The Loggerhead Shrike, Arizona’s Butcher Bird

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

By William LeRoy

If you are fortunate enough to live in Arizona year-round (like the loggerhead shrike), then there’s a good chance you’ll be able to observe these amazing birds in their natural habitat. Given the fact that we are talking about a very efficient predator, if you have bird feeders, then your chances of spotting one of these increases exponentially. The loggerhead shrike is a songbird with a raptor’s habits. Found in grasslands and other open habitats throughout much of North America, this predator hunts from utility poles, fence posts, and other conspicuous perches, preying on insects, birds, lizards, and small mammals. Lacking a raptor’s talons, loggerhead shrikes skewer their kills on thorns or barbed wire or wedge them into tight places for easy eating. Unfortunately, their numbers have dropped sharply in the last half-century.

Identification

Loggerhead shrikes are thick-bodied songbirds. They have a large, blocky head and a thick bill with a small hook. The tail is fairly long and rounded. The loggerhead shrike is a gray bird with a black mask and white flashes in the black wings. The gray head contrasts with the wide black mask, black bill, and white throat. The tail is black with white corners; the wings are black with white at the base of the primaries that form a small “handkerchief” spot when the wing is closed and larger white patches in flight. Juveniles have darker barring above and below.            

Behavior & Habitat

If you live in north Scottsdale, Cave Creek, Carefree, or the Rio Verde Foothills, you have a very good chance of spotting one of these birds. They sit on low, exposed perches and scan for rodents, lizards, birds, and insects. They eat smaller prey (such as ground beetles) right away, but they are famous for impaling larger prey on thorns or barbed wire to be eaten later. The species often hovers. When flying, it uses bursts of very rapid wing beats. Open country with scattered shrubs and trees is the typical habitat, but the species can also be found in more heavily wooded habitats with large openings and in very short habitats with few or no trees.        

What’s for Dinner?             Loggerhead shrikes eat insects and other arthropods, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and birds; they also sometimes feed on road kill and carrion. Their staple foods include agricultural pests such as grasshoppers, beetles, and rodents. Insects generally dominate the loggerhead shrike’s diet during breeding season, while winter brings a greater reliance on vertebrate prey. These include lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, sparrows, goldfinches, ground squirrels, voles, mice, and shrews, to name just a few.            

Nesting             Both sexes gather material. The female usually constructs the nest on her own over a period of about 6–11 days. The bulky, well-insulated open cup is neatly woven of rootlets, twigs, forbs, and barks strips and lined inside with soft material such as flowers, lichen, grass, moss, feathers, fur, string, or cloth. The nest is about six inches in diameter on the outside, with an interior diameter of about four inches; the cup is about three inches deep. Eggs are grayish buff, marked with gray to yellowish-brown, and the clutch size is usually five to six.        

Interesting Facts             A loggerhead shrike can kill and carry an animal as massive as itself. It transports large prey in its feet and smaller victims in its beak. The upper cutting edge of the loggerhead shrike’s hooked bill features a pair of built-in pointy projections, aptly named “tomial teeth.” Like a falcon, the shrike tackles vertebrate prey with a precise attack to the nape, probably using these tomial “teeth” to paralyze the animal with a jab to the spinal cord.

  1. Loggerhead shrikes impale noxious prey such as monarch butterflies and eastern narrow-mouthed toads, then wait for up to three days to eat them, which allows time for the poisons to break down. These shrikes also eat the heads and abdomens of toxic lubber grasshoppers, while discarding the insect’s poisonous thorax.
  2. Loggerhead shrikes sometimes go hunting on cold mornings when insect prey is immobilized by low temperatures.
  3. “Loggerhead,” a synonym for “blockhead,” refers to the unusually large size of this bird’s head in relation to its body.
  4. The longest-lived loggerhead shrike on record, a male, was at least 11 years, and just 9 months old when it was caught and released in 2010 by researchers in California.

     

 

About Wild At Heart       Wild At Heart is an all-volunteer organization which is dedicated to the conservation and preservation of Arizona’s native wildlife. At Wild At Heart we rescue, rehabilitate, and release birds of prey which have been injured or orphaned, relocate displaced burrowing owls, manage species recovery programs, manage habitat enhancement projects, and provide educational presentations. Each year, Wild At Heart rescues and cares for approximately 400 owls, hawks, and falcons, and some years, as many as 600 raptors have been cared for in the facility. Every single dollar donated goes toward the rescue, rehabilitation, care, and release of our amazing Arizona birds of prey.       Wild At Heart is an all-volunteer non-profit 501(c) 3 organization. Support for Wild At Heart comes from generous members of the community who are concerned about our ever-decreasing wildlife habitats.|       Please send your tax-deductible donations to Wild At Heart at 31840 N. 45th Street, Cave Creek, Arizona 85331. For additional information regarding how you can support Wild At Heart, please visit wildatheartowls.org.

Author: William LeRoy

William Leroy has volunteered at Wild At Heart for many years. He has participated in many raptor rescues. His column, “On the Wildside,” which he writes on behalf of Wild At Heart, has been published in The Peak for more than a decade.

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