Spike the Shrike – Our Carnivorous Songbird

Posted on Tuesday 5 March 2013


Twice in the past two weeks, I’ve had an opportunity to spend quality time with one of our most fascinating birds – the Northern Shrike. It’s fairly rare that this bird spends much time where it can be observed “up close and personal”.  Most of us see it in a treetop at a distance.  Or, read in a birding net report about a Shrike that just swiped a Chickadee off someone’s feeder.  And, since Northern Shrikes only visit us when they come south to spend the winter in our balmy climes, it’s easy to understand why they are often missed.

Chris Leahy of Mass Audubon says in his book, Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birds“The Shrikes are the only songbirds that prey habitually on vertebrate animals.”  (That means mice, moles, voles and other little birdies)  They are birds of open country and forest edge and tend to seek prominent perches where they can scan for their prey, which also includes large insects and crustaceans. Both of our species (the Northern that we see in Vermont, and the Loggerhead seen in southern states) of “butcher birds” practice the famous shrike habit of hanging (impaling) “meat” on thorns or in narrow crotches, sometimes returning to the mummified remains as long as months afterwards.Recent research indicates that the male shrike may make a display of many impaled victims to exhibit his prowess to females – kind of a “Vlad the Impaler” version of the Bower Bird’s “jungle room” seductive decorating. Shrikes wait in ambush like accipiters, or sometimes actively chase prey.  They don’t have large strong talons (they’re songbirds, not raptors), but they do have an ominous sharp hook on the end of the beaks they use to stun prey, and in eating.Overall, this is a cute little songbird with a highly adapted “attitude”.

 Two weeks ago, I looked out of our back porch window, and saw a gray bird hopping across the snow covered lawn toward our feeders.  My first thought was Blue Jay with his crest down.  But gray.  Gray Jay?  Not likely.  Shrike?  Can it really be a Shrike hopping around like a Robin?  Then I saw the black “raccoon mask” eye stripe and knew that was what it was. The bird hopped over to the feeders, looked around, and took up a perch atop one of the feeder crooks.  All the Chickadees, Nuthatches and Titmouses had left. It sat for quite a while, and then flew low and into the bottom of a Beauty Bush at the corner of the house.  I was a bit surprised to see him skulking about in the bottom of a bush, when I was used to seeing Shrikes in the very tops of trees. 

As if on cue, it flew to the top of a Crab Apple in the front yard and sat perched on the smallest of branches at the very tip-top of the tree.  This seemed more normal to me.  It surveyed the property for a bit, and obviously figured out where the feeders (and birds) were in the front yard.  The little guys had not ceded this ground yet, and several were actively feeding.  The Shrike swooped down, sent them all packing, and landed in the Lilac bush next to the feedrs.  It snooped about in the bottom of the bush for quite some time – perhaps waiting for mice to appear, or for a little black-capped job to come back to the feeders.  Then, It returned to the Crab and sang.  I stepped outside to listen.  It was a lovely chortling song – Leahy describes it as being “Mockingbird-like”.  Although not repetitious like a Mockingbird, there was a clear melodic character to the tune.  (Check out http://birdnote.org/show/northern-shrike-butcherbird

I went inside to listen to it on my iphone, just to make sure I was getting it.  When I went back out to the porch, Whoosh, a little bird (didn’t really see what it was) went darting past, flying inside the porch and out the far end trying to elude Spikey, who hard on its tail.  Up and over the roof they darted and disappeared toward the back yard.  I ran out back and found the Shrike sitting on a Cherry sapling.  I don’t think it connected with its target.  Eventually it flew off. I thought that was really great – an extended close-up session with the butcher-bird. But, it turned out that a return visit was to be offered.


 A couple days ago, I was putting the Labs up on “dog hill” for some exercise.  Chickadees and Titmouses were singing.  And there was another song.  Seemed like I had heard it before.  Was it one of those wacky mimicking songs of the blue jays?  Nope – it sounded like the Shrike!  I ran to the car, grabbed my bins, and spied Spike sitting in the top of the big maple in the back yard.  It was back, and singing for all the world to hear.  What kind of way was that for an ambusher to hunt?  Maybe it wasn’t hunting I thought.  I recalled that others had told me they had heard a Shrike’s song and thought it resembled many of the sounds we make when “pishing” to attract birds.  Perhaps the Shrike’s song is a natural “Pish” that raises curiosity in other birds – thus revealing its prey.I went inside to watch unobserved.  The Shrike stayed in the tree for 10 or 15 minutes and sang.  Several Chickadees went about their business twenty feet or so down the tree from him.  I’m sure they saw him, but they didn’t leave.  Were they attracted to the song?  Were they keeping an eye on the Shrike?  Did they just not recognize the threat?  Don’t know.

