The Sign of the Butcher Bird

In early February, I happened upon a bird known as the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) sitting atop a windmill at the Brazoria Wildflife Refuge, scanning the land below for a tasty snack.

It intrigued me to learn that, although part of songbird family, shrikes behave more like raptors. Certain of their habits have earned them the nickname ‘Butcher Bird,’ and I included this brief description of their odd but effective practice in my post:

A sharp, falcon-like hook in their beak allows Shrikes 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. 

Had I found this beetle impaled on a barbed wire fence in late January, I never would have imagined it had been left there by a ‘butcher bird.’ Now, it seems reasonable to think that a Shrike had experienced a successful hunt and, true to its nature, had stored its prize on the fence surrounding a field of bluebonnets.

I passed by the same fence two days later, and the beetle was gone. I hope it wasn’t stolen from the bird who left it there.

 

Comments always are welcome.

85 thoughts on “The Sign of the Butcher Bird

  1. Yes, that is classic shrike behaviour, Linda. Sometimes those larders contain quite a range of prey, including even rodents and small songbirds.

    1. I’m glad I recognized what was happening and, to be honest, I’m just happy I found a beetle rather than a rodent or songbird. It took me right back to 10th grade biology, and the insect collection demanded of us. I don’t think they use the pin and cardboard method for collections any more, which is just as well.

    1. I knew that shrikes would take live prey, but I only learned about this behavior this year. How nice for nature to provide an example to reinforce my learning! I was surprised by how neatly the trick was accomplished. I’m not sure I could do such a good job with my fingers.

    1. “Bird-brain” shouldn’t be used as a euphemism for ‘stupid,’ that’s for sure. It was an amazing sight. Since it was the first time I’d seen such a thing, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I’ve been around such behavior before, but didn’t recognize it for what it was.

  2. I can’t believe you found the beetle. Sharp eyes! I wanted to ask if you have heard anything about rabbits disappearing. I always have a yard full and haven’t seen one since early last spring. I recently saw a story about a rabbit virus that had made it to West Texas, but can’t find current information for this area. Do you normally come across rabbits on your outings?

    1. To be honest, it would have been hard to miss it. I’d come up to the fence to take bluebonnet photos, and when I noticed the ‘lump’ a few feet away, I went down to see what it was.

      I don’t see rabbits very often. I suspect part of the reason is that they know I’m around, and keep hidden. The ones I do see usually are running alongside a country road. I didn’t know anything about the virus, so I looked it up, and found most stories are dated 2020. I added ‘2021’ to the search, and still didn’t find much. I’d bet a call to your County Agent or your local 4-H would be the best way to get information.

      To be honest, I’d suspect coyotes. Every now and then they move in down here and clear out the feral cat population. Then, when the cats are gone, the coyotes move on.

    1. On the other hand, a line of lizard heads would be pretty cool (if not for the lizards). It helps that this is such a pretty beetle, and that it’s shown against a field of bluebonnets.

    1. Weird and wonderful certainly does apply in this instance. Who knows what kind of story I might have made up to explain this sight, had I not learned about shrikes beforehand? That’s part of the reason your care with your listings is so good. A little context makes a big difference.

  3. What I find most interesting is the bird’s adaptation to civilization. No cactus handy? This barbed wire will do nicely. And a special shout-out to Robert for the perfect musical reference.

    1. I can’t remember the last time I heard that song, but I suspect I’ll be humming it for a while. As for that use of barbed wire, I mentioned to someone else my certainly that I couldn’t have done so well — and I have fingers. Can you imagine doing that with nothing but talons and beak?

      1. While still laughing about the chewing gum bedpost reference, here’s another, but which I suspect would only hold for Canadian readers: “When you eat your Smarties, do you eat the red ones last?”

          1. ‘Smarties’ are the Canada’s version of M&M’s, and no wonder I had total recall after humming “Does your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight?” as the tune was borrowed for the Smarties commercial and part of an advertising jingle:
            When you eat you Smarties, do you eat the red ones last? Do you suck them very slowly, or crunch them very fast?
            Have a look (there are no words that best describe it)

            1. Speaking of happiness, I thought of you yesterday when I saw my first green heron of the season at work. It was happily fishing from one of the dock lines; maybe this will be the year I finally get some photos of the marina birds.

    1. Perspective is everything. We think ‘grisly,’and if the shrike thinks, it probably thinks something like, “Yum!” Besides, think how many flowers may have been saved by birds eating flower beetles and such. “Balance of nature” is more than a pretty concept.

  4. great capture. I’ve never seen their impaled prey but I have seen a Loggerhead Shrike when we lived in the city and maybe out here too but I wasn’t sure as it was too far away.

    1. I was pleased to find this, especially after learning how shrikes hunt. If I hadn’t been looking for a decent spot to lean over the barbed wire for a photo, I never would have seen it. It’s the same old lesson: pay attention. That lump on the wire might be more than an extra twist or a smashed barb.

