This Fierce Bird Has Earned Its 'Butcher' Nickname

Updated: Nov 9

Fall is hunting season, and northern shrikes fly into the northern reaches of our state in October and November just in time to take part. They are the fiercest hunting songbird you’ll see in Will County.

A northern shrike perched on a branch.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

These small birds are only about the size of a robin, with big, chunky heads, sharp hooked bills and narrow black masks across their eyes. This gives them quite a ferocious look! They are generally lighter gray with a striking black wing and tail tips and a flash of white on the wings when flying.

During the summer, they live up north in Canada and Alaska, where the boreal forests meet the tundra. We only see them in the winter, when cold weather forces them south. In fact, we are just on the edge of their range. Look for them in open but bushy spots, sitting on utility lines or branches soaking up the sun. Or you can bait them with a bird feeder.

The northern shrike is all carnivore all the time. So do they want our seeds? No! But the black-capped chickadee or chipmunk nibbling at the feeder would make a delightful afternoon snack for a northern shrike!

 

Words to know

Boreal: Of the north or northern regions; relating to the climatic zone south of the Arctic.

Ferocious: Savagely fierce or violent.

Impale: To piece with a sharp instrument.

Stalk: To approach quietly without attracting notice.

Stealthy: Done in a manner to not be seen or heard.

Talons: The claws of birds of prey.

 

They are built to hunt with physical adaptations. They have something hidden in their hooked bill called a tomial tooth. This is just a tooth-like spike on the inside of each side of their top bill. Below it they have two small holes in their lower jaw. There the northern shrike’s tomial tooth spikes sit protected like a knife covered in a sheath until they open their jaws and bite down, killing their prey with one swift chomp.

While they don’t have talons like an owl, they do have super strong legs — all the better to grab prey. They’ve been known to go for things much bigger than themselves, like a duck!

Northern shrikes also have the personality for stealthy hunting. They stalk dense brush. They watch animal holes, paths and nests just waiting to make a raid. They might perch up high and scan the area for signs of prey.

A northern shrike eating a mouse.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Once they get their sights on their next meal, these predators employ a couple of different hunting tactics.

  • Inflight chase: They fly after a small bird or insect in the air, capturing it mid-flight with their feet or bill. Then they smash to the ground, especially when the songbird is heavier than them, like a robin. Spotting a rodent like a mouse, the northern shrike will dive bomb or hover over it until it gets a clear grip.

  • Hunt from hidden perches.

  • Hop through bushes: All the better to flush out any roosting birds.

  • Flash the white wing patch: Startle all the insects into moving!

What exactly do they like to eat? They love caterpillars, grasshoppers, ants, flies and beetles. Wasps and bees? Yes, please! Northern shrikes usually just pluck out the stingers and any large wings or legs. They also go for lots of birds and small mammals, especially mice, shrews, voles and lemmings. During hard times in winter, they will even eat roadkill or dead livestock.

These birds soften up their food by beating it on the side of their perch before eating. Often their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. Instead of letting leftovers go to waste, they impale food on a barbed wire or a thorn for later, pulling off chunks as they get hungry.

These grisly methods might be why northern shrikes are sometimes known as the butcher bird. Totally appropriate, don’t you think?

Now is the time to see them in action. Get outside and look for these pint-sized butchers. They might be on the hunt right now!

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