This week’s featured bird is an imaginative one – it’s a songbird that thinks and acts like a raptor, with a fierce pride in its hunting ability and a bold and dominating attitude to match. Meet the loggerhead shrike!
Name: Loggerhead Shrike
Scientific Name: Lanius ludovicianus
Scientific Family: Laniidae (Shrikes)
Habitat: Typically prefers open habitat such as grasslands, pastures and scrub with scattered trees and bushes for perches, as well as scrubby marshes. Can also be found in fractured habitats and areas with interspersed open regions as well as more heavily wooded tracts, including suburban areas such as golf courses, cemeteries and broad parks. Riparian habitats can also be perfect for loggerhead shrikes.
Range: Year-round resident of much of the central and southern United States as well as the Baja peninsula and Mexico, with the range slightly further north to central Oregon in the west. During the summer, the breeding range extends into central Canada, and in winter, the southernmost birds spread to the east coast of Mexico.
Loggerhead shrikes are starkly colored with gray upperparts, light whitish-gray underparts and black wings and tail. The face shows a thick black bandit mask that gives this bird a fierce visage, and the wing shows a small white patch. The bird’s shape is also distinct, with a large head and a thick, black bill hooked on the tip like a raptor.
Also like raptors, these birds will perch on poles, wires and the tops of tree branches, cacti, stiff palms, poles, signs or other convenient vantage points as they scan for prey. Loggerhead shrikes are carnivorous, hunting large insects and small lizards, snakes, mice, amphibians, birds and other tasty morsels. Because they aren’t quite raptors, however, they can’t always kill their prey effectively – they lack the strong, powerful talons of a true bird of prey. Instead, loggerhead shrikes snare their prey and take it to a sharp barb – a cactus spine, bit of barbed wire or other sharp branch – and spear the prey onto the barb to kill it. They leave their prey stored on those barbs, allowing the carcass to soften so they can more easily tear it apart. This delay also allows any toxins in their prey to break down and neutralize. This type of caching and its viciousness – leaving their prey spiked to slowly die – has earned these birds the nickname “butcherbird.”
I’ve been happy to see loggerhead shrikes in many places, most often while perched and scanning for prey. They have a deliberate glare and a calculating look, and you know a region is rich in food when loggerhead shrikes are about – and that includes the local Walmart where shrikes regularly scope out the edges of a marshy pond (the same Walmart and pond that is also home to belted kingfishers). At one time, several years and several homes ago, I even had a shrike drop in to my yard and make off with an unlucky house finch – or so it appeared from the brief glimpse I had as the raptor-want-to-be scuttled up a small tree and flew off with its meal. Unfortunately, that glimpse was too brief for me to feel comfortable adding another yard bird, but I’ve never lacked for great views of these birds and I hope you don’t either. Enjoy them – they’re always worth a watch!