Sunday, February 6, 2011

Butcher-bird in the paper

Jim McCormac For The Dispatch
The dapper-looking loggerhead shrike can be deadly for its prey.

'Butcher bird' shrike cuts a deceptively fine figure
Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Columbus Dispatch
Jim McCormac

Any feathered creature with the nickname butcher bird is sure to be a piece of work. Welcome to the carnivorous world of our most dangerous songbirds, the shrikes.

At first blush, a shrike suggests a Northern mockingbird, which is a species an Ohioan is far more likely to encounter. Both are black and gray with white flashes in the wings. Their resemblance is only superficial; the two are vastly different beasts.

Mockingbirds are fabulous mimics of all they hear. Their sweet melodies and pleasing appearance have won them status as the official bird of five states.

By contrast, the shrike is an avian Jack the Ripper. No state has designated it as its official bird.

There are two resident shrike species in North America, and both turn up in Ohio. The loggerhead shrike is a Southerner and once bred throughout much of the state. When settlers cleared the great forests that blanketed Ohio, loggerheads expanded north and did well for a while. Now, a variety of factors has caused them to go bust in the Buckeye State.

The Northern shrike is more likely to be found breeding across the tundra from Newfoundland to Alaska. The nearest breeders to Ohio are probably 1,000 miles to the north, and these shrikes come down only in winter.

Shrikes are lookers, wearing a dapper suit of gray accented with black wings and tail. Befitting their image as hoodlums, they sport a striking black mask a la Zorro.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of a shrike is its bill. It's as if some mad scientist welded a hawk's beak to an otherwise cute songbird. Thick and powerful, with a menacing hooked tip, this appendage spells doom for the shrike's prey.

Why the butcher bird label? Well, shrikes are the Vlad the Impalers of the bird world. They are efficient predators that lust for shredded meat.

A hungry shrike will go after almost anything up to its own size or even larger. There are reports of shrikes trying to rub out pigeons. A shrike measures just 10 inches long and weighs 2 ounces. Pigeons are 3 inches longer and weigh four times as much.

Among the more typical shrike fare are voles, mice, small songbirds and big grasshoppers.

The shrike scans for victims from a lofty perch, and when prey is spotted, it dashes forth. Dropping from the sky like a bomb, the shrike pounces on the unsuspecting animal and severs its vertebrae with a fearsome pinch on the neck from that mighty bill.

Then the fun starts. The shrike hauls its prey to a thorny shrub or barbed-wire fence and impales it securely on a spine. The bird then can tear it asunder and dine on flayed flesh without having to hold the victim with its short legs and talonless feet.

Be grateful that shrikes aren't condor-sized.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

Further afield

Now's the time to register for the Wildlife Diversity Conference, one of the largest such conferences in the country, to take place March 9 at the Aladdin Shrine Center, 3850 Stelzer Rd. Speakers will give presentations on hellbenders, rattlesnakes, sandhill cranes, soft-shell turtles and more.

For more information, call 1-800-WILDLIFE or visit HERE.


Vincent Lucas said...

Cool article Jim. Congrats! Loggerhead Shrikes are holding their own here in SW Florida, as you undoubtedly witnessed when you were down here. I don't think that's true for other parts of North America, but I'm not entirely sure. I love their song and "different" calls.

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks, Vince. Yes, Loggerhead Shrikes were a dime a dozen down and FL, and that's where I snapped the photo that ran with the column. Can't hardly find any up here any more! Many more Northerns seen these days in Ohio.