Bird Identification – The Butcher-birds Or Shrikes

Is it not curious that among our so-called song birds there should be two, about the size of robins, the loggerhead and the northern shrike, with the hawk-like habit of killing little birds and mice, and the squirrel’s and blue jay’s trick of storing what they cannot eat? They are butchers, with the thrifty custom of hanging up their meat, which only improves in flavour and tenderness after a day or two of curing. Then, even if storms should drive their little prey to shelter and snow should cover the fields, they need not worry nor starve seeing an abundance in their larder provided for the proverbial rainy day.

In the Southern and Middle States, where the smaller loggerhead shrike is most common, some children say he looks like a mockingbird; but the feathers on his back are surely quite a different gray, a light-bluish ash, and pearly on his under parts, with white in his black wings and tail which is conspicuous as he flies. His powerful head, which is large for his size, has a heavy black line running from the end of his mouth across his cheek, and his strong bill has a hook on the end which is useful in tearing the flesh from his victim’s bones. He really looks like nothing but just what he is—a butcher-bird. See him, quiet and preoccupied, perched on a telegraph pole on the lookout for a dinner! A kingbird, or other flycatcher which chooses similar perches, would sail off suddenly into the air if a winged insect hove in sight, snap it up, make an aerial loop in its flight and return to its old place. Not so the solitary, sanguinary shrike. When his wonderfully keen eyes detect a grasshopper, a cricket, a big beetle, a lizard, a little mouse, or a sparrow at a distance in a field, he drops like an eagle upon the victim, seizes it with his strong beak, and flies with steady flapping strokes of the wings, close along the ground, straight to the nearest honey locust or spiny thorn; then rises with a sudden upward turn into the tree to impale his prey. Hawks, who use the same method of procuring food, have very strong feet; their talons are of great help in holding and killing their victims; but the shrikes, which have rather weak, sparrow-like feet, for perching only, are really compelled in many cases to make use of stout thorns or sharp twigs to help them quiet the struggles of their victims. Weather-vanes, lightning rods, bare branches, or the outermost or top branches of tall trees, high poles, and telegraph wires, which afford a fine bird’s eye-view of the surrounding hunting ground, are favourite points of vantage for both shrikes. When it is time to husk the corn, every farmer’s boy must have seen a shrike sitting on a fence-rail or hovering in the air ready to seize the little meadow mice that escape from the shocks.

It is sad to record that sometimes shrikes also sneak upon their prey. When they resort to this mean method of securing a dinner they leave the high perches and secrete themselves in clumps of bushes in the open field. Luring little birds within striking distance by imitating their call notes, they pounce upon a terror-stricken sparrow before you could say “Jack Robinson.” Shrikes seem to be the only creatures that really rejoice in the rapid increase of English sparrows. In summer they prefer large insects, especially grasshoppers, but in winter when they can get none, they must have the fresh meat of birds or mice. At any season they deserve the fullest protection for the service they do the farmer. Shrikes kill only that they themselves may live, and not for the sake of slaughter, which is a so-called sport reserved for man alone, who in any case, should be the last creature to condemn them.

The loggerhead’s call-notes are harsh, creaking, and unpleasant, but at the approach of the nesting season he proves that he really can sing, although not half as well as his cousin, the northern shrike, who astonishes us with a fine song some morning in early spring. Before we become familiar with it, however, the wandering minstrel is off to the far north to nest within the arctic circle. It is only in winter that the northern shrike visits the United States, travelling as far south as Virginia and Kansas between October and April. He is larger than the loggerhead, being a little over ten inches long, a goodlooking winter visitor in a gray suit with black and white trimmings on his wings and tail and wavy bars on his breast. Bradford Torrey used to visit a vireo that would drink water from a teaspoon which he held out to her while she sat brooding on her nest. I know a lady who fed bits of raw meat to a wounded shrike from the tines of a fork, the best substitute for a thorn she could find, because he found it awkward to eat from a dish.