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Shrikes seem to be fairly common where I live. That’s the northern shrike (Lánius excúbitar), one of two species found in North America. My old field guide to the birds says the northern shrike is ‘a rare robin-sized bird’; according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) they are a species of least concern, so I take it they’re a species believed to be in good shape.

The northern shrike breeds in the far north, but migrates to more southerly climes to spend the winter. Ones I see are likely both migrants and winter residents, seeing as we live well south of where they breed, but just on the northern fringe of where they winter.

This time of the year they’re feeding on small birds and rodents like mice and voles. I suspect the one I’ve seen several times over the past little while is checking out the birds that hang around the feeder; particularly the black-capped chickadees, redpolls and red-breasted nuthatches. To date, I haven’t seen it catch anything.

The other shrike species is the loggerhead shrike (Lánius ludoviciánus). My field guide calls them uncommon; the Ontario Field Ornithologists report they’re listed as Endangered under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, although in North America as a whole they are still fairly numerous, albeit populations have declined noticeable since the 1960’s. Authorities estimate there are about 5.8 million loggerhead shrikes (breeding population); as such, they are not in imminent danger of extinction, rather they are a ‘common bird in steep decline’. A breakdown as to where they are is as follows; 82% spend some part of the year in the U.S., 30% in Mexico, and 3% breed in Canada.

In Ontario loggerheads occur mostly in two grassland habitats – the Carden Plain north of Lindsay and the Napanee Limestone Plain; both areas are in eastern Ontario.

A number of reasons have been put forward regarding the declining numbers of loggerhead shrike. One I put a lot of credence in is the loss of habitat. Much of the habitat ‘loss’, I believe, is affiliated with changing farming practices: many farmers used to graze cattle in woodlots, which led to many farms having thorn bushes, like hawthorns, become the prominent woody shrub. But farming associations said this was poor farming practice and a variety of incentives has, over time, resulted in farmers clearing the land, converting grazed woodlots into pasture.

Loggerhead shrikes liked the heavily grazed woodlots, open pasture, not so much. I suspect loggerhead shrikes in North America initially benefitted from poor grazing practices and mushroomed far over their baseline. In this context, their decline is not too alarming, at least not yet.

Interestingly, there was pressure on Ontario farmers who still had loggerhead shrikes to keep their heavily grazed woodlots as this was deemed to be ‘critical habitat’ under species at risk legislation. It caused a furor (governments telling farmers what to do!) and helped fuel the Ontario Landowners Association’s property rights movement and their slogan ‘This Land is Our Land’ , followed by the tagline ‘Government Keep Off!’.

As I said, where I live, there seems to be only northern shrikes. And no angry, shriking farmers.

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I just returned from my almost annual bird hunt in Alberta. I say almost because some years I don’t do a bird hunt there if I’ve been drawn for a big game hunt (mule deer, antelope or elk). No big game tags this year, but that’s OK, as I really enjoy the bird hunt.

Bird numbers were up from previous years. Not as good as the best years I recall, but still pretty good. We didn’t have trouble finding pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse or Hungarian (gray) partridge and we managed to bag a number of each. It had been an excellent growing year  for crops and so, it seemed, for wildlife. If this winter isn’t too harsh and next spring and summer are again favourable, birds could be phenomenal. But that’s a big if; a lot can happen in a year, especially in the Palliser Triangle, Canada’s version of a desert (which is where the area we hunt is located).

Things started out well as I managed a double on roosters the first afternoon, hunting with my dog Neva. Neva is only 2 years old, so is still learning, but I was very, very happy with her performance this year. She (mostly) listens well to commands and absolutely loves to hunt, and goes all-out all the time. She’s a real joy to watch.

Michael’s two black labs (Colby and Niska) were also excellent performers. Dogs really make a difference and add a whole other (positive!) dimension to the hunt.

But that was as good as it got. The rest of the week I managed a bird here and a bird there; no more doubles, although the opportunities did present themselves. Obviously, I need to do more shooting . . .  I did get my limit of pheasants again on the last day (2 per day; roosters only).

One of the best things for me is the fact all the birds in the area we hunt are wild birds. No ‘put and take’, or daily stocking, which is done in many places, even in Alberta. In Ontario, my home province, there are virtually no wild pheasants anymore, although such birds were plentiful just a couple of decades ago. Pheasants in Ontario are another example and tale of incompetent wildlife management, as well as runaway industrial farming and urbanization.

Where we hunt in Alberta, the pheasants are closely associated with river bottoms. Get up on the high, dry, short grass prairie and they’re just not there. I think that’s a good thing, though, as it minimizes the competition with sharpies, which, unlike the pheasants and the huns, are native birds.

