An Animal of the High Desert - Loggerhead Shrike  (Lanius ludovicianus)

It looks like a songbird. It sounds like a songbird. It even flies like a songbird. But it doesn’t hunt like a songbird. It hunts like a hawk, kind of a raptor wannabe. Demonstrating a boldness and ferocity not usually found in songbirds, the loggerhead shrike well earns his nickname “butcherbird.”

The Loggerhead Shrike gets its name from its comparatively large head. Its robin-sized body is gray, black and white. The Loggerhead Shrike’s most distinctive feature is the black mask which extends around the eyes and down into the forehead.

Shrikes are the only songbirds to consistently prey on vertebrate animals. Loggerheads are aggressive hunters, eating insects, reptiles, small mammals, and birds. How does the shrike — a songbird that, unlike raptors, has weak feet, no talons and a small beak — capture and kill its prey?

The Loggerhead Shrike, which has very keen eyesight, uses telephone poles, tree branches or fences as perches to locate prey. Once discovered, the shrike drops onto its prey from the perch or pursues the prey until it's tired, then hits and stuns it. Shrike have a strongly hooked bills for gripping flesh, and a strong cutting tooth or "tomial" near the bill tip that helps sever the spinal cord of its prey. Then, carrying prey as heavy as its own body in its feet, the shrike finds a spot where it impales its prey on a thorn, cactus spine, or barbed wire to hold it while the shrike rips it up to eat. These methods of killing are adaptations to compensate for the shrike’s lack of heavy talons and strong feet that allow raptors to hold prey while biting off edible bits.

Sometimes a shrike caches its prey for later feeding. The cache is often hidden on thorns in bushes where other animals aren't likely to steal them. A male shrike may also store dead creatures for his mate close to where she is nesting. And in mating season, a male shrike's cache many contain a large number of victims to impress a female and to stake out his territory.

Loggerhead Shrikes were once abundant, but populations in North America have declined drastically through last half of 20th century. In Idaho, they are listed as a Species of Special Concern. The shrike prefers to live in the grasslands with open areas to search for prey and scattered trees for cover. Much of its preferred habitat, land once abundant in cattle ranges, has either been planted to crops or grown into young forests.

Loggerhead shrikes are doing well on the Idaho NERP. Numbers counted in ESER’s annual Breeding Bird Survey have been fairly consistent since 1985, with an average of. 33 birds counted each year. In ESER’s 2006 survey, 38 loggerhead shrikes were tallied.

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