Many years ago on a late summer day, I watched a curious-looking bird hovering above the dead grass alongside a woodland that I had departed.
Gray in plumage and about the size of a robin, the bird surprised me when it abruptly plummeted to the ground and disappeared into the tall vegetation. I stood still a few moments, wondering what would happen next.
I soon found out, for the bird emerged, flying, but now had something gripped in its beak. To my astonishment, the bird had a lifeless vole by the scruff of the neck and was laboring hard to remain airborne while negotiating the dense shrubbery.
When it at last alighted onto a branch of a nearby hawthorn tree, I watched the bird struggle to secure the dead rodent within the thorny twigs. Soon it had completed the task and began plucking flesh and fur from its prey.
What I had just witnessed was the behavior that makes this amazing songbird unique. The bird has weak feet and legs with no talons, yet it successfully hunts and kills insects, frogs, snakes, birds and small rodents. Sometimes called by its nickname, "butcher bird", I prefer to call it by its real name: shrike.
I'm not sure which species of shrike I saw that day; Minnesota is home to two species. My bird was more than likely a northern shrike (Lanius excubitor). The other species of shrike, the loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), is much rarer. Nevertheless, since northern shrikes typically only appear in Minnesota during the winter months, and loggerheads show up here in the summer, then perhaps I did observe a loggerhead shrike.
A few years ago, I wrote about a spectacular shrike experience that my son and I shared while we sat together in a November deer stand.
In the late afternoon of the opening weekend of firearms deer hunting season, we were stunned by the site of a northern shrike forcing a downy woodpecker to the ground. Both birds had only seconds earlier appeared in the small clearing before us, each bird flying at full speed -- the shrike chasing the downy.
It didn't take long for the much larger and stronger shrike to overpower the woodpecker; both birds were quickly on the ground, with the shrike standing on top of the downy as the hapless victim screeched in alarm. Quickly, the shrike struck twice with its beak at a spot on the back of the woodpecker's neck. After that, all was quiet. The shrike had made its kill right before our eyes.
Northern shrikes are larger than loggerheads and have longer and more hooked bills than do loggerheads. The bills of these two species of shrikes are the only features resembling that of raptors; birds we typically think of when birds of prey are mentioned.
Shrikes are non-dimorphic; that is, both sexes look alike. Furthermore, both loggerhead and northern shrikes have similar markings. The adults of the two species sport solid black masks across their eyes that extend along the sides of the head, are grayish in overall color, have black tails and share similarly patterned dark wings with white wing patches that are visible when in flight.
The rare loggerhead shrike prefers grassland habitats, of which very little remain in Minnesota. It is the primary reason their presence is so limited. Loggerheads in Minnesota are likely to be found in western counties as well as Goodhue, Rice and Dakota counties. Loss of habitat from farming practices, development and encroachment of trees onto grasslands are just a few of the possible reasons affecting loggerhead abundance.
Loggerhead shrikes acquired their unusual name because, relative to their body size, they have large heads. Hence, loggerhead. Northern shrikes are named as such because of where they spend their summers. These shrikes migrate to the Canadian Yukon and Northwest Territories, northern Quebec and central Labrador, as well as Alaska, to raise their broods every year. Winters are spent in Minnesota and other northern-tier states.
Shrikes are independent birds that prefer hunting alone. Scanning the ground for prey from the limbs of trees, shrikes will suddenly dive and fly above the vegetation as they prepare to attack.
Prey is captured by dropping on top of the quarry. Shrikes feed on a wide variety of animal matter, including beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, wasps, crickets and other invertebrates. However, the majority of their diet, particularly in the winter for northern shrikes, is larger prey such as mice, voles, lemmings and birds.
Since shrikes cannot securely grip their prey like owls, eagles, hawks and falcons can do with their talons, shrikes will commonly impale or wedge their food onto the thorns of woody and herbaceous plants, on the barbs of barbed-wire fencing or into the cracks of branches and bark. Their hooked bills do the rest of the work as they tear off small bits to swallow. Like owls, shrikes regurgitate tiny pellets of undigested parts such as hair, exoskeletons of insects and bones.
Indeed, shrikes are among the most fascinating birds. Looking at them, one would never guess them to be the hunter they are. A mid-size bird, more raptor than songbird, searching for shrikes is yet another reason to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org