A Shrike Story

A Shrike Story


A tagged loggerhead shrike chick is spotted in Winchester, Virginia. Seems like no big deal, right? Think again. That one songbird only made its way to this spot because of massive conservation efforts—and with high-tech tracking equipment provided by Conservation Nation. Thanks to these nano tags, researchers invested in bolstering this depleted species will know how the chicks are faring as they begin their migration south.


Efforts to help the species begin at Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), where loggerhead shrikes are matched based on genetic suitability. Then, they are diligently monitored and studied by staff, with every aspect of their care coordinated to ensure chicks are safely hatched. When young, healthy shrikes are ready to leave the nest, researchers bring them all the way to special sites in Canada for release in their natural habitat. There, the chicks are allowed to come and go freely from field pens as they adjust to life in the wild. Finally, the chicks begin their natural migration route down the east coast.


According to SCBI animal keeper Leighann Cline, the trip north to Canada is challenging, but ultimately necessary.


“Loggerhead shrikes are very high-stress birds, and the drive to the release site is over 10 hours. The birds are more calm at night, so we gather the birds from within their enclosures at SCBI in the dark with headlamps, load them into crates in a large cargo van and drive through the middle of the night to the border.”


Cline started working at SCBI with a background in Wildlife Rehabilitation, specializing in songbird care. She says that, like so many grassland species, the shrike’s population in the wild has declined most likely because of a combination of factors: habitat loss, disease, pesticide use, poor weather conditions and competition with other birds.



How can you help? The loggerhead shrike is native to Virginia and much of Eastern North America. Local birdwatchers can make a difference, as the more shrike movements are reported in the wild on sites like ebird.com, the better idea researchers have about their routes and behaviors.


“These reports are closely monitored, and when a shrike shows up in an area they have not previously been reported, biologists will try to find it and tag it for future monitoring,” Cline says.


And for the birder lucky enough to spot a shrike eating its dinner in the wild, they might be in for a gruesome treat themselves—a firsthand observation of this shrike, otherwise known as the “butcher bird,” impaling its prey on a branch in the style of a kebob. It makes sense, then, that according to Cline, ideal habitats for the shrike are “grazed pasture land with thorny shrubs or trees sparsely dispersed.”


Landowners in key areas also can install a tracking tower on their property to conserve critical habitats by working with groups like Virginia Working Landscapes, which is based at SCBI.


Already conservation efforts for this species have united collaborators across the country who call themselves the Loggerhead Shrike Working Group. Additional partners include Wildlife Preservation Canada, the Virginia Department of Game and Fisheries and Virginia Working Landscapes.


Conservation Nation funded 30 nano tags for released shrikes. In the past, we also funded the construction of a radio telemetry tower linking a collaborative network of tracking data, tracing the movements of small animals like birds, bats and insects.


A clutch of Loggerhead shrikes at SCBI in 2018 | Photos provided by Leighann Cline


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