The Butcherbird

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

The bird flew bullet-like to my left. At first I thought ‘Blue Jay’, but this bird didn’t bound along as a jay does. Instead, it rowed along, heading in a straight line to the top of a tree out at Sanford Farm and I could see gray, black, and flight flashes as it braked to a landing. This was a Northern Shrike, my first of the year, and it was busy hunting.

Many new birders are shocked by a shrike's behavior. I mean, these are songbirds whose diet consists of other songbirds! They are voracious and dedicated predators who pursue prey with great tenacity. I remember seeing a Loggerhead Shrike out in Colorado when it came into my backyard. The House Sparrows feeding there immediately sought cover in a thick bush, heading inside the tangles for security. The shrike was completely ready for this, charging directly in, driving the terrorized sparrows out the other side.

Shrikes are successful predators despite their inability to actually grasp and carry prey in their feet as hawks and owls do. Instead, they depend on their strong hooked bills to tear things apart and also frequently use a hawthorn or the spike of a barbed wire fence to secure their dinner while ripping it apart. A woodsman once told of finding a honey locust tree that had mice stuck all over it on the thorns. This practice is responsible for their nickname – butcherbird – because they seem to hang their meat out to cure. The scientific Genus name, Lanius, means 'butcher' in Latin. Some people call shrikes ‘French Mockingbirds’ because their gray, black and white patterns are reminiscent of that species, but more ornate. There is a fine and complicated filigree pattern to the wings and tail.

There are many species of shrikes around the world. When I lived in Taiwan, we had a rather handsome one, the Rufous-backed Shrike. In the southern part of the island the Taiwanese would trap them, using a nylon noose atop a pole. The shrike would perch there and be caught in the noose and trapped alive. The natives would then rather inhumanely snap the beak so it couldn't bite them and carry them off to market where they would be sold as food. In the 70's conservationists were trying to stop this practice. My Taiwanese birding friend, Wayne Hsu, tells me that now the practice of trapping them has largely been curtailed with the passage of wildlife protection laws. Still some people are still caught (and jailed) for selling them and many traps are confiscated every year. It's not just on Nantucket that people show resentment when told they can't do something they've always done.

Perhaps shrikes are treated badly because of their own savage behavior. The list of birds they kill includes Chickadees, Snow Buntings, Downy Woodpeckers, warblers, vireos, kinglets, sparrows, Goldfinches, Mourning Doves, and Cardinals. Shrikes also kill mice. They are so effective killing sparrows that they threatened to eliminate the House Sparrow when it was first introduced to Boston in the 1880's. The City actually hired men to shoot the shrikes on Boston Common.

To give a picture of the terror a shrike can create, picture a person sitting at a closed window reading, with a canary hanging above him. Suddenly there's a severe blow struck at the pane of glass near the cage, and the frightened canary utters cries of alarm and falls to the bottom of its cage. This actually happened as a shrike dashed upon the bird, unconscious of the intervening glass, and was then stretched upon the snow under the window, stunned by the blow. The canary did not recover quickly from this shock. Shrikes are also known to wreak havoc with bird banding operations, pouncing on recently banded birds as they are released.

As is fitting for such a villain, shrikes wear black masks over their eyes. They look like chunky mockingbirds, with thick heavy heads and bills. The back is described as 'gull' gray and the color underneath is mottled gray.

Northern Shrikes are rare to uncommon winter visitors here on our island. Loggerhead Shrikes are our summer shrikes, but have become very scarce in recent years. Shrikes, being at the top of the food chain, suffer from the concentration of pollutants in their prey. Environmentalists view their decline as another warning of the damage man is doing to the environment.

To see a Northern Shrike, you should look in bushy areas with open spaces in between, like along the trail at Sanford Farm. Look for a bird perched, sentinel-like, on an exposed spot on a tree or bush where it can scan the neighborhood in a hawklike manner. If you find the remains of a small rodent or bird hooked on a hawthorn or perhaps some barbed wire, there has been a shrike in the neighborhood. If you see a shrike, treasure the moment. These birds are becoming harder and harder to find.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.