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What is a Shrike?

By R. Britton
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A shrike is a small to medium sized bird with a sharp, hooked beak. There are approximately 20 different species of shrike, most of which belong to the Laniidae family. These predatory birds have a wide and varied diet. They also have an unsavory reputation as barbaric hunters because of their characteristic feeding habits. This species is mostly found across the Europe, Asia, and Africa with only one native to the North America.

Shrikes generally have a large head in comparison to the rest of the body. The beak is sharp and hooked and used for tearing apart prey. The diet of these birds includes insects, small birds, and small mammals; some species also eat reptiles. Because of their seemingly barbaric feeding habits, most shrikes are commonly known as butcher birds. Although they have a beak similar to a raptor, their feet and legs are short and delicate, more closely resembling a song bird. This means that the birds are unable to grip and hold prey while they eat it.

After swiftly darting from a high perch to capture its target and sever the spinal column, the shrike carries the prey to a nearby plant with sharp protrusions; these typically include a thorn bush or even a human creation like barbed wire. The prey is then impaled, leaving the bird free to use its sharp beak to devour the victim. If the prey is particularly large, the shrike will eat its fill and return later to consume the remainder.

The only species native to North America is known as the loggerhead shrike. This bird has grey, black, and white plumage and reaches just 9 inches (23 centimeters) in length with a wing span of about 12 inches (30 centimeters). The loggerhead shrike has a distinctive black streak which runs from either side of the beak to just behind the eyes. Like many shrike species, this bird usually kills by severing the spinal cord of the prey using a small ridge in the beak. If this technique fails, especially with larger prey, the bird will bludgeon its victim against the nearest hard surface.

The red backed variant is a migratory species with a very large native range. It breeds across most of Europe and Asia and spends the winter months in northern and central Africa. Unlike many other species, the red backed shrike captures its prey while flying and will actively chase prey as opposed to being an opportunistic hunter.

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