Bird on a Blade


Turkey Vulture ~ January 5

I rarely visit the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge without finding a bird or two perched on the old windmill that stands near the Big Slough. Turkey vultures seem fond of the spot, although black vultures and an occasional hawk will pause there as well.

On February 7, I noticed a different species had taken up residence. A Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) was using the windmill’s vane to scan for the insects, lizards, and small mammals that make up the bulk of its diet.

Shrikes are part of the songbird family, although they behave more like raptors. A sharp, falcon-like hook in their beak allows them to attack and capture prey, but they lack the talons and strong feet of hawks and owls. Unable to hold their prey while eating, as raptors do, shrikes carry their meal to a thorn bush, cactus, or barbed wire fence, where they impale it in order to dine at leisure, or store it for later consumption. 

Their propensity for impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire has earned them the name ‘butcher bird, and their ‘larders’ are sure signs of a shrike’s presence. Because they prefer open areas with short vegetation and plenty of vantage points from which to watch for prey, a windmill vane or blade suits them perfectly.

While I watched, this shrike moved from the windmill’s vane to the top of its blades, and scanned the ground below. Every minute or two, it made another dive to the ground: sometimes returning directly to the blade, and sometimes flying off into surrounding grasses before coming back to perch.

Since I never saw it eating, it may be that it was filling up its larder. Given the extraordinary cold, freezing rain, snow, and sleet that we’ll have for the next week, I hope it’s well-supplied.


Comments always are welcome.

51 thoughts on “Bird on a Blade

    1. Have you shown that painting on your blog? It feels familiar, and I remember that you did show some of your art. Windmills make great perches for all sorts of species. I saw a kestrel once, but I didn’t know it was a kestrel at the time.

      1. The Shrike and Kestrel (such incredibly gorgeous little killers, aren’t they?) are both birds I had seen here, but neither for many years now. The Shrike used to hunt in the meadow next door when it was still wild and house less and I was amazed to catch him eating (a mouse?) which it had skewered on a Hawthorn spike. The Kestrel I met while driving on the lakeshore road and we were quite suddenly, literally eye-to-eye as I rounded a bend in the road where he’d perched on a fence post to look for dinner… Guessing he was either having no luck or was up for a bit of company; as he flew alongside me for a couple of post-lengths, glancing in my direction as we flew, before settling on the next to resume his the search. It is still one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced!

    1. I like windmills, too: old, new, working, or not. It doesn’t make any difference. If they are working and have a group of cattle around them, that’s even better, but a bird or two will do. The ones I really like are the old wooden ones. They’re getting rare, but they’re fun to find.

    1. We both have shrikes, but it looks as though our species are different. We have the Loggerhead, which don’t range as far as Maine, while you have the Northern Shrike, which doesn’t come down here. The behavior of both is the same, though. They’re interesting birds.

      And, yes. The weather is going to be Maine-ish. Here on the coast, we’ll not go sub-zero, but it’s going to be common to have temperatures low enough — in the teens and single digits — to freeze pipes. We’re not built for this kind of cold, and with icing? There goes the power, and me with no fireplace! Fudge sounds like a very good idea, indeed.

  1. There was a shrike nest in a low shrub in a small highway rest area north of Marathon, TX, where I live. Each morning I would ride my bike to the rest area, then turn around and ride home. It was always interesting to inspect the barbed wire fence which ran within 6 feet of the nest to see the collection of lizard heads impaled on the barbs each morning. I’ve counted as many as 35 heads hanging on that fence. Very macabre critters, shrikes!

    1. There’s nothing like a well-stocked pantry. What’s interesting is that only the heads were lined up. It raises a question: did the shrikes eat the rest of the lizard, and the heads were left-overs? I suspect that’s so, although it amuses me to consider another option: that the heads are the tastiest part, and they saved them for dessert.

  2. The rusty blades of the windmill would not be my favourite place to perch on but all to their own. I suppose it gives a nice view and possibly handy to spot any food down below to scoop upon.

    Looking at the sweet countenance of the birds who could possibly envisage 35 lizard heads impaled on a barbed fence? Shrike yike!!

    Ah, mother nature works wonders.
    Great photos, Linda.

    1. One reason the windmill may have become more appealing is that the refuge managers recently mowed a fairly large section around it and a large tank that sits next to it. When the ground was covered in three foot tall grasses, it would have been hard for a shrike to spot smaller prey, but now that there’s open ground, it’s easy to see whatever happens to be moving about.

