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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”