The past week, the female Northern Flicker has been hanging out in and around the flicker box regularly. Since female birds of many (most?) bird species are the ones to choose the nesting spot, this was a great sign. Well, what do my eyes see this morning but a tiny little egg in the bottom of the box!

Northern Flickers nest anytime between March and June so this pair is a little on the later end of nesting, but still within the usual time frame. I have no concrete idea why they are nesting so late, but it’s possible it could have something to do with pressure from European Starlings or maybe their previous nest attempt earlier in the season failed. Whatever the reason, hopefully, despite the hot temperatures we’ve been getting, and and will no doubt continue to see moving into full-bore summer, the nest will do all right.

Now that the nesting has truly started, I’m starting a new nest attempt at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch site. NestWatch is a great resource for researchers to learn more about breeding birds from citizen science data. Citizen science is immeasurably important because it would be impossible for scientists to collect as much data as the average person can provide on their own.

If you find a nest this season, you can record it on NestWatch too. Just remember to follow the nestwatching code of conduct to make sure you’re not doing any harm to the birds.


Butcher Bird

Did you know that some song birds are carnivores and that their prey, including amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and other birds, may be the same size or bigger than them? If you watched the tv show Hannibal or read the book Red Dragon, you may already be familiar with the shrike.

There are over 30 species of shrike around the world, with most occurring in grasslands. They are generally dull-colored with hooked beaks suitable for snapping necks, which makes their family name Laniidae extremely appropriate (Laniidae is Latin for “butcher”). But while they’re active during the day and eat meat, shrikes lack the strong, grasping talons of raptors like hawks, eagles, and falcons. Therefore, shrikes employ an ingenious method to hold onto their prey as they eat.

Shrike larder. Remains of a Western Meadowlark. Photo by Jamie Simo.

If you’re traversing a farm field in Colorado, you may have come across a shrike cache. Perhaps it was a moth or the skull of a lizard festooning a fence-line or a sparrow hanging from the branch of a wild plum. After killing, the shrike will impale its prey on a thorn or a piece of barbed wire. This holds the food in place so that the shrike can rip off chunks at its leisure. The shrike can also return to the impaled food item later, like accessing a pantry. Caching food may allow it to survive in times of scarcity.

Northern Shrike. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Colorado is home to 2 shrike species, the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) and the Northern Shrike (Lanius borealis). The Loggerhead Shrike can be found year-round in southern Colorado, but along most of the Front Range they’re present only in the spring and summer. They can be distinguished from the Northern Shrike, which is only found in Colorado during the winter, by a broader black mask, less hooked bill, and clean breast lacking the faint barring seen on the Northern Shrike.

Loggerhead Shrike. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Unfortunately, because of the loss of grassland and pasturage in much of the United States, as well as the decline in prey species, particularly insects, the Loggerhead Shrike is imperiled. Less is known about population trends of the Northern Shrike since it breeds far north in the tundra, but likely it too is in decline as it loses wintering habitat. This is in line with the overall decline in numbers of grassland birds across North America.

To protect these bizarre song birds and their neighbors, we must come up with more creative ways to protect their habitat.



Dark Star(ling)

In tandem with my Red-breasted Nuthatch box, I’ve been running my Northern Flicker box cam again this year. Because Youtube isn’t set up to do more than one livestream per account, however, I’ve been running it on a separate account.

Early in the season there was a lot of activity at the flicker box. On one cold, snowy day there were even 2 male flickers fighting over a female who had taken shelter from the weather in the box. I watched the males try to grab the female by the beak and pull her out of the box, perhaps to mate?, then chase each other around and around the catalpa tree in my neighbor’s yard.

Then things quieted down and it seemed all the neighborhood flickers had found their mates and nesting spots. Recently though, a male flicker has returned to the box. It’s getting late in the season, but 2 years ago it was about this time when my last successful flicker pair laid their eggs, so it could happen again this year. He has a lady, which I was able to confirm after seeing them both fly from the box to a nearby tree and mate, so only time will tell.

I’m glad the male flicker returned to the box on Monday because on Sunday he was attacked by a European Starling that tried to steal the box.

WARNING: The following footage may be disturbing to watch. 

In the last few years, starlings have only shown up in my yard very early (generally February and March), but then move on. I don’t tend to hear or see them most of the year in my neighborhood. I think that’s why my flickers were successful 2 years ago; they nested later when starlings had already chosen their nesting spots. Perhaps this starling then was desperate for a nest cavity. Maybe that’s why he chose the ambush approach rather than trying to lure the flicker out of the box.

As I’ve mentioned before, starlings are an invasive species brought over from Britain. They co-evolved with the European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) and the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) and, as a result, have developed deadly weapons (sharp, dagger-like bills, long legs, and claws) and aggressive tactics, to compete for nest cavities with those woodpeckers since they’re unable to build their own.

Our native woodpeckers didn’t have to deal with nest predators like the starling when they evolved so they don’t have the killer instinct to protect their homes, but nesting later in the season may be an adaptation to dealing with the starlings, as has been postulated before.

So far so good on the starling front, though I remain cautious. I removed the nesting material the victorious starling placed into the box on Sunday (bits of native yarrow and blue flax) along with adding more woodchips and I haven’t seen or heard any starlings since.

More as it develops!

On the ground info about Colorado nature and wildlife.