Monday, December 29, 2008

Northern Shrike

Sometime ago, I wrote about Shrike: The Butcher Bird, mostly writing about the Loggerhead variety. I am absolutely fascinated by these tiny predator-birds and would enjoy watching them hunt. I've watched hawks hunt my feeders and once or twice got to actually see them successful. I give the little birds I feed a fair chance by keeping feeders in places not too far from bushes and small trees. Past that, I figure what happens is a natural selection process...a culling of bad genes and the feeding of healthy ones.

The Northern Shrike is somewhat larger than the Loggerhead, with a bi-colored lower mandible that is pale at the base, unlike the totally dark bill of the cousin. The Northern's black mask is narrower and does not extend across its forehead and there are usually faint, wavy barring on the chest. (Click the photos for better viewing.)

The Latin species name of the Northern Shrike, Lanius excubitor, means "Butcher watchman," which fits, as the bird hunts from a perch and flying down behind prey, sometimes chasing it as shown in the first video clip below. It seizes its prey with its study bill and uses the hook, biting vertebrates through the neck to sever the spinal cord. The bird removes wings, spines, and stingers from insects. Generally it impales prey, sometimes while prey is still alive, on thorns, spines, or barbed wire, because while this is a predator bird, its feet are not strong enough for holding and tearing flesh. Occasionally it will wedge a meal in the crook of two twigs and pull the flesh apart that way. Prey may be consumed it right away or left for later consumption.

Young Northern Shrikes are brownish, while young Loggerheads are grayish. Both male and female Northern Shrikes sing throughout year. The nest of the Northern Shrike is an open cup, but it is so deep that the sitting female is almost completely out of view, save for the tip of her tail sticking out overtop.

What has re-kindled my interest in the bird is seeing the Northern Shrike several times during our local CBC, and also finding Loggerhead Shrikes in the area from time to time, too. I've never seen one in my yard, however. Then the other day a Mark Chaves wrote on the CFO Board about finding one at his feeders and included this story:

"Another visitor has been a Northern Shrike that has appeared almost every day since the end of November. He will hunt the backyard sometimes for an hour before going somewhere else. I have seen him with mice, and one late afternoon he pierced a House Sparrow on a sharp stick devouring him before the cold night set in. I have added photo gallery link [here], if interested. Every winter seems to bring some kind of surprise."

Of course I wrote him off-line! I commented on the excellent photos he posted of a sweet-looking little birdie, not something that might be called a 'Butcher'! LOL So, I asked him if he had other photos and Mark kindly sent me three previously unpublished photos. I include them here.

Then, last night I found this note on the same board:

"This afternoon while snowshoeing around South Pond, one of the Blue River Ponds in Silverthorne (Summit City), I had a Northern Shrike fly by me, about 8'-10' off the ground chasing a small passerine.

It was surprising as I normally see shrikes perched on tree branch tips or wires with an occasional foray at something on the ground. This was like a WW I plane chase. After ~100 yds of darting and diving, I lost sight of the two birds so don't know who "won". Nice experience."
Charlie Nims of Silverthorne did have a nice experience...and it dovetailed nicely into the photos from Mark. I plan to send a link to this post to Charlie so he can see what, hopefully for the hunter, may have been the outcome he missed.

Thanks to both gentlemen, for sharing these incredible stories and pictures! Don't forget to click Mark's photos here...for a better view of his wonderful photography.

Here is an interesting clip from YouTube of a hunting shrike...catching and dispatching a mouse. There is also a rather gruesome shot of his dinner, saved for later.

And another very short clip which shows a shrike eating, and how it is that securing its food before it eats works for the little guy.


Bosque Bill said...

That would be a very cool bird to see in one's yard. I saw a Loggerhead many years ago, but didn't get a really memorable look at it.

Beverly said...

Well then, I'll count myself lucky to see both shrikes every so often. I've never been close enough long enough to watch a hunt, but earlier this year I think I wrote about watching one run off another bird and then pluck a grasshoper from its larder and offer it to what was likely its mate. That was way cool...and just a couple feet outside the car we were in spying on birds at Huerfano Lake, east of Pueblo. I'm going to have to go back there come spring!

Thanks for stopping by again, Bill...I enjoy your visits here.

YC said...

Pretty awesome clips of how the shrike impales its prey. Thanks for alerting me, Beverly.

Beverly said...

Sure YC, I thought you'd like Mark's photographs, too. I found them awesome... It's always a pleasure to get a chance to see nature in action.

Camera Trap Codger said...

Cool! I've seen plenty of loggerheads, and did my masters research on their impaling behavior, but have yet to see a northern. I chuckled at the sound tracks accompanying the videos, especially the non-birders comment -- "cedar waxwing"!???.

Beverly said...

I just think they are the coolest little birds, Chris! I did a piece last October called Shrike: Butcher Bird
But mostly wrote about the Loggerheads, as that was all I’d seen, too. Then, recently I discovered we have Northern Shrikes here in the winter (Loggerheads in the summer), and have seen several hunting fields around here.

While I’ve not seen them in my yard, either, I have had the tiniest Sharpie dine at my feeders once or twice! LOL

If I’d gone to college seriously, I may have been a biologist. The whole animal behavior thang fascinates me. Did you know that Shrikes hang Monarch butterflies (poisonous; as I’m sure you’re aware) long enough to let the poison break down before they eat ‘em? Cool, indeed!

I really liked Mark’s photographs…showing the wavy-fronted little things…all bloodied up with lunch. Heh heh heh

Nice to 'see' ya, thanks for stopping by.