Imagine a little songbird, with black feathers encircling its eyes, a sleek gray body, whistling a high-pitched tweet toot-toot. The kind of bird that on first glance, you might mistake for a miniature mockingbird. “Aww,” you might think, “what a darling tweety bird!”
Well, you’d be mistaken.
Much like the “killer rabbit” of Monty Python fame, it’s easy to be beguiled by the benign appearance of the loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus). Only the smallest detail—a slightly curved bill—gives away this bird’s true nature. Despite officially being songbirds, shrikes have more in common with hawks and other birds of prey: they eat other vertebrates! Baby mice, lizards, grasshoppers, even other tweety birds…beware!
Unlike their raptorial cousins, shrikes are new to the carnivory game. As evidenced by their petite stature and talon-less feet, these wannabes aren’t particularly adept at ruthless hunting. No matter! Just as humans need more than bare teeth to chew into a juicy rib-eye, shrikes use the wilderness-equivalent of a steak knife: a thorn, barbed wire, or even the wires of a basket trap used by ecology researchers. Shrikes will catch prey and find something spiky to impale it on, while the helpless creature is still alive. Sometimes the shrike will dig in right then, using the barbed wire as an anchor to rip their dinner apart. They may also save the leftovers for later, secured on their handy spike. What’s worse, male shrikes will carefully curate a collection of rotting animals to show off their foraging prowess to interested females. This species is the veritable Vlad the Impaler of the animal kingdom.
Interestingly, these predatory passerines use their tool-crafting techniques to process meals that even raptors cannot digest. Much as gourmet sushi chefs prepare toxic pufferfish to avoid poisoning their customers, shrikes manipulate their deathly tools to process poisonous insects, like the lubber grasshopper. Recently, scientists have discovered that loggerhead shrikes actually learn these skills from their parents and practice handling prey items as young birds.
So, the next time you’re hiking and notice the mangled bodies of mice, lizards, or bugs strung up like Christmas ornaments along a fence, you’ll know you’re in shrike territory.
Callaghan, M.N. 2017. New shrike film shows previously undocumented ‘butcher bird’ behaviors. Audubon Magazine. http://www.audubon.org/news/watch-new-shrike-film-shows-previously-undocumented-butcher-bird-behaviors
Yosef, R. 1996. Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.231
Yosef, R. & McPherson, L.E. 2016. Taxon-specific prey handling by the loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus). Acta Ethologica (2016) 19: 147. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10211-016-0234-3
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