Wild Thing: Butcher Bird
This songbird gets its name from the frightening way it stores food.
By Heidi K. Bailey
The first time I heard the name “butcher bird” it conjured up images of some sort of large raptor with sinister claws and a razor-sharp beak, ready to tear flesh from the bones of its unsuspecting prey. Who would’ve guessed that the bird the biologist was talking about was a songbird more likely to be mistaken for a northern mockingbird than some sort of hawk?
Butcher birds, more correctly called loggerhead shrikes, are hunters with a bizarre habit. They like to store insects, small mammals, reptiles, birds and other “prey of the day” by impaling them on sharp objects — hence the morbid nickname.
I saw loggerhead shrike calling cards long before I ever knew what made them. I was fixing fence on a ranch in East Texas and came across a large yellow grasshopper impaled on one of the barbs. I was mystified. Did the grasshopper make an unfortunate jump and not see the fence? Did some warped individual happen by here, catch the grasshopper and stick it on the fence? Yuck. I came across another impaled grasshopper, then another. Try as I might, I didn’t come up with an answer to the dead bug question that day or for many years to come.
Fast-forward to my early days with TPWD as a wildlife technician. I was helping one of the biologists take down boundary markers from one of our leased annual public hunting lands and came across a very small, nearly skeletonized frog impaled on the wire holding the sign to the post. Remembering the grasshoppers from years before, I asked the biologist what he thought might do such a thing. He told me about the loggerhead shrike’s nasty little habit of impaling insects and other prey on barbed wire, thorns, cactus spines and other sharp objects to save for later. He explained that not only was this a type of food storage, but that it was also a way for male shrikes to impress the females by showing off their hunting prowess.
There’s a third reason for this behavior as well.
“Loggerhead shrikes also do this to display to other shrikes that this territory is occupied,” says TPWD wildlife biologist Clifford Shackelford. “It’s like a sign that reads ‘No Vacancy.’”
Loggerhead shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus) are one of two shrike species found in Texas. Although they are found throughout the state and can be year-round residents, they typically call Texas home only during the colder months. Loggerheads prefer open and semi-open habitats, especially those with plenty of perches from which to swoop down on prey. They are mid-sized songbirds, and their coloration is similar to that of a mockingbird but with one notable difference — a black mask.
These “bandit birds” will drop from their hunting perch and dive on prey on the ground or in midair. They dispatch most food items with several well-placed bites from a hooked bill to the back of the neck of the prey to sever the backbone and spinal cord. Food is then eaten on site or carried off to be stashed for a rainy day, leaving yet another gruesome whodunit mystery.
See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Texas wildlife page