Between the uncooperative weather and the general holiday craziness, I’ve had an increasingly bad case of cabin fever building. Even working in the yard hasn’t had much appeal because it is more like working in a swamp thanks to all the rain we’ve had this fall.
One escape that I have enjoyed is driving through the local countryside and working on my bird identification skills.
Two of my favorite birds can easily be seen this time of year perched on utility wires wherever there are large, open fields.
One is a small predator called a loggerhead shrike. It resembles our common northern mockingbird, but with a thicker body and a thick, hooked beak.
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The other is the American kestrel, our smallest and most common falcon species.
Both birds use similar techniques for catching prey. They tend to swoop from a high perch, making telephone and electric lines adjacent to fields an easy place to find them.
Shrikes also can be found perched on barbed-wire and other types of fences, while kestrels are often seen on tall poles and lone trees. I have seen both species perched on large circular irrigation booms.
The kestrel is the more colorful of the two birds. Males have rust-colored backs with blue-gray wings, blue-gray heads with a rusty cap, and black facial stripes. The females lack the blue-gray wings and crown. The facial stripes are typical of falcons and always make me think of double sideburns. Kestrels are typically about 10 inches in length with two-foot wingspans. Besides swooping from high perches, they also can be seen hovering above fields and diving on prey.
Like shrikes, which can often be found “two telephone poles over” on the same wire, kestrels primarily eat large insects, but they will consume nearly anything they can catch, including small snakes, lizards, field mice and shrews, and even smaller birds. American kestrels are sometimes called “sparrow hawks” and presumably make meals of the sparrows that are common in open country.
You can often identify a kestrel from a long distance by its behavior when perched. Kestrels tend to lift their tails in a cocking motion that is repeated at slow intervals.
Loggerhead shrikes are smaller than kestrels — about 9 inches in length with 12-inch wingspans. They also are less colorful. The wings and tails are black, with light gray backs and heads. A black mask extends from the bill through the eyes to the back of the face, giving the shrike something of a Zorro appearance.
Shrikes are famous for impaling prey on barbed-wire and even thorns. Besides being a method of temporarily storing excess food, the behavior also is thought to be a way for males to impress females with their hunting ability. This trait is the reason that shrikes are sometimes called “butcher birds.”
Most American kestrels are migratory, moving south to our area in winter. However, there is a subspecies, often referred to as the southeastern kestrel, which is a year-round resident and breeds in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain.
The loggerhead shrike is a permanent resident of Georgia, breeding mostly in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont. They are rare in the mountains, probably due to the lack of proper habitat.
Populations of both shrikes and kestrels are declining, mostly because of habitat loss. Shrikes, especially, are prone to fatal encounters with vehicles because of their tendency of swooping low over roads to catch prey.
If you’d like to see kestrels and shrikes, just drive through any open farm country and watch the wires.
Sod farms also are great places to see these small predators, as well as other interesting open country birds. Just be sure to respect private property and be especially careful right now if you decide to turn down any muddy clay roads.
My favorite areas to look for shrikes and kestrels in Middle Georgia include the Mennonite farm community just east of Montezuma in Macon County and the sod farms near Marshallsville and on U.S. 341 in southern Crawford County.
If you are suffering from wet soil and too much holiday cheer, pick up a pair of binoculars and head out for an old-fashioned drive in the country. There are birds on the wires that will help bring life back into perspective.
Hal Massie is a Master Gardener and garden writer. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.