The sharpies are really doing well in ‘our’ hunt area. The mixture of grain fields, short grass prairie, coulees filled with shrubs and the occasional abandoned homestead seems to be providing them with ideal habitat conditions. It isn’t unusual to see flocks with several dozens birds; usually they flush well out of shotgun range, so it’s a real treat to be able to down a few.

Huns are generally better eating than sharptails, which can be quite strong; pheasants are always good-tasting. I find huns even harder to hit than sharptails, as they usually flush simultaneously, often just on the edge of shotgun range and it can be hard to get a bead on a single bird. There’s always a tendency to flock shoot and that’s never a good idea.

We had been hoping to get in some waterfowling, but the geese we saw weren’t stopping to feed on the local fields. The corn fields had been harvested so cleanly I had a hard time finding left-behind cobs. Geese go where the food is; same goes for ducks.

One thing I’ve noticed both here in Ontario and on the prairies, is that the number of swans (both trumpeters and whistlers) seem to be steadily on the increase. Thirty years ago, I seldom saw a swan; now they are a common sight. I suspect that over the next few years there will be more and more opportunities to hunt swans.

For me, now that I’ve unpacked, it’s time to get serious about whitetails. Unfortunately, there are not a lot around. Big bucks are really scarce.

But, you never know. Just need to stay optimistic, which isn’t always easy for me.

 

 

 

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Today there was an article in the National Post (and I suspect many other newspapers) that reported a mass slaughter of 19 elk in one night by a pack of wolves. The event took place near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an area where the state Fish & Game Department runs a number of ‘feed grounds’. Feed grounds are places where elk are fed – in other words, elk numbers are artificially maintained at much higher levels than the range can support because the state feeds them. It’s been doing this for decades, because . . . well, I’m sure there is a reason, likely a number of reasons. I suspect, though, the real reason is to make sure there’s a lot of elk around to keep hunters happy, and in Wyoming, hunting is big business.

The department called this event “an extremely rare ‘surplus killing’”. They believed a pack of nine wolves were responsible and that normally only one or two elk a night were killed. They also mentioned that they had an eight year study of wolf predation on the feed grounds and “generally wolves did not kill what they did not eat.”

I’d like to know more about that study. For one, studies I’ve seen on how much wolves eat here in Ontario say it’s about 1 deer every 20 days. So a pack of 9 wolves would need to kill a deer about every 2 days to survive. Seeing as a white-tailed deer is less than ½ the size of an elk, it seems to me one or two elk a night is a lot more than a pack of 9 wolves need to eat. Maybe there are closer to 30 wolves in the Jackson Hole area, which is a possibility, I suppose.

On the other hand, the notion that wolves, and other wild animals, generally only kill what they need to eat, as if they have some sort of moral compass, is bunkum.

Anyone who has a flock of chickens and lives in the country has likely experienced mass slaughter by a marten, an owl, a skunk, a mink, or (fill in the blank ________ with a local predator). One year we had a rogue black bear who loved killing chickens just to eat their crops that were often, but not always, full of grain. But other than the crop, the bear never ate any of the chickens it killed.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to trappers, outfitters and others, and witnessed myself on a couple of occasions, where wolves went on a deer killing spree. Usually this happened in late winter when deer were in poor shape and when travel conditions, for the wolves, was excellent (hard packed snow, waters still covered in ice). The wolves would chase the deer out on the ice, kill them, and eat a few choice parts and go do it again and again.

Wolves do like to kill. It’s why in ranch country, there are often few wolves – over time, farmers more or less wipe them out, because they got tired of having the wolves come in and lay waste to their livestock.

I like wolves and having wolves around is good for a lot of reasons. For one, it helps to keep animal populations in check and healthy, as wolves tend to weed out the old and the sick (and the young). But in a complex and complicated world with competing interests, wolves, like everything else, do best if managed properly. Too many, or too few, and the problems grow.

For a time, I believed wildlife biologists and fish & game departments were there to use their knowledge of science to help make decisions to manage wildlife on a sustainable basis.

It took me years to figure out that actually isn’t how things work. Wildlife management, like just about everything else, is highly political and decisions are more often than not based on whichever emotions are running highest at that particular moment. Or they bend to the ‘rights’ of people to do whatever it is they please to do (be they farmers, hunters or whatever). Often, this is actually accomplished through the courts of law, which more often than not pays little to no attention to management principles and science.

Another issue that is in play here, and one that never ceases to amaze me, is the prevailing meme held by people who I view as being animal apologists. “Animals aren’t like humans; they never kill just for the sake of killing!”

Err, as a matter of fact, they do. Rather often, actually.

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Today I applied for a spring turkey hunting license in Michigan. Not sure how this will pan out, as there is still much to do before the hunt, if I do get to go.

