This week there were a couple of expert mousers hanging out at my place. Actually there are no mice here, but lots of red-backed voles. As vole hunters go, nothing can match the tiny short-tailed weasel or ermine.
Later that morning, Cindy and I witnessed the hunting technique of another vole predator. I knew something was up when all the redpolls, grosbeaks and chickadees suddenly exploded from around the feeder. The redpolls and grosbeaks took positions in the very tops of tall spruce trees. Then I spotted , a bird similar in color and size to a gray jay. But the plumage was quite striking and a black stripe ran through its eye, a northern shrike! The shrike is a perching bird with a unique adaptation for hunting small birds and rodents, its hawk-like hooked beak.
There were a couple voles under the feeder gathering sunflower seeds and the shrike had taken notice. It perched low, about eighteen inches off the ground and waited. When a vole appeared about three feet away but in the cover of thick willows, the shrike leaned forward, ready to pounce, quite owl-like, and holding absolutely still. For a few minutes the vole nibbled on a few seed kernels and disappeared in and out of its tunnel in the snow.
Then the vole moved a couple feet and disappearing under a log. The shrike made its move quickly flying towards the log, stood in the snow, and peered underneath. The vole must have noticed the shrike because it suddenly raced back towards its hole, but the shrike, ready, and in just the right spot, quickly attacked, catching the vole before it reached its tunnel. Pecking and jabbing, the shrike soon had the vole twitching in the snow. It had not used its feet to hold the vole down. Shrikes don’t have the right equipment for that, they are perching birds not raptors. When the vole stopped moving the shrike grabbed it with its bill and flew away. I put on my coat and hat and followed. In the snow beneath the boughs of a spruce I saw a movement. There it was feeding, safe from the prying eyes of predator or scavenger that would surely try to steal its hard earned prey.