Like robins and orioles, warblers and sparrows, shrikes are classified as song birds. Their most common notes are harsh and grating. They do have a song, however, but like many sparrows and some other song birds it isn’t much of a song. In “Birds of America,” the song of a loggerhead shrike is described as a “series of squeaky whistles, strangling gurgles, and high-pitched pipings.”
Shrikes, though not classified as such, are also predators. They kill and eat large insects such as grasshoppers and beetles and larger insect larvae such as caterpillars. They kill and eat spiders, small frogs and snakes, small birds and mammals.
Other predators, eagles, hawks and owls kill their prey with their feet and talons. But the feet of shrikes are no stronger, the talons no longer than those of robins, certainly not strong enough to kill mice and small birds. A shrike kills with its bill, biting the back of the prey’s neck, cutting its spinal cord.
As for the name butcher bird, after making a kill a shrike often flies with its victim to a thorn tree or barbed wire fence and hangs its catch, impales it on a thorn or barb. It may then tear off pieces and feed or leave the prey hanging and return later to feed. It may do this to cache the food, to store it, or it may be using thorns or barbs to hold its food because its feet are too weak to hold it when it tears off pieces. For whatever reason, hanging meat and taking off pieces is like a butcher.
The loggerhead shrike is most common in the southern states of the U.S. but its year-round range extends north into southern Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Washington, its winter range is approximately the southern half of the U.S. In “Birds of America,” the loggerhead shrike is described as “the common shrike of the southeastern States, and over wide regions of its range it is a very abundant species.” The northern shrike, as its name says, nests in the north, in northern Canada, and winters in southern Canada and the northern states of the U.S.
Shrikes, when they are present, are conspicuous birds, not from their colors but from their habits. They perch in the open, on a power line or the top of a fence, and wait until they see a potential victim. Then they swoop down, fly low to the ground, overtake, then drop to the back of their prey.
I haven’t seen a butcher bird, a shrike, in Indiana in years. I haven’t seen one often on our trips south in recent years. Like meadowlarks and bobolinks, Savannah and grasshopper and vesper sparrows and other birds of the open fields, shrikes have declined greatly. It’s not surprising, when I think about it, that my friends hadn’t heard about a shrike.