How to Find a Loggerhead Shrike (aka American Butcher Bird)

At first glance it’s so cute and fluffy, but the loggerhead shrike has grim eating habits that easily earn its North American nickname of “butcher bird” (different from Australasian butcherbirds). This little tool-using songbird outperforms the deadliest skills of hawks and the creepiness of vultures when it dines.

Photo Caption: When flufffed up on a cold day, the loggerhead shrike seems positively cuddly.

Sure it doesn’t look much different from an insect-eating nuthatch, a seed-eating American goldfinch, or an omnivorous junco. A better side view of the beak shows that this isn’t a seed eater or generalist. It’s not even the typical insect-eating beak — when compared to different types it’s more like the form seen in predatory raptors.

Photo Caption: This Wikipedia Commons image gives a better view of the beak.

The thing is, loggerhead shrikes aren’t just predators, they’re crafty. Shrikes like large, unwieldy prey such as giant grasshoppers, small lizards, little birds, or even tiny snakes. But shrikes are scarcely larger than their meal so they learned some tricks to help them eat it. After they use their hooked upper beak to kill their food, they find a thorny bush or strip of barbed wire to use as a butchering tool. By impaling the animal on the thorns, they are able to leisurely remove all of the edible parts.

Photo Caption: We knew a loggerhead shrike must have been in the area when we found this deceased snake at Lake Conestee Nature Park in SC. Due to a variety of protected habitats, Lake Conestee is one of the best birding areas in the southeast.

Finding a loggerhead shrike’s kill makes me feel like I’m watching an R-rated movie or CSI-style TV show produced by nature. However, checking thorny bushes or barbed wire for small animals (or large insects) that look like they have been carefully picked clean is one of the surest clues to locate a shrike.

Photo Caption: Loggerhead shrikes find thorny bushes like this rose to impale their kill on while they butcher it. Planting roses near likely meadow & forest habitat may help this species out.

In spite of being gruesome killers, loggerhead shrikes are a shy bird. Discovering the remains of their meals is one of the few ways you’ll ever know they are in the area. Once you’ve found their food your next task will be to listen for them (and I hope you bring some good binoculars).

Bird guides describe the calls for loggerhead shrikes as “queedle queedle” or “chee-whip.” I’ve never found that written calls help me much until I’ve heard the audio sound to connect it to. Whenever I see things like “Peter Peter Peter” or “chik-a-dee-dee-dee” written in a field guide, I’m always surprised when I hear the actual bird. I guess it is like named constellations (you’re telling me that this combination of stars looks like a hunter?) So, if you want to actually recognize a loggerhead shrike when you hear it, click here to hear its recorded calls. If you’re very interested in birding calls here’s a list of resources you can use.

Once you’re fortunate enough to find the meal and hear the shrike, you still have to pinpoint it with your binoculars without making a ruckus and scaring it away. Unless you get some freakish luck, adding this species to your life list is sure to feel like a grand accomplishment.

The best news is that the shrike has a large range and hangs out here year-round. Certain local regions in the southeast have seen a decline (up north there have been larger declines over wider areas) but it can potentially be seen in the majority of Appalachia.

If you do see one, be sure to give it a good, cute name like “Hannibal” or “Sweeny Todd.” :)

Eliza Lord

I'm a Greenville, SC native (the Appalachian foothills) who wears the hats of Greenville Master Gardener & Upstate Master Naturalist. I love to write about food and sustainability.

14 thoughts on “How to Find a Loggerhead Shrike (aka American Butcher Bird)”

  1. Curbstone Valley Farm - November 17, 2010 12:12 pm

    That’s quite the remains of a meal you found! I love these birds, they’re handsome, and clever. Unfortunately we don’t see or hear them here. I don’t think we have they’re preferred habitat available here as we’re heavily wooded. They tend toward more open areas. Our snake eating birds are usually the red-shouldered hawks, but I’m happy to see them too.
    .-= Curbstone Valley Farm´s last blog ..Erysimum franciscanum var crassifolium =-.

    Reply
    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - November 17, 2010 5:30 pm

      Thanks! We were very excited when we passed it right on the trail. Lake Conestee Nature Park is great because it has meadows next to heavily wooded areas. It also has wooded and open area wetlands that include swamp, lake, and river. The variety of birds that you can see there is amazing.
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Find a Loggerhead Shrike aka American Butcher Bird =-.

      Reply
  2. Sandra - November 17, 2010 2:31 pm

    I thought vultures didn’t kill their food; their food is already dead and they scavenge.

    Reply
    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - November 17, 2010 5:27 pm

      Yeah, I was referring more to their picking-the-bones habit. You’re absolutely right that they eat already dead food, though.
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Find a Loggerhead Shrike aka American Butcher Bird =-.

      Reply
  3. One - November 17, 2010 6:20 pm

    That’s an awesome looking bird! I’m amazed to know that it uses thorns as tools to ‘cut up’ its food.
    .-= One´s last blog ..Garden Bloggers Bloom Day Nov 2010 =-.

    Reply
    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - November 17, 2010 6:42 pm

      I’m pretty fascinated with them, too! They actually use the thorn tools to hold their food in a convenient position for them to eat it. It’s like a coat rack for their lunch!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Find a Loggerhead Shrike aka American Butcher Bird =-.

      Reply
  4. Janet - November 17, 2010 6:32 pm

    What an amazing bird! I am enjoying the birds I am seeing in the Upstate of South Carolina. I was able to get a photo of a Hooded Warbler. Poor little guy hit my picture window and was stunned for a few minutes, just long enough to get a few pictures.
    .-= Janet´s last blog ..November Garden Blogger Bloom Day and Plan B =-.

    Reply
    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - November 19, 2010 12:15 pm

      I’m glad to hear your hooded warbler was able to fly off (and that you were granted some convenient photos in the meantime)!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Sift Through the New S510 Food Safety Bill How Does it Affect You =-.

      Reply
  5. Zoe / pearled earth - November 17, 2010 6:39 pm

    Fascinating! I had no idea. I will definitely look for it on the southerly camping trip this winter (or its bloody evidence!).
    .-= Zoe / pearled earth´s last blog ..Rosa Pat Austin does chores with me =-.

    Reply
    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - November 17, 2010 6:43 pm

      I hope you have a great time camping!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Find a Loggerhead Shrike aka American Butcher Bird =-.

      Reply
  6. Lotusleaf - November 18, 2010 2:59 am

    That was a very interesting post. There are some trees with large thorns here, which are used by shrikes to impale their food. I once saw a coucal eat a snake. It was completely concentrating on the food :)
    .-= Lotusleaf´s last blog ..Watery Wednesday- Waters of Wayanad =-.

    Reply
    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - November 19, 2010 12:18 pm

      I’ve never seen a coucal and had to look it up — very pretty! Sounds like you showed up at the right time and place!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Sift Through the New S510 Food Safety Bill How Does it Affect You =-.

      Reply
  7. lifeshighway
    Twitter: lifeshighway
    - November 18, 2010 1:50 pm

    Lived in the south all my life and I have never seen a shrike and my Dad is a bird biologist so I really have no excuses. Great post, great gruesome snake find. Shrikes are my new heroes.
    .-= lifeshighway´s last blog ..Purple Power =-.

    Reply
    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - November 19, 2010 12:21 pm

      Ooh… I’d be railroading dad into as many educational birding trips as I could if I were you!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Sift Through the New S510 Food Safety Bill How Does it Affect You =-.

      Reply

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