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Old Evolution's Under Way, Maybe: Killer birds on the loose ... someday 

click to enlarge House finch, or soon to be killer diller bird killer...?
  • House finch, or soon to be killer diller bird killer...?
House finch, or soon to be killer diller bird killer...? So there I was, sitting at my kitchen table watching the marvelous assortment of birds on my feeder (including three beautiful orange, white and black spotted towhees) when all of a sudden all "you know what" broke loose!

A small, innocuous-looking - albeit belligerent - male house finch decided the feeder was his and went into a tizzy, attacking bigger and littler birds. Everyone scattered to get out of the way as the combatant finch exercised his territorial imperative.

(A moment while I digress (again). Stay away from bird feed with Milo in it. It is nothing but a "filler" that costs you more and ends up on the ground under your feeder, which may or may not be good for your soil.)

Those of you who feed birds know this isn't something that hasn't happened before. Every day there's a squabble on my feeders about who gets the best spot to feast on the most premium millet, sunflower and thistle seeds. The display I watched this morning, however, was far more aggressive than I'd witnessed in the past.

It was at that moment that a stanza from Robert Service's epic poem, "The World's All Right," struck me:

The World's all right; serene I sit,

And cease to puzzle over it.

There's much that's mighty strange, no doubt;

But Nature knows what she's about;

And a million years or so

We'll know more than to-day we know.

Old Evolution's under way -

What ho! The World's all right, I say.

Was I having the privilege of witnessing the beginning of one of Nature's greatest miracles: the evolutionary process that would change house finches into meat eaters? After all, shrikes are glorified songbirds that got into raptor mode.

Hey, why not? Finches on the Galapagos Islands adapted to almost every niche, and in doing so earned themselves the title of "Darwin's Finches."

Oh sure, it takes lots of time for changes in Nature to happen, and seeing I'm about to hit 80, I'm sure I won't be here if my finches begin to take on the habits of shrikes.

There are about 60 species of finches in the U.S., ranging all the way from buntings to towhees, with goldfinches, grosbeaks and crossbills in between, and they have a wide variety of shapes to their bills and eat all kinds of plants, seeds and invertebrates.

Shrikes, like finches, are songbirds, but only (for now) regularly kill and eat other birds, plus a wide assortment of insects, rodents and other warm-blooded animals.

A shrike in pursuit of a bird is as fierce as a goshawk, and the list of invertebrate prey taken by the northern shrike, Lanius excubitor, (whose scientific name translates to "watchful butcher") is really impressive: grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, caterpillars, cutworms, ants, wasps, bumblebees and spiders.

Then there are the other hapless victims shrikes take: meadow mice (also known as voles), lemmings (up in the north), red-backed mice (in the forest) and white-footed mice, and a variety of lizards and other reptiles, including garter and gopher snakes, with a few frogs, toads and salamanders thrown in.

The list of birds is even more impressive: chickadees, snow-buntings, longspurs, crossbills, redpolls, pine grosbeaks (which are larger than shrikes), horned larks, woodpeckers, goldfinches, kinglets, sparrows (of all kinds), thrushes, warblers, siskins, starlings (now, that's quite a feat!), cardinals, robins, jays (another tour de force!), sandpipers and mourning doves.

I once saw a northern shrike kill and eat a garter snake on the Summer Lake Wildlife Management Area while I was on a Christmas Bird Count. The snake was basking in the warm waters of a small stream that ran from a hot spring, and said shrike nailed it. (So much for that snake perpetuating its dumb genes and for being out in winter ... )

I also had the privilege of watching the shrike do which its other common name, "butcher bird," implies and hang a mouse on the naked branches of a willow. So why not house finches?

Perhaps this is something your great, great, great, great grandchildren can look forward to.


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