For the Birds Radio Program: Northern Shrike

Original Air Date: Dec. 4, 1995

People don’t always like rare birds at their feeders. 4:16

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The point behind bird feeders is to provide food to attract birds–the birds benefit tangibly, and we derive pleasure from watching them. And the rarer the bird that appears at our feeders, the more pleasure we derive, at least to a point. But there’s one rare and beautiful bird that makes many feeder watchers apoplectic when it appears, even though it visits so infrequently that you’d think feeder owners would be thrilled to see it. I’m talking about the Northern Shrike.

Shrikes are patterned like mockingbirds, but without the washed-out, anemic mockingbird look, and the shrike’s delicate flight shows off white wing patches against black wings to perfection. This bird, feathers frosted in the colors of winter, is a study in the lovely possibilities of gray, black, and white.

So why is it such an unpopular feeder bird? Perhaps because that icy winter beauty has also invaded its heart. Of all the songbirds in the world, shrikes are the only ones designed for killing and devouring warm-blooded meat as well as small lizards, snakes, frogs, and insects. Shrikes take their name from the word shriek, though they’re usually silent while hunting and some of their songs are quite musical.

Unlike hawks and owls, who attack and kill with powerful talons, shrikes have perching feet like other songbirds, so they’ve evolved a different weapon, their beak, which is much thicker and stronger than a similarly-sized robin’s, with a lethal hook on the tip that can pierce the skull of a mouse or warbler in a flash. The beaks of shrikes are strikingly similar to those of falcons, and their hunting techniques and prey are quite similar to those of kestrels. Sometimes shrike carry off dead animals in their feet, but they also impale their prey, head-up, on thorns or wire barbs. Not only does this hold the food in place, it’s a great way of storing food for a little predator who may have to take off suddenly to elude a bigger predator.

Hanging up meat has given the shrike its nickname, the butcher bird. Some people believe that shrikes kill for pleasure, and often let their impaled meat go to waste, but there’s no evidence of that–shrikes have excellent memories and a difficult lifestyle, so if the hunting is temporarily good enough to store some food against hard times to come, they eventually do return to eat it. If I found an impaled bird or mouse left by a shrike who never again returned, I’d assume that something bad had happened to the shrike. Shrikes weigh only 2 to 2 1/2 ounces, and although the kinglets, warblers, and sparrows that they attack weigh only a fraction of an ounce, a killing lifestyle on any scale is dangerous.

Feeder watchers naturally have more sympathy for birds who come to their feeders for seed or suet, so unless they get one of the rare shrikes who actually eats suet, people generally get upset when they see any shrike, who after all may attack and kill the birds they most want to protect. Some people do adapt to a visiting shrike–some friends of mine actually started setting out dead shrews on their feeder and got their resident shrike to take them. We humans are oddly ambivalent about predation. Some of the people I now who are most hostile to natural predation are hunters themselves, and some of those who love hawks the most are vegetarians. Go figure.

When I watch a shrike rush overhead and alight in the top of a spruce, I’ll always feel a special thrill at its beauty and grace. But whenever I see a shrike pierce the life out of a chickadee, I’ll be filled with disgust and anger. Only nature could create a world where such beauty and nastiness could exist side by side.