Monday, November 2, 2009

Meet the Butcherbird: Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike. Photo by Doug Brown.

Far from home, along the Texas Gulf Coast, the birding had been exceptional for our small group of wanderers. We’d already covered many of the noted birding destinations such as High Island and Bolivar Flats, and now were looking for wetland obligate species at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Houston.

Initially, I thought that the gray bird with the white wing patches might be a Northern Mockingbird, but its flight was direct, nothing like the undulating, almost flirtatious flight pattern of the mockingbird. Indeed, the Loggerhead Shrike seemed to be a bird on a mission, with a purpose for alighting on the bare branch of a tree only about 30 feet distant. It just sat without moving though, and our birding group soon lost interest. We turned our attention to the numerous wetland birds, remarking on the Least Bittern lurking in the vegetation and the abundant Northern Rough-winged Swallows gracefully swooping over the open water, snaring aerial insects.

Suddenly, a piercing shriek broke the otherwise idyllic sounds of nature. As one, our heads turned toward the sound, only to witness two birds, shrike and swallow, locked in mortal combat. It seemed improbable that the shrike even would have tried to capture the swallow, so buoyant and aerially superior in flight, but it did just that. As we watched with mixed emotions, the shrike first pinned the hapless swallow to the ground, biting its neck, and then flew off out of sight with the victim firmly clamped in its bill.

Loggerhead Shrikes are medium- sized songbirds with bird of prey personalities. At first glance, the shrike hardly appears to be a predator, but it regularly preys on insects, lizards, mice, and birds, hence the common name, “Butcherbird”. Its head is large in proportion to the rest of its body, hence the name “Loggerhead”, which also means blockhead. Not a kind moniker for the little fellow trying to make a living on larger than average-sized prey for songbirds. Although it is technically classified as a member of the order, Passeriformes, to which all songbirds belong, its behavior mimics that of its larger, distantly related cousins, raptors.

Like a raptor, the shrike scans for food from perches. It kills by biting prey in back of neck, cutting the spinal cord. Because it lacks the strong feet and talons of a raptor necessary to hold down and tear its food, it uses thorns and barbed wire to hold large prey while it rips it up, and may wedge prey into a fork in a branch for the same purpose. In some cases, an individual will store, or cache, several carcasses for later consumption and, occasionally a cache cactus or barbed wire fence might be festooned with bodies. Like a raptor, it has a strongly hooked bill for gripping flesh. And, like a falcon it has a strong notch or "tooth" near the bill tip that helps sever the spinal cord of its prey.

Although these attributes sound like a recipe for success, the outlook for the total population is not rosy. Significant declines in this once abundant species have been documented across almost the entire United States since at least the 1970s. Scientific estimates place the total population somewhere between 2.9 and 4 million birds, down from about 10 million birds 40 years ago. This represents a population decline ranging between 60-70%.

In New Mexico, Loggerhead Shrike frequents open pinyon/juniper woodland and deciduous forest. Because they require large territories to adequately support themselves and their offspring (up to 7 per clutch), densities are low, and the bird might be difficult to locate. Keep an eye out on those mockingbirds that also have large white wing patches on their gray bodies. Perhaps you will be lucky and find one with a distinctive black face mask – that would be a Loggerhead Shrike.

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