  5. Nature gets more amazing the more I read about it. Seems that a stretch of barbed wire fence could end up being a slightly grisly larder. And a temptation to theft for other shrikes… :)

    1. I don’t think grisly — I think creative adaptation. A nice, isolated wire barb would be ever so much easier to cope with than a cactus thorn, with all those other thorns to navigate. There are a lot of questions I’d love to have answered — like, how long before the prize is reclaimed? — but I’ll have to find another shrike before I get answers: or a PhD in Shrikeology!

  6. They’re such sweet looking birds and then… I’ve seen them around my house, clearly hunting, but I’ve never seen their meal preparations. Your photo is great. Poor beetle, but like you, I hope the “preparer” of the meal was the one who enjoyed it.

    1. I don’t have a problem viewing the shrike’s ‘pantry,’ but on the other hand, I generally walk away from discussions of squirrel hunting, and I once turned down an invitation to squirrel and dumplings. We all have our limits! I do enjoy coming across something I’ve only read about, and this is near the top of the list!

  7. Several years ago, back when I kept a camera in the kitchen, I took photos of a mysterious little bird that wore a mask like Zorro. Excited me eventually sent the photos to an ornithologist at a local university, and learned it was a loggerhead shrike. I was informed that they were surprised to see my new friend because they had never been spotted in this far south before. It hung around for a long while. I still look for it. Alas, it only appears in the books of my shelf now.

    Thanks for the memories.

    1. The ornothologist needs to consult a range map. These birds breed in our area, and they’re far more common in the south than in the northern or midwestern states. I see the birds relatively often. Since they like to perch high, wires, utility pole,and windmills are good places to look.

      1. It just occured to me that the ornothologist might have been thinking of the northern shrike, which tends to be found in the north and east. The birds I see are the loggerhead shrikes. The appearance is quite similar, but they are different species.

      2. Thanks. Someone from the same university told me they could not identify an insect egg I discovered and babysat until it hatched. A macro lens helped me identify it before it hatched. I don’t think a degree makes you a know-it-all. :)

        It’s been awhile since I saw that shrike but it hasn’t stopped me looking. Thanks.

    1. While we’re busy with our human business, nature’s just as busy — and often engaged in quite interesting behavior. Wouldn’t it be fun to know which shrike first figured this out, and have a chat with it? I wonder if it was surprised at how easy it was to impale something on barbed wire, and if it was pleased with itself for figuring it out?

  8. I have observed shrikes impaling their food, Linda, and it’s not among the more pleasant aspects of nature. But from the bird’s point-of-view, it’s a practical way of saving prey for later consumption.

    1. I think one of the hardest lessons for most of us to learn is to be less judgemental when it comes to nature. “Fuzzy ducklings good, spiders bad” seems instinctive, but those spiders (and the newts, lizards, snakes, and such) are fascinating creatures — and sometimes quite beautiful. I’m amazed at the learning involved in barbed wire impaling. Not only does the bird avoid the disadvantages of things like extra cactus spines, it seems like it would be especially “easy on, easy off.”. I’m just glad that I found the beetle, and got to witness a behavior I’d only read about.

    1. Well, from a human perspective, probably. On the other hand, what do you think the plants say to one another when the humans show up and start dividing, digging up, and transplanting? Maybe they think that’s gruesome, too!

  9. There is a play by the name “The Shrike” which implies that there is a cruel viciousness to its hunting method. I find it ironic that we as a species would impute a wild animal’s hunting methods as “vicious.”

    1. It was some years ago that I finally got past that instinctive “ain’t it awful” reaction to watching the food chain at work. While I had beautiful sunsets at my old apartment, I also had a good view of the marina. Every year, clutches of mallard ducklings would be reduced by the predations of herring gulls, gar, and gators. As I finally figured out, if we kept all the babies, we’d be hip deep in ducks, and the predators would be hungry — not to mention their babies.

    1. That sounds exactly like Helvi: spirited, and up to a challenge. I have a hawk that’s discovered my bird feeders, and while the bluejays nearby can’t send him off with a broom, they certainly let everyone know he’s in the neighborhood.

  10. Fascinating, Linda.They are rare out here. Good find on the beetle and on your decision to photograph it. My first thought would have been, “that guy was flying fast and flying blind! Curt

    1. I wonder how many accidents like that take place on the highways and flyways that cut through the meadows and fields? Probably not that many, although it’s fun to think about. Panic-stricken flight does lead to some interesting situations. A lot of us who were around at the time (a very long time ago) still remember the white-tailed deer that went through the revolving doors at the Sakowitz department store across from the Johnson Space Center. It was escorted from the store eventually, and I don’t believe the rumors that it had made it to the women’s department and had lingerie impaled on its horns.

