I recently noticed a bird flying erratically around a spruce tree near our house. It was about the size of a robin, and it was bobbing and weaving, up, down, and around the tree. I soon realized that this bird was chasing a smaller, sparrow-sized bird. It was a shrike.
Shrikes are predatory birds that feed on insects, small mammals, and smaller birds. They prefer insects and mice, but in the winter small birds are more readily available.
Two species of shrikes can be seen in North Dakota and they are difficult to differentiate. North Dakota lies within the summer range of the loggerhead shrike, but it migrates south for the winter. The northern shrike summers across much of the northern boreal forest and also migrates south, but North Dakota is within its winter range. The Revised Checklist of North Dakota Birds lists the northern shrike as uncommon during the winter but does not reference the loggerhead. So, I’m guessing I saw a northern shrike.
I doubt most people are familiar with shrikes. They do not look like small hawks, so the casual observer certainly would not easily identify the shrike as a predator. Shrikes are grayish with a lighter breast. The wings are black with a white patch and the tail is also black with white margins. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature is a black mask that extends from the beak, through, and well beyond, the eye. The beak is not noticeably large and strong as you might expect, but if you can get a good look at it, it does have a hooked tip similar to that of hawks.
Shrikes are sometimes called “butcher birds,” a reference to their peculiar habit of impaling their prey on the spines of trees or perhaps barbed wire fences for later consumption. They may also impale their prey to help hold the prey in place while they eat it because they do not have talons or particularly strong feet.
If you are not familiar with shrikes, check out a bird book. They are not abundant in North Dakota, but if you are observant you will eventually see one. And if you see a mouse or small bird impaled on a thorn, you have a good idea how it got there.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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