Several recent appearances of an uncommon visitor to the Barrington area prompt me to add it to the growing assemblage of Barrington bird profiles. I struck out on a walk in the neighboring forest preserve late on the afternoon of October 29, after a taxing day of travel. Expecting to see mostly goldfinches and lingering sparrows, I was surprised to spot a whitish, robin-sized bird perched conspicuously in a tall shrub ahead. Something about its appearance seemed dimly familiar, so I hoisted my binoculars quickly. A northern shrike! I had not seen that species for several years in the Barrington area. In the week following, I saw the shrike twice more, on each of the two walks I was able to take that week.
The northern shrike (Lanius borealis), according to ornithological accounts I’ve consulted, has never been a common sighting in northern Illinois. The bird breeds in tundra and taiga of the far north and, if it does venture to our latitude, it comes usually in November or later. It’s a striking bird. With an overall aspect of light gray, on closer examination its black tail edged in white, narrow black mask, black wings with white spots, and hooked beak come into focus. Its head is rounded and flattish-looking, and the bird’s posture is not upright or horizontal but at pretty much a 45º angle. When it flies, the gray/white/black pattern suggest that of a mockingbird. In fact, that’s what I thought I was looking at when I first saw a northern shrike in the late 70s. But mockingbirds are even more scarce in the Barrington area, especially in late fall and early winter; I have seen only one in over forty years of birding here.
Two species of shrikes occur in the United States: the northern and the loggerhead which can be found farther south. Both species share a habit that has earned them the nickname of “butcher bird.” Their diet of choice is not berries or seeds, as it is for most songbirds this time of year, but rather other small birds or rodents. And their method of “preparing” their fare for consumption is distinctive: they often impale their prey on long thorns or barbed wire. Over the years, I’ve hoped to find an example of shrike meal-to-be but never have.
What I have experienced, however, is another distinctive feature of the northern shrike. It sings at a season when other birds are mostly quiet. Several times I have ventured out on a winter walk and heard a clear, melodic strain coming from shrubs in the field below our house. Inevitably, the singer has proven to be a shrike. Just as inevitably, it prefers a perch in an open area where it can survey for prey.
I skimmed through my bird journals from the past four decades and was surprised to find that while shrike sightings were not frequent, they were consistent between November through January. So even though I have not seen shrikes in the adjacent forest preserve in recent years, I believe that has been due to more frequent absence on my part rather than absence of the bird.
The northern shrike is a species you can look for over the Thanksgiving holiday, should you have the opportunity for an outing in local fields or forest preserves with open areas, and in weeks ahead. Scan treetops and posts and, if you spot a very light-colored, medium-sized bird perched intently, you may well have found this striking winter visitor from the north.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.