Brainerd, Minn. – Don’t be fooled by its robin-like size — the northern shrike is a songbird that kills for a living.
If that’s not odd enough, instead of using powerful feet and needle-sharp talons to subdue its quarry, as hawks and other birds of prey do, the northern shrike employs its strong, hawklike beak in lethal ways.
What’s more, shrikes are also known for impaling their prey on a thorn, stick, or barbed wire fence, much like a butcher hangs a slab of beef. There is a reason it is often referred to as the butcher bird. Often a shrike kills more than it can eat and will cache its prey by hanging it. On lean days it feeds from its larder.
A shrike kills by biting through the neck or by repeated blows to the head with its powerful beak. A shrike doesn’t have long, sharp talons and muscular feet to hold its kill while it eats. Impaling prey allows the shrike to readily dismember it into bite-sized pieces
Northern shrikes are cautious birds and usually don’t allow humans a close approach. I only had a few distant photos of the birds after many attempts because they are so wary. But my luck changed a few years ago.
On a cold and clear January morning, I had a ringside seat and was able to watch a northern shrike capture and kill a vole. The shrike then flew to a low branch where it neatly prepared a rodent shish kebab on a pointed stick.
I was disappointed when the shrike flew away, but I assumed the bird would soon revisit its meal. Sure enough, within a few minutes the hungry predator returned and landed on its prey. I photographed the shrike as, unperturbed, it ate the vole.
I have seen shrikes kill a number of birds and small mammals over the years, and on numerous occasions I’ve found their prey hanging from shrubs and fences. But since that encounter I have been unable to repeat that memorable experience.
Finding a shrike
So how does one find a shrike?
The coloring is prominently gray. Northern shrikes also have black tails and wingtips, and they have a bandit-like black mask through the eye. Their flight is fast and undulating, similar to members of the woodpecker family.
Northern shrikes visit Minnesota and the northern tier of states only during winter. They nest in the boreal forest and tundra regions of Canada and Alaska, so now is the best time to see them.
Northern shrikes are not common, but a shrewd observer traveling the back roads of Minnesota during winter can spot several in a day because of the birds’ habit of hunting in open country. Typically, northern shrikes search for prey from prominent perches such as power lines, fence posts or treetops. They sometimes hover in the air, watching for a meal on the ground. Look for shrikes around marshy lowlands such as willow and alder swamps and bogs. As a rule they are solitary during winter.
Shrikes often hunt near backyard bird feeders, especially in rural areas. Last week I had a shrike in my yard for a few days. I knew a shrike was nearby before I saw it because all the small birds such as chickadees and nuthatches either disappeared or sat perfectly still, afraid to move, until the shrike left.
Grab the binoculars and head out to look for the butcher bird.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at email@example.com.