Have you seen this endangered bird?
If you own or live near pasture land in the Outaouais or elsewhere in Quebec or Ontario, please keep an eye out from May through September for the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike (see photo), an endangered species which is one of the rarest bird species in Eastern Canada, as well as Eastern North America more generally.
This bird is approximately the size of an American Robin, and is mostly gray with a pale chest, a wide black mask, a hooked bill, black and white wings and a black tail with a white edge.
Photo: André Cloutier
It generally lives and nests on or near pasture land that has not been plowed, particularly the type of pasture used for traditional beef cattle farming. The Loggerhead Shrike uses the short grass left by the cattle as a hunting ground for insects (grasshoppers and other large insects) and small animals. Since shrikes don't have the strong feet of birds of prey, they impale the insects, mice and other small animals that are their prey on the thorns of hawthorn bushes, or on barbed wire, before they eat them. Even if you haven't seen the bird itself, if you find insects or small animals or birds impaled on a thorn or barbed wire, this is a key sign that a shrike is likely nearby. Shrikes also use hawthorn bushes as perches from which they can spot their prey as well as possible predators, as safe nesting areas, and to hide from predators (such as hawks).
The Eastern Loggerhead Shrike was once very common throughout the Saint-Lawrence Valley . However, there are now only a few nesting couples left in Ontario (in the Napanee-Kingston and Renfrew area), and only occasional sightings elsewhere, including in Quebec . While it is not known exactly why the populations of this bird have declined so dramatically, it is believed that the loss or conversion of traditional beef farming pasture land is an important factor in the decline.
The Canadian Wildlife Service and its partners, including the Club des ornithologues de l'Outaouais (the Outaouais birdwatcher's club), McGill University and the Nature Conservancy of Canada have been working together for a few years to identify and protect the best habitats for the Loggerhead Shrike, in the hope of saving this bird. The pasture lands of the Outaouais, and more specifically the Pontiac, have been found to be ideal shrike territory, because of the large, natural pasture lands that are found there, along with the high density of hawthorns. This natural habitat is also present in different parts of others regions in Ontario and Quebec .
After a first summer of experimental work in 2004, the work was taken a step further in 2005 with the second season of an experimental release and reintroduction program. Several young Eastern Loggerhead Shrikes, which were born in captivity at McGill University , were acclimatized in flight pens on beef cattle pasture land in the Outaouais and then released. They were successful in fending for themselves. We were able to observe them hunting for insects and small vertebrates for several weeks before they apparently left with the waves of other birds migrating south at the end of August, as they normally should. In the summer of 2005, a masters student from McGill University, Sarah Fraser, spent several weeks observing Eastern Loggerhead Shrike in the Outaouais, and using telemetry equipment, working with the Club des ornithologues de l'Outaouais, to follow the birds' movements. She will soon be completing her degree with some last results of observations of shrike to be released in the Outaouais in 2006.
We certainly hope that one or more of the birds released in 2004 or 2005 will come back to the Outaouais this year or in the near future, or that other Eastern Loggerhead Shrike will choose to make the Outaouais or other regions in Ontario or Quebec their summer home.
In order to find and study one or more of these birds in the wild, and build on the experimental reintroduction program, we will need help, given the large amount of potentially good territory and the fact the shrikes are unlikely to come back to exactly the same piece of land they came from. This is why the help of the farmers and other residents of the Pontiac, Outaouais or other regions of Ontario and Quebec is so important – the more “eyes” are out there looking, the better! We wish to sincerely thank all those who have contacted us to discuss their observations, they have been very helpful.
We would very much appreciate hearing (see the contact information below) about any potential sightings of Eastern Loggerhead Shrike, based on the description provided at the beginning of this article. Please try to make a few notes about what the bird looked like, what is was doing and where you saw it – you are likely to find shrikes perched on isolated bushes or trees, or on fences or wires. From October through April, a very similar but much more common bird, the Northern Shrike, visits southern Quebec and Ontario , so please make a note of the date on which you make any shrike observations. The Northern Shrike's black mask does not extend over its beak the way the Loggerhead Shrike's does.
We look forward to continuing to work with everyone to help the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike, a most remarkable species, survive and one day thrive in Quebec and Ontario .
If you see any shrikes or have any questions about this project, please contact:
Club des ornithologues de l'Outaouais
511 McConnell, Aylmer, Quebec J9J 1G5