Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Counting crows, along with killer songbirds

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Carnage committed by carnivorous songbirds, malingering mallards and a murder of crows witnessed by hundreds in the deadliest cold.

This year's Christmas Bird Count in Manitoba was anything but boring.

"One thing we don't often count is the great grey owl, which was nice," said Ken Kingdon, who co-ordinates the Dec. 23 count of 30-odd volunteers in and around Riding Mountain National Park.

The owl was a nice surprise, as well as with the not-so-nice northern shrike.

"They're a songbird but they hunt other birds," said Kingdon. "That's why people find them really cool... Its instrument of death is its beak. It's got a big, hooked beak they thunk their victims to death with -- it's a cruel and unusual way of killing another bird."

One of the bird-count participants photographed the shrike killing a grosbeak its own size.

"He took his head off," said Kingdon.

It wasn't what you'd expect from a songbird.

"It was quite gruesome," said Sherry Sallows, who captured the images near Onanole, Man.

"They don't usually pick on something quite that big," said Kingdon. "It may have sensed the (grosbeak) was not healthy. They do pick on things a chickadee's size."

Totals for the many bird counts across Manitoba are still being tallied. The annual event started in 1900 and is now held in more than 2,000 centres across North America, Central America and the Caribbean on or about Dec. 25.

The results are a huge database that, in 2007, revealed populations of some of North America's most beloved and familiar birds have been decimated in the last 40 years. Some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 per cent.

"That's one of the reasons we do the Christmas Bird Count," said Paula Grieef, resident naturalist at Oak Hammock Marsh. "With long-term surveys, we can tell which birds are not doing particularly well. The reasons may be widely variable -- from climate change to loss of habitat."

Oak Hammock's count was held Dec. 20 with 21 volunteers.

"There are a phenomenal number of mallards hanging around this winter," said Grieef. "On average, there are one or two." This year, they counted 1,300 of the mallards who ought to be wintering around Arkansas and Louisiana. Grieef suspects the ducks hung around feeding on grain fields that were cut but never harvested, and spending their nights at the marsh.

The other unusual sighting among the 4,066 birds of 29 species counted at Oak Hammock was the barred owl, whose habitat is supposed to be in the boreal forest.

"It shouldn't be here," said Grieef, an ornithologist. Other birds who should be here in abundance, aren't, she said.

There have been huge decreases in the population of grackles and a 78 per cent reduction of the evening grosbeaks in North America.

"There's a subsection of magpies, blue jays and crows -- West Nile (virus) hit them terribly hard. They still haven't come back," said Grieef. "Each group of birds has its share of trials and tribulations."

In Winnipeg, 100 people took part in the bird count Dec. 14, braving -43 C wind chill. It was too cold for people and birds, so the number of counters and those counted were down from previous years, said compiler Rudolf Koes. The bird counters usually tally a thousand or so Bohemian waxwings, he said. This time?

"There was not a one," said Koes. The American crows were out in full force, however.

"Until 20 years ago, they didn't winter here in southern Manitoba." Koes said crows nest in the top of tall conifer trees and Winnipeg has lots that have grown to maturity. In addition to habitat, the city has a growing network of fast-food dumpsters the crows like, said Koes.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 30, 2008 A5

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