Saturday, February 09, 2008


"I've seen Northern Shrikes before." The words pierced my sense of elation of a shrike I observed hunting in our mutual vicinity just moments before. It wouldn't be the first time I felt a little deflated after sharing a bird to another birder. For birders, it has been a banner year for seeing Northern Shrikes throughout the state. Perhaps by now they are something of an old hat. Heck, you might be able to tick a Northern Shrike for every county in Wisconsin this winter.

What's the story behind why there are so many shrikes around this winter? Is it due to the weather or excessive snowfall? Was there prey population fluctuation to the north? Was it a bumper year for breeding success last summer? I haven't read or heard anything about this yet, but this year does stand apart from others for shrike numbers. Regardless of that, though, I think they're wonderfully fascinating birds to observe and photograph.

Then I had another thought, one I've pondered before. Excluding vagrancy, it can be observed (at least with some birders) that a sense of appreciation of certain bird species is inversely proportional to its success; the fewer there are, the more excitement is expressed. Emotion, adjectives and superlatives describing the bird's unlikely presence and astonishing beauty follow true to this notion as well.

While I can get pretty excited about rare and uncommon birds, I remain awed and curious by everyday ones, too. Why should I spend so much time observing and photographing Common Yellowthroats, Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Tree Sparrows or Song Sparrows? Am I wasting valuable birding time? Come spring, at some point I'll witness my first Common Yellowthroat of the year. Should that experience, lasting mere seconds, represent as much time as I spend with the species all spring, summer and fall?

These species are so numerous because they're adaptively successful. Perhaps they are habitat or foraging generalists or maybe they're super successful at recognizing and removing eggs of brood parasites from their nests. Regardless of such naturally earned advantages and strategies, they will eventually become extinct. In biological circles, it's recognized as an evolutionary fact that 99% of all species that have ever existed on our planet are extinct.

Hopefully extinction is a long way off for the above common species, but it would be sort of comical to peer into a crystal ball and observe birdwatchers of the future flocking to see one of these species because it is rare in their time. Rewind to today and we come to the realization that this elevated level of excitement is expressed with birds comparatively closer to their evolutionary end. Regardless of the cause or causes, they're failing.

The obvious explanation for our excitement is because these particular birds are scarce - they're just not seen as often. Our natural tendency is to be more expressive in terms of marvel and awe at birds that are failing – the bird exists despite forces (natural and human-caused) working against it. I recall reading about a certain politician who expressed this sentiment regarding a particular conservation issue – why bother to do so? After all, if common birds become rarer, that means birders will have even more species to marvel over. I'm curious. What was it that this politician experienced that prompted him to hold this opinion of birders?

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

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