Bird of the Week: Northern Shrike
It's a cute little critter. It's also a TERRIFYING KILLING MACHINE. You've been warned.
Look at this week’s Bird of the Week, the northern shrike! What a cutie, right?
WRONG. WRONG. WRONG. This critter is actually a HARDCORE KILLING MACHINE. That’s right: the northern shrike is that exceedingly rare thing, a lovely little songbird that is also a savage carnivore. What is life!
The existence of the northern shrike was brought to our attention by two different Discourse Blog readers, Amelia H. and Jenny Bower, and boy am I glad that they got in touch because a carnivorous songbird is a combination that is just too wild to pass up. A warning: some aspects of this blog are going to get a little grim, because the northern shrike does not mess around when it comes to killing and eating stuff. And I really, really, really, really, really mean that. Just wait, this shit gets insane.
Let’s ease into things a little gently though, with another picture. It really is a striking bird to look at, and it’s just 8-10 inches long.
OK, that didn’t really work did it? The shrike is literally perched on barbed wire, and its sleek form, super-alert eyes, and curved beak all say one thing: stay out of my way. There are 33 species of shrike in the world, but the northern shrike is one of just two that you can find in North America. It makes its home at various times of the year across Canada, in Alaska, and down into the lower 48, though it sticks mostly to the northern half of the U.S. (The other North American shrike, the loggerhead, occupies the southern half. Probably best those two don’t join up!)
Despite the shrike’s killing tendencies, it is still a songbird and a member of the passerine family, like a previous Bird of the Week, the house finch. And like its fellow passerines, the shrike sings—quite nicely too!
That, however, is where the pleasantries end. Everything about this bird has programmed it to kill, and kill mercilessly.
That hooked upper beak, visible from a distance, features a fang-like growth known as a “tomial tooth.” This feature, also present in falcons like the peregrine, seems to allow beaks to penetrate the space between tiny vertebrae and shove bones apart. This allows shrikes to quickly disable the nervous system of voles and birds, the lives of which it ends by violent shaking.
Yes, you read that correctly. This small songbird is equipped with a falcon-like beak so that it can dismantle the skeletons of its victims, paralyze them and kill them. I mean…>!>!>!>!>!>!?!?!?!
The American Bird Conservancy calls this bloodthirstiness an example of “convergent evolution,” when two species independently evolve in similar ways. Why does the shrike have raptor-like features? It just happened that way. It needed to kill, and nature found a solution that it also handed to other birds. Natural selection is crazy as hell.
And yes, you also read that this small songbird kills other birds. And not just other birds. It’s not picky. From Cornell University’s All About Birds site:
Prey include caterpillars, grasshoppers, ants, wasps, bees, flies, beetles, and many species of bird and small mammal, especially mice, shrews, voles, and lemmings. Before eating bees or wasps, shrikes usually remove the stinger, and for most large insects, they remove wings and larger legs and often soften the animal by manipulating it in the bill or beating it against a perch before consuming.
Like, holy moly.
Shrikes are very skilled hunters. They often like to perch somewhere where they can get a good look at what’s available, and then strike. But they do about a million other things too. Back to All About Birds:
[…]Northern Shrikes also hunt from concealed perches, waiting for songbirds such as warblers or sparrows to come close, then ambushing them in treetops or in dense cover (as Sharp-shinned Hawks do) or driving them to the ground. They may hunt by hopping through bushes, attempting to flush birds that are roosting in dense cover, and they use their white wing patch much as a Northern Mockingbird does, flicking open the wings to startle insects into moving. They sometimes feed on the ground, searching for insects and mammals while hopping through uneven terrain or brush.
This bird is FUCKED UP. It is just sitting around constantly trying to find new ways of killing stuff!
But that is not the end of it. Warning, this gets more nuts!
OK, now to the most extreme, most gnarly, most oh-my-god-are-you-serious part of this whole shrike saga. Shrikes excel at the hunt like raptors or eagles of falcons do, but they are still itty bitty, and they don’t have the powerful talons that allow those bigger birds to tear into their food.
And so instead—and I am not making this up—the shrikes impale the bodies of their prey onto thorns or even onto barbed wire. Yeah. Then they either dig in or store the bodies on their spikes for later. (This also allows the toxins from some of the more dangerous creatures they like to eat to drain away.)
Still with me? OK, let’s continue. This is why one nickname for the shrike is “butcherbird.” Go to Alaska and watch the northern shrike and you will just see it jamming a vole or a spider or even another little bird onto a thorn, and tearing into it. This is real!
Here is a video from National Geographic about shrikes and how they kill. Warning: this video is a) full of scenes of little animals getting impaled on things and b) saddled with very goofy production values. But it gets the point across.
And there you have it. The northern shrike. May it never approach you. I’m going to give the last word to 19th-century ornithologist Elliott Coues, who wrote this about the shrike (my thanks to Jenny Bower for passing this quote along):
Matching the bravest of the brave among birds of prey in deeds of daring, and no less relentless than reckless, the Shrike compels that sort of deference, not unmixed with indignation, we are accustomed to accord to creatures of seeming insignificance, whose exploits demand much strength, great spirit, and insatiate love of carnage. We cannot be indifferent to the marauder who takes his own wherever he finds it—a feudal baron who holds his own with undisputed sway—an ogre whose victims are so many more than he can eat, that he actually keeps a private graveyard for the balance.
What he said. Until next time!