Let’s look at the list: need to get drawn (apparently, the odds are good); need to renew my passport; need to fill out some forms to transport a firearm into the USA; and, I need to see if there are restrictions this year as to whether I can actually bring a turkey back into Canada from the states. Last year, a few friends hunted in the mid-west, were successful, but were not allowed to cross the border back into Canada with their birds. The problem was an outbreak of avian flu in the states – another wildlife health and disease issue. Anyway, it’s something I need to delve into and find out what the score is. No sense spending all that time and effort to travel and hunt and not be allowed to bring back a tasty bird (if I’m fortunate enough to harvest one!). On the other hand, I’ll have a chance to meet up with some old friends I haven’t seen in a while.

If I can’t harvest a bird that I can bring home from Michigan, I can still hunt in Ontario. Maybe I can do both, as the area I’m looking at going in Michigan isn’t far from Sault Ste. Marie, where there’s a healthy wild turkey population to the east, and a hunt on nearby St. Joseph’s Island. I’ll have to see how events unfold . . .

I really enjoy turkey hunting, but I find it somewhat distressing that a disease issue is once again a factor as to whether I can harvest, transport and consume my (potential) catch.

On my last post, I discussed chronic wasting disease and the fact there was a little bit of good news on that front. Not much, but a little. Despite the bad news about avian flu, most of the wild turkey story is good news. Growing up, there were no turkeys in Ontario; they were extirpated in the 1800’s. Today, turkey numbers in the province (progeny of wild birds captured from neighboring jurisdictions and then live released) are closing in on a 100,000.

There could be more. In northwestern Ontario, I think wild turkeys would do well in the agricultural areas around Fort Frances and Rainy River. After all, there are wild turkeys in parts of adjacent Manitoba, where the weather is similar, if not a bit more harsh. The problem is the government in Ontario, or at least some individuals, believe that because northwestern Ontario is outside the known, historical range of turkey, wild turkeys don’t belong. It’s a consideration which can make sense (one doesn’t want introductions of wildlife made willy nilly), but it’s not as if wild turkeys are exotic to North America.

What seems to have gotten the short shrift in this line of thinking is the fact that the agricultural lands of northwestern Ontario today bear little resemblance to what the landscape – and its associated faunal assemblage – looked like prior to European colonization. And outside of some sort of apocalyptic, catastrophic event(s), there’s no going back to the way it was. That’s nothing but a pipe dream, adhered to only by a small and radical fringe of extreme environmentalists.

However, it is what it is and with no close by Ontario turkeys, turkey hunting for me, at least for the foreseeable future, means going on a considerable hike.

All in all, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just could be better.

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It’s May 18 and it’s been snowing outside, with the temperature hovering a few degrees below the freezing mark. Not at all pleasant.

But, it’s northern Ontario, so not totally unexpected. As we are fond of saying up here – at least it keeps the bugs down!

One worry about these late spring frosts, especially when they occur after an extended period of nice, warm weather (although it hasn’t been all that nice, or warm . . . . ) is the potential to hurt the berry crop, especially blueberries. Not only are blueberries yummy human food (and blueberries produced by the agribusiness industry do not hold a candle to their wild cousins with respect to the taste department), they are by far the most important food there is for a myriad of  species of wildlife. Birds, bears, white-tailed deer, groundhogs, foxes, and even timber wolves are just a sampling of wildlife that eat blueberries with gusto. So when the blueberry crop fails in the north woods, life can be hard, as there just isn’t the diversity of foodstuffs that exist in more southern climes.

And blueberries were definitely in bloom when the cold and snow hit.

Fortunately, blueberries are hardy, and can often survive a late winters blast. And not all the berry bushes will have been at the same stage of development. And not all blueberries are the same, as there are at least three species common in our area (the highbush, lowbush and velvetleaf). Still, I’m sure there will be an impact. Time will tell how bad it was.

Taxonomically, blueberries are a member of Heath Family of plants that are found mostly in temperate and cold regions around the world, as well as up in the mountains in the tropics. On a finer scale, they are in the Huckleberry Subfamily, which contains about 330 species word wide.

Blueberries thrive in acidic soils with good exposure to sunlight, although a bit of shade can actually help produce more succulent berries. After wildfire, or following a timber harvest, blueberries can be unbelievably abundant. In a good year, it’s not hard to pick a five-gallon pail in a couple of hours, or less.

Blueberries are without a doubt a health food. They contain a variety of natural phytochemicals such as anthocyanin and wild blueberries have twice the antioxidant capacity per serving of domesticated varieties. They can be eaten ‘as is’, sprinkled on cereal, put into pancakes and make an excellent pie as well as great tasting jam and jellies. Aboriginal people often used blueberries to make a vegetal pemmican, which could be kept for up to two years. Blueberries also make a nice, sweet wine, which can be drunk, but is better, in my opinion, when used as a marinate to reduce the strong, gamey taste of birds such as sharp-tailed grouse. Indeed, marinating the breasts of sharpies for as little as a half-hour before putting them on a BBQ is all it takes to make a great tasting dish. There are many, many ways to dish up blueberries.