      Many years ago, I confused the first shrike I saw with a mockingbird. Then, I saw that it had something in its beak. When I realized it had plucked a nestling from its home, I knew it wasn’t a mockingbird. Mockingbirds like berries, not baby birds. Yikes, indeed.

    1. I’ve seen shrikes at the refuge before, but always on gray, cloudy days with dim light and away-facing birds. I was thrilled to find this one on such a pretty day, and to be able to observe its hunting behavior over a period of time.

  3. Terrific shots, Linda. As fascinating as the murderous little shrike may be, I like the shot of the turkey vulture the best. I also find myself in the unusual position this morning of being glad I’m not a lizard.

    1. Thanks! Everyone has a place on the food chain, but the lizards seem to appeal to a remarkable variety of other creatures.

      Personally, I like vultures. They not only do a fine job of keeping the neighborhood tidy, their personalities seem interesting. They’re not exactly cute, but they’re more willing to be observed than other birds. For a photographer, a bird that prefers to perch in the open is always a good thing.

  4. Shrikes are interesting birds in so many ways. We have Northern Shrike with us during the winter and a very small number of the eastern race of Loggerhead Shrike spring through fall. They favour limestone alvars and we have to travel if we wish to see them, and that is far from a sure thing. There are less than a dozen breeding pairs in the entire province. As for Northern Shrike, one has claimed a territory each winter not more than five minutes from my house, for at least fifteen years; not the same bird of course, but the desirable space is never left unoccupied.

    1. ‘Alvar’ was a new word for me. It was interesting to learn that it’s a Swedish word, and that half of the remaining alvars in the world are in Ontario. The photos reminded me of exposed limestone in our hill country, although there are obvious (and not so obvious) differences.

      Isn’t it interesting how the same birds — or their descendents — will return to a given place year after year? I watched it at my previous apartment, with bluejays. Once a breeding pair became accustomed to finding peanuts in the shell on my balcony, they became regular visitors. Then, they brought their young with them. Eventually, they all disappeared, but the next year, I had bluejays again. They always disappeared about November, and showed up again when it was time to mate and nest. Such fun!

  5. You got a good composition in the first picture, with the vulture between what it’s standing on and the lower arc of the blades above. I hope we humans are supplied as well in this unaccustomed wintry weather as the birds.

    1. With a subject who wasn’t inclined to move, I was able to walk around beneath him until I found a good vantage point. I just barely managed a little separate between the tail feathers and the structure; that was a nice surprise.

      I was watching some reports out of Austin this morning: oh, my. I hope your power’s stabilized. Our time’s going to be tomorrow through Tuesday, with temps of 26/16F, and freezing rain. I hope our power stays on.

      1. The electricity continues to be erratic, at least in my neighborhood. It’s gone out half a dozen times since last night. The last two times it came back on pretty quickly. I’m using a laptop now because I don’t want my desktop computer to keep having the power go out. The coldest temperatures remain ahead of us, as with you.

  6. That’s fascinating — impaling the prey. How very clever. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shrike — I’m not sure I’d even heard of them. The photos are lovely and good eye, spotting the bird on the blade so high. (Good lens, too!)

    1. I’ve seen dragonflies do the same thing with butterflies and other insects. It is a clever technique. I always wonder about the first one to figure it out — like wondering about the first human who discovered how to make a fire. It may have happened accidentally in the beginning, and then became standard practice.

      I’m often frustrated with my inability to get good closeups of birds, even with my 70-300mm. But, there’s one trick that always works: get closer! I’ve found that when a bird’s above me, as this one was, it’s often easier to walk up on them. They seems to know they’re safe from humans, if not from other birds.

  7. Those are good shots of the windmill. The birds probably feel safe up that high and will sit still. I have had Shrikes here, but they were probably passing through. I have been going out before sunrise to refill the bird and hummingbird feeders. They will be hungry with this cold snap.

    1. I just mentioned that possibility to jeanie. Birds above me often are willing to stay put, as though they know we clunky humans can’t get close to them without giving them a lot of notice. On the other hand, my slightest movement inside the house will send the doves, sparrows, and such fleeing as though their lives depend on it. The cold is bringing them in and making them braver, although I had to begin spreading out the mealworms to keep the robin from running the mockingbird off time after time. That robin is one territorial bird.

