingered, I expected to see these birds here, but on this date, I looked out on a late-afternoon scene of no birds feeding. I wondered why, but as I looked more carefully, I did see a bird, one about the size of a blue jay, that moved among the feeders. We were visited by a northern shrike.

Shrikes are regular winter residents in the Northland, though never common. Typically we see these birds sitting on branches or utility wires as they survey the landscape for food. About as long as a blue jay, shrikes have a mostly gray body with a black tail and wings. If we can get a close look at the head, we’ll see a black “mask” over the eyes and a bill with a distinct hook on the end. Though they are classified as songbirds, shrikes act more like raptors. They use this bill to feed on small birds and mammals caught on these winter days. Most of their hunting is done in open areas, but apparently the shrike that came to my feeders noticed all this potential food and swooped in for a catch. The feeding finches and others were alert and quickly took flight. As often happens with predators, it failed to make a catch.

The hooked bill may be like a raptor but their feet are not talons. So when the shrike makes a catch, it needs help to eat the prey. This “help” is on tree thorns or barbed wire where they can hang the prey and break it open to feed. This behavior has given shrikes the nickname of “butcher birds.”

The one that visited my feeder left, but returned a couple more times of futile hunting. A few years ago, a successful shrike impaled its bird meal on the feeder. It came back often to finish its catch. The shrike that came by recently may find better hunting on the mild days. Whether it is frigid cold or a January thaw, there is always something to observe among the Northland critters in winter.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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