.......and Reflections

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Northern Shrike : a butcher-bird

In North America there are two species of Shrikes. The Loggerhead Shrike is a southern resident and Northern Shrike breeds in northern boreal areas. They are cool birds. Loggerheads are more common and a nearly extirpated breeder in Ohio. Northern Shrikes are rare and local winter visitors from November to March.

I have always liked shrikes. They are solitary birds that are just uncommon enough to always be a great find. Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area is known to harbor winter Northern Shrikes with it's rich and diverse open areas and plenty of perches around from which this bird loves to hunt from.

Shrikes are by every standard a successful and efficient predator. They can fly-catch, hover and ounce on insects and small birds relying on speed and stealth for a successful catch. Shrikes, like jays are hoarders. Jays stash or cache nuts and shrikes impale their victims on thorns, barbed wire or pointed sharp twigs. It is common in Texas to find grasshoppers impaled on the tips of the yucca leaves. Friends of mine documented a Golden-crowned Kinglet wedged in the crotch of two tree branches by a Northern Shrike.

I have not found the Northern Shrike in the ideal expanses of Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area until about a week ago. After several visits to adjacent grassy and old-field areas I have finally gotten some photographs. Recently, I found this bird perched at the top of a tree near the road. In the process of getting pictures the bird continued to sing musical notes repeated like a mockingbird (perhaps a soft "practice song") that ended with 3 loud, sharp, raspy calls followed by flight to another high prominent perch. It was a pretty song. It certainly didn't sound like a fearsome predator or an animal known as "a butcher bird".

Northern Shrike, Lanius excubitor was named by Linnaeus for the same species in Europe, the Great Gray Shrike. The genus name lanius means "a butcher" and excubitor further describes the bird (according to Linnaeus) "It looks out for the approach of hawks and warns little birds". It seems that the genus and species names are contradictory.

In our modern world the term "butcher" has been applied to both real and perceived monsters of both historic and science fiction characters. Surely the name reflects this diabolical hoarding practice. But the musical song and the recognition of alerting smaller birds just doesn't fit the mold.

It turns out that the term "butcher bird" is not at all judgemental but simply descriptive. You see, in 1544, long before America was even known, scientists gave the bird a name borrowed from the place almost everyone in the day could relate to: the market. The fellow that prepared the meat for purchase did so in a process. The early stage of carving meat was the sectioning the animal carcass and hanging sections on hooks where they remained until further processing. Butchers hang food on hooks and so do shrikes.

I love the middle of nowhere. The more you see, the more you wonder. And wonder leads to research, and research results in learning. The Northern Shrike is a wonderful bird with a wonderful song, and a wonderful life history. It was a wonderful experience, indeed.

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