Interestingly, not all blueberries are blue in colour. Some are black, and I have occasionally found ripe blueberries that were white as snow. Maybe that’s what happens when they get a late spring surprise like we got today.

When there’s a good crop of blueberries, the number of nuisance bears is low. When the crop fails, their numbers surge. In Kenora, there can be dozens of bears in urban areas by late summer, raiding gardens and rooting for garbage. Many get destroyed because a hungry, nuisance bear is a real pest – and are almost impossible to dissuade – as well as a threat to human safety.

Here’s to hoping the berry crop wasn’t done in by the cold and snow.

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I went down to the Ottawa region for a week to do a bit of spring turkey hunting. Given the facts that my hunting friend and guide had spent the past 5 months in the Bahamas and the winter down east had been, from what I could tell, dang cold and snowy, I didn’t know what to expect. I feared turkey numbers might be down.

It quickly became clear that turkey numbers were indeed down from previous years, or they were hiding, or something. I only heard two, maybe as many as four, turkeys gobbling during five early mornings and four evenings of hunting in three different spots. Lucky for me, I managed to call in a jake – but it came in silently.

On the first morning, the youngest member of our quartet, hunting by himself, bagged a nice tom. Three of us hunting on a nearby farm heard and saw nothing, although I may have heard a single gobble in the distance (with tinnitus, it can be hard to hear sounds clearly). The next morning, back at the farm, one gobbler was going at it and was lured in by Don, who promptly missed. That’s all we saw or heard.

That evening I hunted where young Brian had bagged the tom, and where I had spotted a turkey in the distance earlier in the afternoon. No action for about an hour, but then suddenly at 6:30 pm there was a turkey at my decoy and that was it for him.

After that, not much was seen or heard. We saw a few turkeys driving around, but far fewer than in years past. Few chances for photos, and in fact I didn’t get any of note. Old Brian, whose hunt camp we stayed at, decided that given the apparent low numbers of turkeys in the area he hunts, he probably won’t harvest another, unless turkeys start showing up all of a sudden, which is possible.

Winter can be hard on turkeys. In the Ottawa area, far north insofar as turkeys are concerned, has regular bouts of cold, snow, freezing rain, thaws and then more cold, snow, freezing rains and thaws.  In addition, the Ottawa region is flat and swampy, which means there are few sunny, south facing slopes where turkeys can gather to mitigate the effects of inclement weather conditions. Their saving grace are farm fields that often remain bare, or partly bare, owing to farmers spreading manure, or other farm related activities beneficial to turkey. Plus I suspect many rural folk feed turkeys like they do other wild birds.

It was still a good hunt and nice to be out in the spring woods. The ruffed grouse were drumming, ducks and especially Canada geese were everywhere, and one evening four trumpeter swans landed and stayed the night on the pond beside the cabin.

In addition to the the wildlife, it was nice to visit a number of friends I tend to see infrequently

So a good week and really nothing to complain about.

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After I posted ‘Stubble’, a friend of mine sent me an article on the possible demise of industrial farming in the not-too-distant future. You can read the article if you want: http://reason.com/archives/2015/03/20/the-end-of-farming. In a nutshell, the author says advances in technology will let milk be produced in labs without the need for cows, potentially meaning millions of acres of land could be freed up from dairy farms, and allowed to revert back to natural pasture and forest land. The start-up company that aims to produce the perfect milk (including making it lactose free) is called . . . . .Muufri. I have to admit, that really cracked me up.  Dairy farms aren’t the only potential business to go under – apparently, laboratories have also already produced meat, although to date, taste tests on those products aren’t all that favourable.

It’s a compelling argument, although I can’t actually envision this happening in a big way. There is simply too much opposition, and distrust of corporations fiddling with food. Already, more and more of the space on supermarket shelves are taken up with ‘organic’ produce and there is a large portion of the population that has gone almost apoplectic on the use and production of genetically modified food, or GMO’s  (as an aside, I’ve never liked or really understood how the term organic has become so in-vogue; the ‘non-organic’ apple I ate today isn’t made out of granite, and is, in fact, organic, as is most food).

After reading the article, I think the chance of  farms,  going the way of the buggy-whip industry, at least any time soon, is slim to none. For one, any attempt to ‘hurt’ farming and farmers would be met with huge blowback, if only because of the might and power of  big agri-business,

In addition, a product like Muufri just seems a little too creepy to me. While reading the article, I couldn’t help but think about the 1973 classic movie “Soylent Green”, recalling that scene with Charlton Heston wailing away that “Soylent Green is people!”  I just can’t see people letting go of their passion for real food, real being food from traditional sources.

However, if the population of people continues to grow unabated and the future is a world with 100 billion or more of us, I suppose anything is possible.