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Northland Nature: A different bird comes to the feeders

A northern shrike overlooks a bird feeder. Note the white, black and gray on this blue jay-sized bird. Looking close at the northern shrike, we can see the hooked beak, marking it as a bird of prey. Photo courtesy Larry Weber

We are approaching the end of December and, according to our calendar, the end of the year. As we often do at this time, we look back on this month and the whole year.

December started with mild days. In the first week, we continued the trend of late November and recorded days far above the normal — 40s in each of the first four days.

But that phase ended and nearly all of the rest of the month has remained less than freezing and the temperatures have been about what we expect for this month. Some subzero readings had blended with a few in the 30s. Snowfall has been not that different from usual, and with the temperatures, the snow has been more of a dry, fluffy powder, not adding much to the precipitation.

2017 was not a particular warm year. About half of the months recorded temperatures above normal; the others were normal or slightly below. But the statistic that I find of note for the year is that of precipitation.

Though the snowfall for the last 12 months has been less than the usual thanks to the rains during the warmer months, the year was more than 6 inches wetter than normal. As a result of this, several of the temporary ponds that I look at during my regular walks were not temporary, but retained their water level all year. Typically, many of these would dry up in summer after the thaw and melt water of spring.

Almost right on schedule, the winter solstice brought in more snow and subzero temperatures to the Northland.

These winter readings combine with the short days; darkness still far exceed light. After the winter solstice, the days very slowly start to get longer; both the sunrises and sunsets are a bit later each day. In the first week of January, the sunrises will begin to get earlier.

The mammals and birds that winter with us show how they adapt to this cold season. I find tracks of deer, fox, coyote, squirrels, mice, rabbits, hare and some of the members of the weasel family virtually every day. They stay active and need to seek meals and shelter to survive. Also dealing with the cold are the local birds.

Many of these avian neighbors have been dining at my feeders recently. After some fluctuations with species and numbers, the feeder visitors have settled into a dozen kinds that arrive regularly each day. They are a delight to watch. Not only do they give companionship in winter, they also exhibit interesting behavior as they feed. Almost as though I am taking attendance, I look for the arrival of each of 12 kinds per day.

Black-capped chickadees are usually the first. These little bundles of energy are followed by the larger blue jays. They have been doing well here and on some days, as many as nine come by.

White-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches feed each day. Called by some the "upside down birds," they bring unique behavior to the scene.

Four kinds of woodpeckers have chosen to dine here; black and white hairy and downy woodpeckers are the most common, but each day a red-bellied woodpecker — a relatively new wintering birds in the region, moving up from the south — is here and recently, a pileated woodpecker, the largest, balances on the feeders as well.

After some sporadic visits, small flocks of both redpolls and goldfinches come here each day. These finches are joined by a single junco that did not move south with the rest of its kinds last month; maybe it will be lasting all winter. And sometime during the day, a flock of five turkeys also comes out of the woods to feed. There have been visits from pine grosbeaks occasionally, too.

Each bird selects a food of choice. Most prefer the sunflower seeds, but I've also put out some thistle seeds for the finches. Corn has been a favorite with the turkeys. In addition to these three kinds of seeds, I also hang suet that the woodpeckers (and often chickadees and nuthatches) find quite acceptable. But strange things happen in nature.

A couple of days ago, another bird arrived at the feeder. But this one was not interested in seeds or suet, though it did linger for a short time here. This bird was interested in the other birds; a northern shrike came by.

About the size of a blue jay, the shrike is light on the undersides, gray on the back with wings and tail black. Adults also wear a black "mask" over the eyes.

Taking a closer look, we see also that shrikes have a hooked beak as seen in raptors. And like raptors, they are winter predators of birds and small mammals.

Since their feet lack talons, they are classified as songbirds not raptors. Shrikes will go after smaller birds and if catching them, they need help to feed on them. Prey is impaled on tree branches or other convenient sites so that they can use the hooked beak to feed. Due to this behavior, they have called "butcher birds."

A few years ago, a shrike impaled its prey — a redpoll — on my feeder. It kept returning until the food was gone. As often happens with raptors, the visiting shrike did not catch its intended prey and it moved on. But I expect it will be back, as will be the other feeder birds throughout the coming winter.

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 news@duluthweeklyobserver.com.

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.