Nature Bulletin No. 312-A September 14, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Once in a while, here in the Middle West, we farm boys used to see a
peculiar bird, always alone, perched on a telephone pole or at the top of
a small tree in a hedgerow. n was about the size of a robin but chunkier,
with shorter legs, a bigger head, and a hooked beak like that of a hawk.
Instead of powerful talons, however, it had feet like a songbird. It had a
gray back, white underparts, black wings and tail with white markings,
and a black stripe that extended along the sides of its head, through the
eyes, and across the forehead .
This was the Migrant Shrike which, because of that sinister black mask
and its habit of killing so much more than it ate, we called it "the
Butcher Bird". We found caterpillars, large beetles, cicadas, crickets,
baby snakes, frogs, field mice, lots of grasshoppers and occasionally a
sparrow or other small bird, which the shrike had eaten only partially or
not at all. Some of these were merely wedged in crotches but usually
they were impaled upon a thorn of such trees as sage orange, hawthorn
and honey locust, or upon a barbed wire. We watched a shrike dart
from its perch, like an arrow, to pursue and seize such prey, then carry
it to some thorny tree. Mice and birds are killed by vicious blows at the
base of their skulls but apparently, because of its weak feet, this bird
must fix its food upon a thorn, or in a crotch, in order to tear it apart.
The migrant shrike nests in most of our middle western and
northeastern states but is nowhere abundant. They usually arrive during
the latter part of April and leave during July or August. The nest is a
deep bulky affair of small twigs, weed stems and grasses, thickly lined
with plant down, feathers or wool and located from 2 to 2 0 feet up in
the center of thorny trees, hedges or thickets.
The Loggerhead Shrike of our southeastern and gulf states is more
abundant, especially in Florida. Its coloring is the same as that of the
migrant shrike but its bill is larger and its tail longer. Its habits and food
are the same and its song, in common with all our shrikes, sounds like a
very poor, very harsh imitation of a catbird or a brown thrasher:
squeaky whistles, gurgles and mews, jumbled-up with fairly melodious
trills and notes resembling the calls of other birds. There are also three
western races of logger-head shrikes.
The Northern Shrike nests from southern Canada to the northern limit
of trees. In late autumn a few wander south into our northern states but
about every fourth year, when mice are scarce in Canada, this species is
found here in greater numbers and more widely distributed. It differs
from the migrant shrike in that the black mask does not extend across
the forehead, its underparts are marked with fine wavy gray lines, and it
is about an inch longer. It kills more birds, larger birds, and seems more
savage -- probably because there are no insects in winter and mice are
hard to find.
This is the shrike that John Burghs called "a feathered assassin" and
denounced as a "Bluebeard among songbirds", that conceals "the
character of a murderer under a form as innocent as that of a robin.
Thoreau, because this shrike is one of the few birds that sings in
midwinter, speaks of it as "perching now on winter's curls" and
"heedless and unfrozen melody bringing back summer again..
Thoreau was not a sparrow.
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Update: June 2012