Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike 

Northern Shrike, Lanius excubitor

Be on the look out for this bird. I think they look a lot like the Gray Jay especially from a distance. But upon closer inspection you will find that they have a hooked beak. They have a white rump and will sometimes look like a Flicker as they fly away.  

There are two species of Shrike that occur in Minnesota: the Northern and the Loggerhead. The Loggerhead Shrike would be the Shrike that you would see in the summer, but normally their range is in central and southern Minnesota, and they migrate to the southern US in the winter. The Shrike that we would most likely see in the Crane Lake area would be the NORTHERN SHRIKE and they generally are seen around here in the fall and winter. The way to tell the difference between these two very similar birds is that the Northern Shrike has faint barring on its’ breast.

The Shrike is a bird that ornithologists have a hard time classifying taxonomically. Shrikes act like Hawks in that their diet consists of small birds, reptiles, large insects, and small mammals. But, they don’t have the talons that Raptors use to kill their prey. Shrikes do, however, have strong beaks with a hook on the end that they use to rip their prey apart in order to eat it. Shrikes are in the section of the bird book where the songbirds begin and are not classified with the Raptors. They are referred to as predatory songbirds.

The particular bird that is in the above photo had the unfortunate accident of crashing into one of my windows. I took advantage of his stunned condition to take several photos. He quickly recovered and perched in a birch tree not far from my window. This is when the real drama took place. During the time that he was recovering from the window strike a Hairy Woodpecker came in and proceeded to attack the Shrike! He pecked the Shrike several times in the chest (if you’ve ever held a woodpecker in your hand, you know that they can peck very, very hard, just ask my Dad!). During this time several Blue Jays came in to watch the show, I was freaking out and struggling with myself as to if I should scare the Hairy Woodpecker away? And then I remembered this was a Shrike for goodness sake! They eat little birds for a living! Eventually the Woodpecker left and the Shrike recovered as well and flew away scattering Chickadees in his wake. Since this incident happened, I have read that Shrikes will roost by trees that contain Woodpecker nest holes and wait for the Woodpecker or a nestling to peek their head out. They will then attack the Woodpecker and their nestlings. This particular Hairy Woodpecker must have remembered that and took advantage of the situation to assault the Shrike.

I had a neighbor call me a couple winter’s ago to tell me that a Shrike had just come into his feeders and killed a Pine Grosbeak. I was very interested in this and asked him specifically how the Shrike had managed to kill a big songbird like the Pine Grosbeak. He said the Shrike had just flown in and struck the Grosbeak with its beak and the Pine Grosbeak had instantly died. The Shrike then carried it off.

Since the Shrike doesn’t have the strong feet and legs and talons of a Hawk, they use tools to help them rip apart flesh. People have reported that the Shrike will use barbed wire fences to impale their prey in order to rip it apart. They’ll also use thorns and other similar things to impale birds for this purpose. It is for this reason that they are known as the “Butcher Bird”. Be on the look out for this interesting bird and the next time your feeder birds quickly scatter from the birdfeeder, maybe a Shrike has flown into the area.



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