Attack of the Butcher Birds

The shrike is every bit as cunning as its name implies. Although they are classified as a song bird and size up to slightly smaller than a gray jay, these creatures act more like demented birds of prey.

Shrikes are found all over North America from tundra ecosystems to southern hardwood forests. They inhabit areas of semi open grassland with plentiful hunting perches. These birds are carnivores eating large insects, small mammals, and even other song birds!

Photo Credit: Fish and Wildlife
Service Digital Library System

From their hunting perch, shrikes locate prey and then, in a swift pursuit, snatch their victims from above. Like falcons, shrikes use a hooked bill to kill their prey by pounding a hole in the back of the skull and severing the spinal cord. While a smaller insect may be consumed on site, shrikes save larger meals for later by impaling them on a twig or thorn, or by wedging prey between forks in a tree branch. In areas where open country has been fenced in or turned to farmland, barbed wire makes an ideal storage space for leftovers, leaving a rather gruesome scene for an innocent bystander. It’s no wonder they are often dubbed “butcher birds”!

Recent studies suggest that these caches, or larders, provide more than just food storage through less favorable times. In breeding season, males build up larders to attract mates. Males whose larders have been experimentally removed have less success at mating. Since these birds are equally active in raising young, the ability of the male to maintain a large cache may indicate to a selective female that he will be able to provide amply for a family.

Although they are more common in grasslands of the west, shrikes can be found right here in New Hampshire given the right milieu. Look for loggerhead shrikes and larders in open fields near barbed wire fences or hawthorn trees.