Friends and acquaintances often send me terrible photos of tiny birds taken from about three miles away and ask me to identify them. Of course, this is impossible. I sadly tell them to get a good close up next time.
However, the photo my friend Sue Wade sent me the other day was an easy one. It was a fairly good image of a loggerhead shrike, which is Florida’s only shrike species. However, Sue thought it was a kingbird.
These small birds have some interesting habits. We usually spot boldly patterned gray, black and white shrikes on telephone wires or wire fences. They are like very small hawks. They have exceptional vision and can spot prey at a quite a distance away.
But shrikes are too small to take on rabbits. So what are they trying to spot? Well, in the summer, they mostly feed on grasshoppers, crickets and other large insects. In winter, when bugs are scarce, they will go after mice, lizards, and even small birds.
Catching prey is one thing. Killing it when you don’t have the talons of a hawk is quite another. Have you ever seen a lizard impaled on a barbed wire fence and wondered how it got there? Well, it was probably skewered by a shrike and stored there for a later meal.
Next time you spot a loggerhead shrike, notice that the beak is very much like a hawk’s beak, which enables the distinct method of hunting. The bird snags its prey and impales it on a thorn or sharp twig (or barbed wire, when available), a habit that has led to the common name butcherbird.
This is useful not just for killing but also for keeping a convenient stash of food around the bird’s territory. In addition to the mating dance, the riches of a full pantry can be beneficial to a male shrike when in pursuit of a female. A large larder is apparently quite an attractant — the equivalent of a fat wallet.
Loggerhead shrikes build their nests in thick shrubs, usually thorny ones. The female sits on the nest and the male will feed her, often drawing on his larder stocks. There may be five or six eggs. Both parents feed the nestlings when they hatch, and continue for several weeks after they fledge. They will also train them to be skilled hunters.
Don’t confuse these birds with mockingbirds. Although they have similar coloration, including white wing spots, they are quite different in appearance. Mockers have a straight beak; a shrike’s beak is curved. Also, shrikes have a distinct black mask, just like the Lone Ranger.
Sadly, the number of loggerhead shrikes is diminishing. This is mostly thought to be from pesticides. Perhaps loss of habitat is also responsible. There are none spotted in the northern states any more, but shrikes are still seen in all of the southern states. You just need to be observant and know that not every bird on a wire is a dove or mockingbird.
We always love spotting this small but fierce bird. It’s a year-round resident of Florida, and that’s always a plus for us. Check the telephone wires on your next trip out. If you’re lucky, you may spot a loggerhead shrike trying to snag something to make into shish kebab.
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.