Birds – Northern Shrike

(Lanius borealis)


Length—9.5 to 10.5 inches. About the size of the robin.

Male—Upper parts slate-gray; wing quills and tail black, edged and tipped with white, conspicuous in flight; a white spot on centre of outer wing feathers. A black band runs from bill, through eye to side of throat. Light gray below, tinged with brownish, and faintly marked with waving lines of darker gray. Bill hooked and hawk-like.

Female—With eye-band more obscure than male’s, and with more distinct brownish cast on her plumage. Range—Northern North America. South in winter to middle portion of United States.

Migrations—November. April. A roving winter resident.

“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 for 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—and an ogre whose victims are so many more than he can eat, that he actually keeps a private graveyard for the balance.” Who is honestly able to give the shrikes a better character than Dr. Coues, just quoted? A few offer them questionable defence by recording the large numbers of English sparrows they kill in a season, as if wanton carnage were ever justifiable.

Not even a hawk itself can produce the consternation among a flock of sparrows that the harsh, rasping voice of the butcher-bird creates, for escape they well know to be difficult before the small ogre swoops down upon his victim, and carries it off to impale it on a thorn or frozen twig, there to devour it later piecemeal. Every shrike thus either impales or else hangs up, as a butcher does his meat, more little birds of many kinds, field-mice, grasshoppers, and other large insects than it can hope to devour in a week of bloody orgies. Field-mice are perhaps its favorite diet, but even snakes are not disdained.

More contemptible than the actual slaughter of its victims, if possible, is the method by which the shrike often lures and sneaks upon his prey. Hiding in a clump of bushes in the meadow or garden, he imitates with fiendish cleverness the call-notes of little birds that come in cheerful response, hopping and flitting within easy range of him. His bloody work is finished in a trice. Usually, however, it must be owned, the shrike’s hunting habits are the reverse of sneaking. Perched on a point of vantage on some tree-top or weather-vane, his hawk-like eye can detect a grasshopper going through the grass .fifty yards away.

What is our surprise when some fine warm day in March, just before our butcher, ogre, sneak, and fiend leaves us for colder regions, to hear him break out into song ! Love has warmed even his cold heart, and with sweet, warbled notes on the tip of a beak that but yesterday was reeking with his victim’s blood, he starts for Canada, leaving behind him the only good impression he has made during a long winter’s visit.