Find out why shrikes are known as 'butcher birds'

  • A northern shrike on the lookout near the top of a slender tree.

    A northern shrike on the lookout near the top of a slender tree. Courtesy of Karen Lund

 
By Mark Spreyer
Stillman Nature Center
Posted2/8/2019 12:13 PM

Years ago, on one particular winter walk here at the nature center, we were concentrating on birds. We saw many of the "usual suspects" -- chickadees, mourning doves, crows, plus a great horned owl and a red-tailed hawk. The most exciting sighting was a northern shrike perched at the top of a slender tree.

Before getting to our shrike, let's take a look at the owl and the hawk. These fellows, along with other birds of prey, use their feet to grab, puncture, stun, and/or kill their prey. I say "and/or kill," because some might use their hooked beak for the final termination.

 

Songbirds, technically called passerines, use their beaks to capture bugs, worms, or berries. However, there is one group of songbirds that prey on vertebrate animals: the shrikes.

The scientific name for the shrike we saw, Lanius exubitor, says it all. Translated it reads, "butcher sentinel." Our shrike was definitely acting like a watchman, waiting for a mouse or bird to make a mistake.

The northern shrike is about the size of a robin. It is gray above, white below, wears a black mask, and sports contrasting black-and-white patterns on its wings and tail. It is a winter resident in our area, often arriving by late October and heading back to Canada and Alaska in March.

Oh, you want to hear about the butcher part. Well, this medium-sized songbird will store meat, like a butcher, on hooks. Of course, its meat locker is the great outdoors and its hooks are forks in tree branches, thorns, or the barbs on barbed wire.

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That's right, it will stick a mouse or grasshopper on a thorn and come back to dine on it later. Other times, the thorn is simply used to secure the prey as it tears it apart. In effect, the thorns supplant the raptor talons this passerine is lacking.

That is not to say it doesn't have strong feet. As a licensed bird bander, I had the opportunity to hold one. Not surprisingly, I chose to wear gloves to protect my hand from both its bill and feet.

Like a songbird, the northern shrike catches small mammals, insects, and an occasional reptile by grabbing them with its beak. Some birds will be caught in its bill, but most are captured with the feet.

Folklore recognizes this connection with the raptors. Northern shrikes can be found across northern Europe and Asia. There is a European legend that describes a race between a hawk and a shrike. Much as the tortoise beat the hare, the shrike, thanks to its persistence, beats the hawk.

The French word for the related red-backed shrike, l'ecorcheur or "flayer," brings me back to the butcher bird term. Not only does the northern shrike store its prey like a butcher, but it prepares them like a butcher as well. I'll quote from a scientific account of the shrike at work. "Shrike typically pulls apart impaled vertebrates starting at head ... Begins by tearing at eyes or mouth and working skin and flesh loose toward neck."

Disgusted by this gross description? Not me. I get a kick from these pint-size predatory rascals. Spotting one on a winter's walk is the equivalent of an ornithological home run.

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