The Butcher Bird

by Dave Hanks

The above is a nick-name for the LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE. It comes from the bird’s practice of impaling its prey upon a thorn or a barbed wire. This small (9”) predator will prey on mice, voles, insects, small birds, and small snakes. Their talons are not strong enough to hold the prey while consuming it. Therefore, the bird needs to impale it on something, or wedge it between rocks. It has great eyesight and will perch on telephone wires or any tall item that is in open country to scan for prey. In sparse, treed habitat, prey is easier to see.

Like all predatory birds, it has a hooked beak. A strong notch, at the beak’s tip, enables the severing of a prey’s spinal cord. A gray, black, and white color combination makes a pleasing contrast. It has a similar appearance, while in flight, to a Mockingbird.

In spite of telephone or electric lines being a benefit for surveillance, shrikes are declining. They are a species that is vulnerable to an increasing human population, especially in the well-populated north-eastern USA. We still see them in the open spaces of the west and southwest. They can also be seen in the open country of southern and eastern Idaho.

An old Eskimo myth states that the Shrike is not only a predator, but a needless killer that tortures its victims. They called it the “eye extractor” – believing it pecked out the eyes of small birds and mammals, and then let them suffer until death. The myth is far from the truth, as the bird kills its prey in the manner of a falcon.

This Shrike lit on a mesquite bush, very close to me, as I was once again reading to my wife. It was serendipitous!