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Northern Shrike

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

March 8, 2021

            I love rule breakers. You know, the critters in nature that don’t follow the rules we people lay out for them. A good example of this is the Opossum. How crazy is it for a mammal to have their babies borne after just 14 days gestation and spend the rest of their development outside of the womb and instead in a pouch located on their mother’s belly? How about White-breasted Nuthatches? They climb down trees headfirst while all the other birds are going headfirst up the tree. But one my favorite rule breaker is the Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor).

            The Northern Shrike is a robin sized bird that is all gray with black wings and tail. It sports a handsome black mask like the fictional character, Zorro and a large thick black hooked bill. It breeds way up north in the Northwest Territories of Canada and Alaska. However, the Northern Shrike often moves out of its breeding range during winter in ten year cycles based on the availability of small mammals which is a major part of their winter diet.

Shrikes are considered a predatory songbird. These two words “predator” and “songbird” should not be used in the same sentence unless you are talking about a hawk, the predator, eating a songbird, the prey. By definition, predators kill their prey before eating it. And songbirds are defined as birds known for their songs. Songbirds are peaceful birds that inhabit our gardens and yards and fill the spring air with beautiful songs. Songbirds eat insects and seeds and don’t have a beef with any other birds. Except for the rule breaking shrike.

To be a predator like a hawk you need some basic equipment such as large strong feet with long sharp talons for holding and killing what you have caught. Here is where the shrike does not follow the predator bird rule. Remember, the shrike is a songbird, which have small weak feet used only to walk and hold onto branches when it perches. But that doesn’t stop the shrike from killing what it wants to eat.

Shrikes make a living in the winter by hunting, catching, and eating small mammals such as mice or voles. They perch high up and watch over an area for any movement below. Then they fly out and hover just above the unsuspecting mouse before dive down headfirst to deliver a deadly blow from their large bill. Just yesterday I watched a shrike do what I just described and grab a vole and shake it violently for 2 seconds and the vole was dead. That fast. I was amazed.

Shrikes also hunt other birds. They are well known for flying into a bird feeding station like a lightning bolt and as the bird’s scatter, the shrike rams into a bird in mid-flight stunning it and knocking it to the ground before landing on the prey and killing it with its bill.

Either way, after securing its prey, it carries the victum away with its bill. Again, since it’s a songbird with tiny weak feet it has to carry its food in its bill unlike hawks which carry their prey in their feet.

Now here is where it gets really interesting. The shrike is unable to swallow its prey whole, so it needs to tear apart its meal before swallowing. Again, a raptor such as a hawk will hold the prey item in its feet to stabilize it. The shrike’s feet are too weak to do this, so it has come up with an ingenious solution. It takes the dead little critter and impales it on a thorn of a shrub or on the barbs of a barbwire fence. Once impaled the shrike can tear it apart and eat. Therefore the bird is also called, the butcher bird.

Shrikes also use the impaled prey as a larder for future use. In one case a shrike was seen to return to the mummified remains of a frog it had skewered almost a year earlier showing that they also have a remarkable memory. Until next time…


Stan Tekiela is a author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com   


The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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