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An eastern loggerhead shrike, Napanee Plain Alvar Nature Reserve, Ont.

Nature Conservancy of Canada

One of the most endangered songbirds on the planet – and one of the most unusual – is being given a better chance of survival with the help of a Burlington, Ont., doctor who wanted to honour his wife’s memory by preserving Canadian wildlife.

A 31-hectare piece of a cattle farm near Napanee in southeastern Ontario that is home to two of the 30 known wild breeding pairs of eastern loggerhead shrike in North America has been bought by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) using federal money and private donations.

The largest of those private gifts was from Kenneth Ockenden, a physician whose wife died in 2015. The NCC announced at a news conference in Napanee on Wednesday that the preserved land will be known as the Irene Ockenden Alvar Tract.

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The tract adjoins other grasslands that are already owned by the NCC where there are an additional nine pairs of the loggerhead shrike, also known as butcher birds for their habit of impaling prey on sharp objects before tearing it apart and devouring it.

The only other place in Ontario where eastern loggerhead shrike are found is near Orillia, on a similar habitat that has six breeding pairs.

“It is certainly one of the most endangered species. In a way, it’s kind of like the panda of Eastern Ontario,” said Mark Stabb, a program director with the conservancy. But, thanks to volunteers, farmers and conservation groups, he said, “they are holding their ground here where they have lost ground elsewhere.”

They are also known as butcher birds for their unusual habit of impaling prey on sharp objects before tearing it apart and devouring it.

Nature Conservancy of Canada

Irene Ockenden was born in Estonia and was a researcher who studied plant chemistry. She and her husband were high-school sweethearts in Hamilton and were married for 54 years.

Mr. Ockenden told the news conference he had planned to leave a bequest to the NCC in his will, but decided to speed up that donation while walking through the woods with his daughter after his wife’s death.

“I can only describe it as being like in a cathedral, with the sun shining through the trees,” Mr. Ockenden said of the forest he walked through on that hike. “And I said to myself, why wait? I had lost my wife relatively recently and I thought this might be a good way of remembering her.”

The conservancy does not reveal how much it pays for properties, or how much people donate to buy them, because that could affect future land acquisition deals.

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The loggerhead shrikes were discovered in the cow pasture by local naturalists in 2001. Since then, the Kingston Field Naturalists, a local volunteer group, has been raising funds to save their habitat and the NCC has been buying land to create the Napanee Plain Alvar Nature Reserve. The latest purchase brings the reserve to 121 hectares.

Alvar is a rare type of habitat in which limestone lies near the surface, making it difficult for large plants to take root. It is ideal for cattle as well as the endangered birds.

The Napanee Plain Alvar Nature Reserve, Ont.

Nature Conservancy of Canada

The farmer who owned the most recently purchased piece of land will lease the property, and his cattle will continue to roam there. But the purchase “keeps it in conservation ownership forever so it won’t be sold for any other purpose,” Mr. Stabb said.

“Farmers have been a great piece of the puzzle in collaborating to keep habitat open by having cattle graze, keeping the herbaceous and woody vegetation down, and that maintains the habitat for the shrikes” who need large amounts of open space, Mr. Stabb said.

“They are predatory songbirds but they are not raptors” so they do not have raptor talons, Mr. Stabb said. “They can pounce on small animals, insects, that sort of thing, and they kill them by severing their spine with their bill, but they can’t rip them apart. So what they need to do is impale them on a hawthorn spine or a stick or a branch or barbed wire, and then they can pull them apart for supper.”

Mr. Ockenden said he was happy to be told he would be helping to preserve alvar, but he had no idea what it was. Then, he learned that much of northern Estonia is covered by the rare grassland. “So this was an incredible coincidence,” he said, “which makes this project mean a great deal more to me.”

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