Imagine you’re a songbird . . . but nature has mandated you dine like a raptor. What are you to do with those gentle little feet that should be talons?
You develop a workaround. That’s what this little bird has done.
I saw him in my periphery and noted the bright white breast and the sporadic fluttering from the fence post which suggested to me, something other than my usual songbird persons. He was foraging for food in the tall grass below.
Bird Master — my wildlife hospital mentor — would have known. She could nail the ID in a flash. In fact, I have yet to stump Bird Master. She even identified a nighthawk — in a photograph where the bird’s image was about the size of a sesame seed. Bird Master is the Master for a reason.
On this trail, on this particular day, I was without Sibley Guide and without binoculars. Actually, I always am without those things because I am “with” camera gear. There’s only so much you can haul without a donkey in tow, so I forsake “birding” in the interest of the picture.
And here’s that picture. Those in the know will know who this is.
Mr. or Ms. Loggerhead Shrike
It was a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus ) doing his shrike thing at Palo Alto Baylands. Take a look at his beak. Small though it may be, it’s a mighty beak. It helps him overcome his songbird limitations in a world of raptor food.
The Shrike Kebab
So back to the poor shrike’s dilemma at the dinner table. It’s not fair, but the Loggerhead Shrike has a system to bridge the gap between his songbird feet and the need for talons: he uses what he’s got. And what he’s got is a that super beak to kill his prey. And then, he finds something sharp (thorns, barbed wire) on which to impale his prey for the main course. It’s the Loggerhead’s kebab.
From nature’s standpoint, it’s an ingenious compromise. I admire the methodology, even if I’m too much of an empath to get my kicks from predator-prey slasher flicks.
I prefer to remember my Loggerhead this way:
The Fate of the Loggerhead Shrike
The story of the Loggerhead Shrike’s survival parallels many other species who depend on certain habitats for their sustenance. Shrike numbers are decreasing, according to The National Audubon Society, because of reductions in farmlands — lands which provide foraging areas for the Loggerhead. Rampant development and loss of habitat are the biggest threats facing most of our animal species. Audubon advocates for a number of solutions, including preserving farmland, grassland and open space where birds like the Loggerhead Shrike thrive.
In April of last year, The Berkeley Daily Planet ran a piece on the decline of the Loggerhead Shrike.
It’s tough to argue for the preservation of a single insect or bird until people understand the larger ramifications on the ecological order. It’s never just about a Snowy Owl or a Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse or a California Tiger Salamander. It’s always about where this particular creature fits into the greater whole, and how its absence topples the already tenuous ecological balance.
Although so much of the Bay Area has, indeed, been developed, I still consider myself one of the more fortunate humans, to live among the open space and natural bounty that conservationists throughout our history, have fought to preserve.
If you’d like a more thorough exploration of those local pioneers and San Francisco Bay green movements, check out Richard A. Walker’s The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. Walker is a geography professor at UC Berkeley.