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Shrikes

by Mike Scully

This article first appeared in the August 2003 issue of the San Antonio Audubon News.

I long regarded shrikes as the “Walter Mittys” of the bird world: songbirds perpetually trying to be raptors. The sight of a Loggerhead Shrike carrying a dead male Northern Cardinal by the neck some years back made an impression, but my perceptions really changed when a pair of Loggerheads took up residence around our school garden.

This past spring, the shrikes took to feeding their fledged brood with house sparrows impaled in an acacia tree. The sight of the bloody-beaked fledglings crudely dismembering a hapless sparrow brought to mind a pack of velociraptors in a dinosaur movie. Disturbed by my approach, the parent clutched the dangling remains in one foot and flew off with them like a hawk.

I have seen these same shrikes capture hummingbirds, and recently witnessed the swift pursuit of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Shrike and Scissortail described a brilliant figure eight in the fading light, paired loops 30 feet tall, the visual effect of their flashing colors like a sparkler waved around by an outstretched arm. The Scissortail broke for the open and escaped, but I have seen few birds fly so fast. Whatever else Loggerheads might be, ersatz predators they’re not.

At least seven species of shrike occur across temperate Asia and Europe. North America hosts only two species; the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) and the larger Northern Shrike (L. excubitor). On our own continent, the breeding range of the Northern Shrike is limited to the north; in the Old World different races of this same species also breed south into more temperate zones. The Old World shrike perhaps most reminiscent of our own Loggerhead is the Southern Grey Shrike (L. meridionalis), found across North Africa, Southern Europe and Central Asia. Unfortunately lacking on this side of the Atlantic are any counterparts to the Old World’s species group of colorful smaller shrikes, such as the bluebird-sized Red-backed Shrike (L. collurio) of Europe.

Most adult shrikes everywhere share a similar color scheme of darker on top, white or near-whitish down below, with a black mask and white wing and/or tail patches to complete the ensemble; juveniles are duller with varying degrees of heavier barring below. All shrikes hunt from an exposed perch and prefer open or semi-open country. Prey is either captured on the ground or seized in the air after a quick dash; many species also hover when hunting.

Their stout, hooked bills allow shrikes to take relatively large prey. Our Northern Shrikes subsist largely upon small birds and rodents, irrupting south in winters when prey populations fall. Loggerhead Shrikes subsist mostly upon invertebrate prey in the warmer months, taking larger numbers of vertebrates in the winter and when feeding young. All shrikes share the distinctive habit of impaling their prey upon spines and twigs, earning for the family the common sobriquet of “butcher bird”.

Shrikes are usually monogamous, both sexes construct a cup-shaped nest at moderate height in a tree or bush and both sexes feed the young. The number of broods varies with prey availability and latitude, Northern Shrikes usually rearing but a single brood each year whereas some Loggerheads in the southern part of their range may succeed in bringing off three broods. Outside of the breeding season, shrikes become solitary.

Unfortunately, another trait common to shrikes around the World is that many species have suffered precipitous population declines. Although still common locally, the Loggerhead Shrike has been declining across much of North America and has all but disappeared from many areas, to the extent that captive breeding programs have been initiated in a last-ditch attempt to save some populations of this bird.

 

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