  8. Gorgeous shots!! I occasionally get a shrike hanging in the back garden, usually in late spring. Whatever it catches and impales, will freeze. But that whatever will be good eating later in the week!

    1. It makes sense that you’d see them in spring, before your garden has grown up more thickly. I read that they prefer open, grassy areas, and it seems you’re a little short on those. The thought of the shrike as the consummate freeze-drier is fun. I know that squirrels dry fungi and store them in little ‘pantries,’ so why not? What they go through for a meal makes our trips to the grocery store seem a snap — unless the roads are icy.

  9. I saw one when I lived in Houston but not out here so far. well, maybe, I thought I saw one but couldn’t get a good enough look to be sure. this would be a perfect area for them though.

    1. They’re easy to confuse with mockingbirds, especially at a distance. The color scheme is the same, even though there are obvious differences in the beak and tail up close. All of the ones I’ve seen have been on windmills, fences, and such. They don’t seem to perch on wires, like the kingfisher or scissor-tailed flycatcher. Each species has its preferences, I suppose.

  10. I feel so sorry for birds and wildlife at this time of year. I know I can’t bring them all inside, but I can provide some food in a safe spot for those who are hungry. Sounds like these shrikes are pretty resilient … even if this idea of impaling food in a cactus doesn’t exactly sit well with me!!

    1. Well, the shrikes might think our practice of impaling chunks of cheese and cocktail sausages on toothpicks is pretty weird, too. It did occur to me that sticking dinner on a cactus thorn not only would make it easier to find, it might be a great way to keep other critters from stealing it. Whatever works, as the saying goes!

  11. Excellent photographs – especially the composition of the vulture image. I imagine that the shrike needs to stock up well while it has the chance during cold weather.

    1. I was especially pleased to be able to capture the hook in the shrike’s beak so clearly. It certainly puts it to good use. I didn’t realize until I read it today that they’ll sometimes take full grown birds, too — like goldfinches. I read this on the Audubon site: ” A new analysis of high-speed video footage finally reveals the answer [to how shrikes kill such large prey]. They grasp mice by the neck with their pointed beak, pinch the spinal cord to induce paralysis, and then vigorously shake their prey with enough force to break its neck.” How about that? Our pretty little songbird deserves that ‘butcherbird’ title.

  12. Big Slough. Is that “slow” or “sluff?” Looks like it ought to rhyme with plough. Bet it doesn’t. There’s a play by the name of “The Shrike.” I love that old windmill. My dream house would have an old-school water pumper windmill like that but one which had been modified to multitask and also generate electricity.

    1. It’s the third option: ‘slough’ rhymes with ‘clue’ in these parts. Apparently there are alternate pronunciations in New England and Britain, but I’ve never heard them spoken.

      When I stayed in that renovated railroad bunkhouse in Kansas, the owners of the property had just that kind of windmill on their place. It was much taller, though. I’m not sure how many feet, but it was up there; the tower itself was metal. It was a handsome thing, and apparently worked well.

    1. From a distance, they can look so much like a mockingbird, they’re easy to confuse. My first clue that I wasn’t seeing a mockingbird came when I realized the bird I was looking at had a baby bird dangling from its beak. That seemed odd for a mocker!

  13. These images remind me of ones I’ve shot only in the ocean. I call channel markers and the like oceanic bird perches. No matter the array, the birds find a way to utilize these structures. So I guess windmills and blades make wonderful bird perches too!! Funny how they try and put those fuzzy looking metal things on top of various structures to discourage the birds….to little avail.

    1. I think I’ve told you of the osprey who liked to perch atop the mast of a boat I was working on. Every morning, I had to clean up the entrails left over from his dinner the night before. Eventually, the owner put one of those static dissipators on top of the mast. I don’t know if it did any good as far as lightning was concerned, but it did keep the osprey off the mast.

    1. Barbaric’s one word that’s often been used, but I like to think of it as efficient. It’s certainly well adapted for its way of catching prey. It’s not the only one, either. I’ve seen dragonflies store captured prey on a thorn. Maybe they learned it from the shrike, or vice-versa!

    1. The old ones can be visually pleasing and interesting because of what sits on them, but the newer, working ones draw a lot of critters to the tanks they supply — and not always cattle. I like the wooden ones best, especially if the vanes still have the manufacturer’s name still visible on them

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