‘Ottawa’ Science of Spring: Meet the Loneliest Bird in Eastern Ontario
This spring, the Citizen’s Tom Spears looks at what makes our not-quite-warm, not-quite-cold season tick. It’s a series we call The Science of Spring, and today we examine the loneliest bird in Eastern Ontario.
The loneliest bird in Eastern Ontario is still looking for a mate, weeks after advertising that it is single and available. But its search for love doesn’t look hopeful.
The loggerhead shrike is one of a disappearing breed in Ontario; there is a small number in a little protected pocket near Napanee, and otherwise there only appears to be this one shrike in our part of the province.
And the gradual disappearance of this species is a study in the rise and fall of a wild animal that welcomed human presence at first, but can’t keep up with modern changes.
The shrike is an odd little bird. Cornell University biologists call it “a songbird with a raptor’s habits.”
It eats mostly insects at this time of year, but also small birds and mice, and often impales prey on a hawthorn tree’s thorn or barbed wire to hold it steady. It migrates south in winter.
But the numbers of shrikes has been falling sharply for decades, which is why veteran birder Bruce Di Labio was startled to find one shrike this month in the vicinity of Ottawa. He won’t say where it is, to protect the rare bird.
“I saw a single bird and it has been on territory for two to three weeks,” he said.
“There’s one bird. I don’t know how long it is going to actually stay.”
Males and females look alike, so he isn’t sure which this one is. It has been hunting insects in a small area, a sign that it is ready to find and mate and stay there, “the likelihood of another individual showing up is very remote.”
“Historically, going back to when I was a teenager (1960s), they bred in various locations around Ottawa,” he said. “Then by the 1990s they were almost extirpated” — meaning gone from one area, though not extinct everywhere.
“Now they are extirpated from the Ottawa area. The only site where they are seen on a regular basis is a small site over near Napanee.”
There are about 20 breeding pairs left in all of Ontario and five in Manitoba, according to a 2014 assessment for the federal Species At Risk registry.
European settlement in the 1800s was a gift to the shrike, replacing forests with open fields where it thrives. Without those early farmers, the bird might not live here at all.
“They would nest in hawthorn trees and along the back roads,” Di Labio said. Ontario’s back roads used to be narrow gravel roads with slow traffic. “They had great nesting habitat along the sides.”
But as people spread out from cities they wanted bigger, asphalt roads with more vehicle and faster traffic.
“One of the number of reasons for decline (in shrikes) is being hit by cars, because they fly low across the road,” looking for food.
As well, they were adapted well to pastures for cattle, “but there’s very little livestock farming left.” The shrike doesn’t adapt well to sprawling corn and soybean fields, preferring natural grasslands and other open habitats.