- Dr. Ron Bright
The Deadly Shrike Strikes!
Many birds have behavioral characteristics that make them unique. One such bird is the shrike. Here is a smallish bird compared to the usual raptor, yet one that displays raptor-like qualities in predation. These little rascals could be considered brutal when securing their prey for dinner.
While there are over 30+ species of shrikes, we refer primarily to the Loggerhead and Northern shrike in North America because their breeding is limited to this area. The family’s largest genus is Lanius which is derived from the Latin word which means “butcher”! The Loggerhead, in particular, is known as the “butcherbird,” but both the Northern and Loggerhead are ruthless hunters. The English word assigned to this bird is from Old English “scric,” reflecting the shrike’s shriek-like sound.
Shrikes are innocent-looking, medium-sized birds with multiple plumage colors, but primarily black and white. They are often confused with the Northern mockingbird when flying because of their similar size and a prominent white wing patch. Their flight pattern consists of swift undulating wing movements with shallow rapid wing beats. They are roughly 8-10 inches long (Northern being slightly larger), and their beaks have a “hook” (more prominent in the Northern) which serves them well as they need this accessory to aid in their “kill” of prey. (Fig. 1) Besides the size differences between the Northern and Loggerhead, which is sometimes hard to differentiate when they are not seen together, the most helpful feature for identification is the black mask on their head that begins behind their eyes, courses across their eyes, and contacts the base of their beak. The mask is much broader in the Loggerhead, and its beak is stubbier and usually, but not always, lacks a prominent hook at the tip. In contrast, the Northern has a noticeable white eye “brow,” Its mask is thin and dark. The Northern also has a more hooked beak. The shrikes’ calls are strident and ‘shriek’-like.
Shrikes prefer open habitats. I see them on our property which is primarily pasture and prairie land with a few adjacent trees where they often perch looking for prey. They usually migrate to warmer climates during the winter, but recently (January 2022), I observed a male Loggerhead hanging around our feeder and surrounding grassy area. Typically, however, I encounter them in mid -April in our fields and on our barbed wire fences. The bird population at the bird feeder at this time consists primarily of house finches and juncos with an occasional American goldfinch. The presence of a shrike often results in the area around the feeder and the nearby trees becoming completely void of our usual bird activity. Smaller birds recognize the shrikes’ predatory tendencies and move quickly out of the shrikes’ territory.
Shrikes often perch on exposed fence posts (see figure 2, T-post perch), trees, and other elevated structures scouting for their next meal. They hunt insects, rodents, and small birds, and, after grasping their prey by the neck and killing them, they proceed to impale the bodies on thorns or man-made objects such as spikes on barbed-wire fences (figure 3- note its barbed mealtime accessory close by).
This impaling helps the shrike rip the bodies of their prey into smaller edible-sized fragments, but sometimes the meal is delayed, and the birds simply ‘cache’ their prey to consume later. Lubber grasshoppers, part of the shrikes’ diet, are toxic if eaten immediately after the kill. Impaling the lifeless grasshoppers and “storing them on a made-made object or thorn of a tree) allows the shrike to wait 2-3 days until the grasshopper ‘detoxifies’ and becomes harmless when ingested.
Loggerhead shrikes frequent our back pastures where there are Russian Hawthorn trees and an abundance of barbed wire fences creating a perfect hunting ground with all the amenities necessary to be a “butcherbird”!