Nature’s rule Breaker

This is how it got the nickname of “butcher bird.

I love the rule breaking critters of the world. You know, the ones that don’t follow the rules that we people put forth for the animal kingdom. A good example of this is the Virginia Opossum, which doesn’t reproduce in the standard mammalian way. It’s a marsupial that raises its young in a pouch instead of a womb. The Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor) is also a great example of a critter going against the grain. These songbirds don’t act like passive backyard birds, gladly singing their beautiful songs. No, they are killers and proud of it.

Some winters bring an abundance of Northern Shrikes down from Alaska and northwest Canada in search of food. Shrikes are usually a solitary bird, often seen perched on top of a tall shrub, small tree or hedgerow. They are slightly smaller than the familiar blue jay. In nearly all ways, they look like your typical backyard songbird. Their black mask and long, hooked bill might be the only give-away that these birds are unlike other song birds.

Perched shrikes are looking for something to eat, and I don’t mean sunflower seeds or berries. No, they are carnivorous and insectivorous birds, which means they make a living hunting and eating other birds, small mammals and large insects.

Unlike hawks, owls and eagles, which have large and powerful feet, the shrikes have tiny, songbird feet, which are only good for perching on small twigs and branches. They use their long, thick and hooked bill for catching and killing. They will chase smaller birds such as chickadees, goldfinches and juncos, in a dash for life. If they can catch the bird, they grab it by the scruff of the neck and haul it to a nearby branch, where they use their powerful bill to flail the prey against the hard surface of the branch, killing it.

It also hunts small rodents such as mice, voles and shrews. One time, I watched a shrike fly from the top of a spruce tree to a small opening in the snow at the base of a tree and snatch up a red-backed vole. It tossed the vole into the air over and over in a very violent manor until the vole was dead. It flew just a few feet up into the tree and draped the dead body over a branch. Once again, it dove back to the same spot and grabbed a second vole, repeating the process over again. A third time, it flew to the ground grabbing and killing, but this time flew off with the prey. It clearly had a hard time carrying the heavy payload, remaining close to the ground as it flew.

Because its feet are so small, the shrike will often impale its prey on a sharp thorn, or the points on a barbed wire fence. Once secured, it will tear up the prey, eating all parts. The bloody remains are a clue of an active shrike in the area. This is how it got the nickname of “butcher bird.”

So, if you happen to see a large gray bird with a black mask lurking around your backyard bird feeding station, you are seeing one of nature’s great rule breakers-the shrike. Until next time...

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U. S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on and He can be contacted via his web page at




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