 After a bit, it flew down and took up its position on one of the feeder crooks. Some of the Chickadees stayed around – on a witch hazel bush nearby.  They didn’t come to the feeders.  And, it was interesting to watch how their demeanor changed.  Usually, when they are feeding and going about their business, they flit and pop in jerky little motions that often involve moving their tails and heads up and down.  With the Shrike around, their attitude and movement changed.  They became much more animated, and the movements were decidedly and regularly side to side sweeping their tails back and forth.  It was more like they were wind vanes pivoting in a shifting breeze.  They were vocalizing too, but I could not hear them through the window.  Clearly, this was the Chickadee alarm posture – interesting to see in and of itself.The Shrike dropped to the ground, and walked about, looking down.  Beneath our feeders are a number of little holes where mice and moles surface from their subway system to nab a seed or two.  This bird had seen or heard something that alerted him of to their presence.  It was after them and not the local birds. 

 It tip-toed about on top of the tunnels, and watched and listened.  Then it hopped onto the lowest branch of the Witch Hazel and hid in the branches and watched.  It never sat really still like a heron.  It looked this way and that, tipping its head from side to side.  It stayed in the bottom of the bush for about 10 minutes, and then slowly worked his way up to the top – seeming to give up on the rodents. I blinked, and it was gone.  I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye and suspected that it had streaked back to the Beauty Bush it had visited the week before.  Sure enough, when I walked through the house and into a room where I could see the bush, there it was.  I didn’t see any prey.  It sat in the low branches for a few minutes and then hopped down on to the snow along a row of Cedars that is next to the bush.  Now it marched up and down, looking into the bottom of the Cedars.  I wondered if maybe it had wounded a bird and was looking for it.

Next thing, and unseen by the Shrike, a Chickadee flew out of the upper backside of the Cedars and landed in the Beauty Bush.  It sat on the edge closest to the Shrike and began the agitated motion and vocalizing I saw earlier.  I was very surprised that this little fellow – who apparently had experienced a close shave with the butcher – didn’t just fly away.  Instead, it sat defiantly, motioning and sounding the alarm for others.  It did this for almost 20 minutes. The Shrike paid no attention – perhaps not realizing that this was the bird it had chased.  Or, perhaps it was after something else.  It paced back and forth under the Cedars for some time, and then dove into one of gaps between the bases of the trees.  The Chickadee kept up his alarm.  Eventually the Shrike flew out and landed in a large rose bush.  I couldn’t really see him very well from my vantage point, but it occurred to me that the rose bush was just where a successful impaler might go with prey.  I relocated, and could see the bird, but no evidence of a catch. Soon, it flew back toward the Beauty Bush – in the area where the Chickadee was protesting.  The little bird quickly relocated to the back of the bush and kept up his vigil.  

Northern Shrike - 2-13 h I thought it was after the Black-Cap.  But, the Shrike took a position on a low branch in near the base of the bush.  And as I was watching, I caught a bit of movement in the snow, below.  I wasn’t sure if it was real or not.  But, after a few moments, a small mouse or mole head peeked out of the snow.  The Shrike – just a foot or so above the rodent – prepared to strike.  But, the fur-ball, popped its head back in, and the Shrike – unlike an owl – didn’t appear to understand that if it attacked just behind the hole, it’d get lunch.  The mousey guy appeared and disappeared again.  Same reaction – ready to strike, but again, no launch.  

That was it for the rodent.  It didn’t reappear.  And – with the little Chickadee still bravely sounding the warning – the Shrike soon retreated to a far off tree — probably to survey the surroundings from there, and start the hunt again. I was thrilled that I had the opportunity for such a lengthy observation of Spike.  I learned much about how Shrikes hunt, how likely they are to succeed, how the high vantage point observation may be a pre-cursor to on-the-ground hunting, how lovely their songs are, and how brave-hearted Chickadees respond to serious threats.  I hope it comes back so I can learn more.

Scott Sainsbury – Moretown, Vermont

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