From a favorite perch, this Northern Shrike watches patiently for a careless sparrow, warbler or vole to come within striking range. They’re passerines by taxonomical classification, which relates them to the songbirds they prey upon.
My first encounter with shrikes did not include the sighting of this somewhat uncommon bird, but with evidence left at the scene. I was about 14, on an upland hunt in Pennsylvania with Gil Twiest, when I noticed a mouse or shrew tightly wedged in the V of a pair of branches on a small crabapple tree. As it happens, Gil is a biologist and an expert on birds. When I called him over for a look at what I’d found, he immediately surmised, “That’s the work of a shrike.” The remainder of the morning I pretended to hunt while searching in vain for the compellingly macabre bird that had committed this act.
Many years later while letting my mind wander as I stared at my fishing line on the Tama River in Japan, I was jolted back into the present by an unearthly, bird-like shriek. I’d never seen or heard a shrike, but I knew immediately that’s what it had to be. Sure enough, when I turned around and got the source of the screech in my binoculars, there it was – hooked beak, eye stripe, large head – peering down on me from the wire where it was perched. I don’t recall if I caught fish or not; it was a red-letter day.
It’s the shrike’s sharply hooked beak that indicates its intensions. Lanius excubitor, the Northern Shrike’s scientific name, means Butcher Watchman, and while all birds exhibit fascinating behavior of one description or another, the shrike’s habits rank it near the top.
Northern Shrike, Chignik Lake near the mouth of Clark’s River, Alaska
By definition, the feet of passerines feature three toes facing forward and one toe pointing back – a perfect arrangement for perching. Hence passerines are commonly referred to as “perching birds.” Suitably light and ideal for maintaining a grasp on twigs, branches and wires, a shrike’s feet lack the power of the heavy talons of hawks, falcons, eagles and other birds of prey. They’ve evolved a remarkable strategy to compensate for this shortcoming.
Upon capturing a small animal, they carry it in their beak to a suitable dining area. This could be a small tree where a pair of branches form a V in which to wedge the animal, or a cactus, bush or tree with sufficiently long, sharp thorns on which they can impale their meal. On the banks of Japan’s Hanamizu River, year after year Bull-headed Shrikes (Mozu in Japanese), utilized a strand of barbed-wire enclosing a garden and marked their territory with all manner of large earthworms, grasshoppers, dragon flies and other small creatures. Once securely fastened, the shrike can easily tear into it’s meal with it powerful beak.
Note the distinctive eye mask and large head. Like some other birds of prey such as kestrels and harriers, shrikes possess the ability to hover while searching for prey.
Roughly the size of the familiar American robin (albeit with a shorter wingspan), these are tough little birds. Although often solitary, here in the village of Chignik Lake a pair of them – very likely a mated pair – work tirelessly to drive off magpies, kingfishers and other birds that enter their territory. We’ve even watched as two of them harassed a mature bald eagle into giving up a preferred roost.