For the Birds Radio Program: Varied Thrush: Exit Pursued by a Shrike

Original Air Date: Oct. 30, 1992

When the Varied Thrush turned up in Laura’s yard last Sunday, it disappeared when a Northern Shrike flew in.

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I love living in Duluth. But sometimes the very things that make me love Duluth also make me hate it.

Last Sunday a Varied Thrush turned up at my bird feeder. This was exciting news for several birders, who quickly gathered at my house to add the bird to lifelists and state lists and year lists. The bird cooperatively stuck around through the afternoon. It spent part of its time on the ground beneath the feeders near my dining room window, and part under the big spruce trees out back, where I scatter seeds for the juncoes. I managed to take some decent pictures of it, and was thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to show off my very own rare bird to other birders.

But then, while my birding buddies Barb Akre and Kim Eckert were watching with me, a bird that I’m pretty sure was a Northern Shrike suddenly flew in. The thrush disappeared with the shrike in hot pursuit. And the thrush never appeared again. The even rarer Fieldfare that turned up in Grand Marais last year was last seen following the stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a shrike,” never to be seen again either.

Lots of rare birds show up in Duluth, Grand Marais, and all points in between. Birds get lost all the time, especially during migration, and if they reach Lake Superior, rather than fly over the cold, treacherous water, they follow the shoreline. Since Duluth is at the end of the line, both coming up the shore from the south or down the shore from the north, lots of rarities turn up here.

That same geography that brings rare birds our way also makes Duluth the focus of mid-continental regular bird migration. And during spring and fall, when little birds are flying through, it seems only polite to offer them food and sheltering trees. Overall, they seem to profit by good feeders as much as list-happy birders like me do. The problem is, hawks, shrikes, and other predators quickly discover the utility of bird feeders from a predacious perspective. I’ve lost dozens of little birds from my feeders during the past year to a neighborhood Merlin–a murderous if pretty little falcon. And living as I do right under Hawk Ridge, every year I lose at least a few birds to migrating hawks, and a few more to my picture windows when they panic as a hawk approaches.

The Northern Shrike is an interesting bird in its own right, and an unusual sighting in October to boot. These attractive little songbirds are also known as butcher birds for their unsavory habit of impaling tiny birds and mice on buckthorns and barbed wire. Although a shrike weighs about the same as a robin or Varied Thrush, about 2 1/2 ounces, it’s strong and feisty, with wings capable of carrying a hefty cargo. I like predacious birds for their strength, courage, and fierce single-mindedness. But at heart I don’t have much of a killer instinct. When I was a girl, I used my babysitting money to buy a live lobster with the intention of freeing it in the ocean. Unfortunately , my big brother viewed it with a more culinary eye, and dispatched it when I wasn’t home. I virtually always take the side of the pursued rather than the pursuer. It was exciting having an early shrike in my yard, and more exciting having a Varied Thrush show up, but I’d just as soon my little thrush had stayed home in Oregon and that neither I nor the shrike had ever laid eyes on it.