I Spy…a Butcher Bird! - Candace Savage

I Spy…a Butcher Bird!

My partner Keith would be the first to admit that he is not a scientist. In fact, his scientific training pretty much began and ended with studying the reproductiove system of earthworms when he was a kid. But scientist or not, he is an excellent observer, and it was thanks to his quick eye that he made an observation of real value to scientific knowledge.

Two springs ago during the NatureCity Festival, the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan organized an excursion to the Small Swale, a stretch of rough, hummocky prairie on the northeastern outskirts of Saskatoon. Despite its unassuming name, the Small Swale is a significant area of semi-urban wildland, comprising almost 2.5 sections of land. On the day we visited, the prairie was alight with the chrome-yellow blossoms of buffalo beans, and the numerous small wetlands that dot the area were frantic with birds.  

Keith and I were standing on the edge of one of the wetlands, listening to the nasal complaints of ducks, when he caught sight of a shadowy movement, a dark shape flitting through a thicket of willows.  “Look,” he said, swinging his binoculars up into position. “There. That has to be a shrike.”

I was still struggling to find the shape and focus my glasses, when a more expert observer slipped up beside us. “Absolutely,” she confirmed. “That’s a Loggerhead Shrike.”

And sure enough, even I could now see that they were correct.  There it was, balancing on a branch:: a handsome grey-backed bird with dark wings and tail, and a black stripe like a robber’s mask across its face.

The Loggerhead Shrike is one of the rarest birds in the province, with the worrying designation of Species at Risk. It is also one of the most fascinating. Shrikes have earned the nickname of “butcher birds” by capturing prey animals, often grasshoppers but sometimes even frogs, and impaling them on barbed wire or thorns. Not your typical songbird!

If we hadn’t happened to be out there that day, no one would have known that the shrike was there. Accredited scientists make up a tiny fraction of the population. They can’t be everywhere, all the time, documenting what is going on.  But people like you and me and Keith --people who love Nature—number in the hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands. We are out in the wild world all the time, looking and listening, and our observations are valid and meaningful. In the case of that Loggerhead Shrike, the sighting ended up being registered by the provincial Conservation Data Center, and it stands as evidence for the importance of protecting the Small Swale against plans to overwhelm the area with a subdivision and a 4-lane highway.

Here on the prairies, Indigenous people were sustained for thousands of years by close, community-based observation of plants and animals, knowledge that was passed down from generation to generation. The same was true in western Europe, where there is a long tradition of hands-on knowledge and focused observation. The professionalization of knowledge about the natural world is a very recent development. Take Charles Darwin, for example. Rightly honoured as the father of modern biology, he was a med school drop-out who trained as a churchman, but never as a biologist. Instead, he thought of himself as a “naturalist,” a person who studies Nature and values meticulous, validated observation. Today, he might be called a “citizen scientist.”

This year, the NatureCity Festival invites you to take pride and pleasure in your own powers of observation. The City of Saskatoon is currently identifying a Natural Areas Network of conservation lands.  By contributing your wildlife observations, you will create information to support wise, knowledge-based decisions. So please join us for our keynote evening at the Broadway Theatre on Wednesday evening, May 22, for a celebration entitled “Saskatoon: Where the Wild Things Are!” The very next evening, Thursday, May 23, you are invited to the Queen’s House Retreat Centre to learn how to use the latest citizen-science tools, including the amazing and easy-to-use apps iNaturalist and Zooniverse.

Who knows what you might spy with your wild eye!

Candace Savage is co-founder and chair of Wild about Saskatoon, the group that organizes the NatureCity Festival. She is also the author of more than two dozen books, including Prairie: a Natural History and A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape.

Wild About Saskatoon