Tuesday, January 8, 2013


We are all familiar with hawks and owls, raptorial birds with strong feet and long, curved talons for capturing and carrying prey and a strong, sharp-edged, hooked bill for tearing that prey into bite-sized morsels.

But there is another group of common birds that are just as predatory, although with somewhat different anatomy. These are the shrikes. Shrikes are members of the perching bird order Passeriformes, and although that order is full of insect eaters (shrikes do this), it's not so full of birds that eat small vertebrates such as lizards, songbirds and rodents (shrikes do this too).

Loggerhead Shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus) are widespread breeders in interior sagebrush habitats in the Pacific Northwest. With us only in the summer, they feed primarily on large insects such as grasshoppers and beetles, but they also eat small vertebrates whenever they can capture them, including voles and birds right up to their own size.

Northern Shrikes (Lanius excubitor) breed in the boreal forest and drop down to the PNW in the winter. They are more widespread than Loggerheads, occurring throughout the region in open country. Although they take many insects on their breeding grounds, Northerns are bird and mammal eaters in the winter. Voles are among their most common prey, but they will chase and capture small birds of any sort.

Shrikes have typical perching-bird feet, not raptorial, and they don't capture or kill their prey with their feet, but they do use their feet to carry prey, especially heavy items and even up to their own weight; otherwise prey is carried in their bill.

Although not just like a hawk's, the bill is strong and hooked at the end. It has a pair of toothlike structures near the tip of the upper mandible (tomial teeth) that are important in prey-killing. The shrike bites a vertebrate just behind the head, and the "teeth" apparently sever or injure the spinal cord sufficiently to kill or paralyze the prey, which then cannot struggle and possibly injure the predator.

Not having feet to hold a prey animal down while tearing pieces of flesh off, shrikes have evolved a substitute. They carry their prey to something on which they can position it. In nature, this would involve impaling on thorns or hanging from crotches where two branches diverge. They can then begin to dismember the prey.

Having evolved this behavior and often taking prey much too large to be eaten in one session, shrikes further evolved the behavior of leaving the prey hanging and returning later to eat some more. Wherever shrikes occur, such prey are liable to be found. Nowadays, we can watch for shrike prey caches on barbed-wire fences!

Dennis Paulson

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