      1. My mother had a tendency of trying to walk through glass doors. It was always a source of humor for us, if not for her.
        I’ve either forgotten or never heard the story about the white tailed deer. Quite humorous. Since it was a buck, given its horns/antlers, does that mean he was a cross dresser? Or maybe it was shopping for his lady-love— a little Victoria’s Secret to spice up her life? –Curt

  11. Eww, kind of feeling sorry for that poor beetle (and that might be a first for me, ha!) I realize the shrike needs to eat, too, but yuck!

    1. I know scenes like this aren’t especially appealing to everyone, but “eat or be eaten” is pretty much the way it is in nature. One of the things that amazed me about this little scene is how tidy the bird was. I suspect the barbed wire helped with that. Being so nice and sharp, it would have been as easy to stick the beetle there as it is to stick a toothpick in a cocktail olive!

  12. Some of our more interesting insect discoveries have come from a Shrike’s display. One day in May, in west Texas, we counted 14 insects impaled on the thorns of a single Mesquite tree. One busy Butcher Bird!

    Another interesting Shrike behavior is casting pellets of indigestible food bits. Several bird species do this, including some wading birds and raptors (especially owls).

    An interesting post for an intriguing bird!

    1. I recently read about pellet casting, although I don’t remember exactly where. I suspect it might have been on Ron Dudley’s blog. There are so many interesting behaviors; this past weekend, I came upon a butterfly feeding on dung. I’d read about it, and seen them mud-puddling in actual mud, but finding one on scat was a new one.

      I like finding the clues to the presence of unseen birds and other creatures. I did think I’d found some spots where deer had bedded down at night in a field of wildflowers, but then I realized the truth; the flattened circles of grass and flowers probably were made by people photographing their children in the fields!

    1. There was a time when I would have seen this and responded with a heartfelt “Oh, yuck!” Now, curiosity and interest have replaced that response — although I’ll confess that the sight of a nice, fat millipede still repulses me. Slugs, too. They just seem like creatures from a grade B horror movie.

    1. If I were to stick you onto a bit of barbed wire, that would be barbarous — love your clever use of the word! But this is just nature doing its thing: a tasty beetle, a sharp-eyed bird, and a classy example of adaptation. It was wonderful to see!

  13. Nature is just chock full of mysteries. Nice work solving this one, Linda. I’m not a fan of barbed wire, not Barb Wire either, but at least it offers something to the “Butcher Bird”.

    1. I guess that means you won’t be visiting one of the many barbed wire museums that are stretched out across the land. I’ll grant you the stuff is great for creating three-cornered tears but those are easily mended (unless they’re in flesh, of course). On the open range, cattle guards can do a good enough job, but when fencing’s needed, barbed wire does the trick. Just keep an eye out for insulators. Some people go the extra mile.

        1. Last night I started reading about barbed wire. I suddenly wondered why electric fencing always runs separately, away from the barbed wire. In the process of figuring that out, I learned that birds can perch on electric fence because they’re non-conductive and ungrounded. I’m still not entirely clear on the science behind all that, but I know a lot more than I did, and I’ll stop worrying about the birds. (Apparently all those old jokes about not peeing on an electric fence are grounded in reality.)

          1. That’s why birds don’t drop off telephone pole wiring. Most of the barbed wire around here is on land that has been reclaimed by nature and I most often run into it, sometimes literally, in woods that have replaced farmland. It’s also rusty so another good reason to avoid it.

            That’s one shocking experience I do my best to avoid.

            1. I think the non-shock is due to the wiring being insulated from the fence posts or telephone poles. Otherwise the electric current would short out by being grounded. Thus peeing shorts the current and, well, you can figure the rest.

            2. Yes, because we (and the animals; ) walk on the earth and because electricity also literally wants to ‘go to ground’ it will use any means (us) to do so. And, omg Steve Gingold, what IS it with boys and peeing on the electric fence?? (My cousins used to dare each other… the Silly Creatures:/)

            3. I couldn’t tell you as it never occured to me to try that, Deb. I have done what was necessary while standing next to rusted old barbed wire in the woods but that wasn’t electrified, at least any longer, and I am not at all masochistic. I’ve been a lightning rod, so to speak, while doing enough accidental stupid things without trying something purposely.

  14. Well, now that you mention “making up a story”, Linda… Upon taking a closer look at the spiked beetle (spectacular photo, btw!) I started to notice that other things had also been jammed into the barbed-wire coil… First, a piece of dark hair – at least a couple of inches long; then a piece of (seed husk?) of some sort; a tiny white tuft of mammalian(?) fur and all had been draped in spider web, delicately speckled in wind-blown dust… Yet another chapter in your story, perhaps?; )

    1. Re: your comment to Steve about boys and their fences, I suspect some of that behavior’s akin to our daring each other in winter to put our tongues on the wrought iron boot scraper: not the scraper itself, but the handle across the top that we hung on to as we cleaned our boots of snow. It wasn’t the flag pole of A Christmas Story, but the effect was the same.

      At first, I thought that long hair was antennae, but eventually I figured out that it wasn’t. Some of that detritus probably came from wherever the bird picked up the beetle. Hard to say. That is one handsome beetle, though.

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