Northern Shrike (Lanius borealis) by Tanner Troyer

The Northern Shrike is a songbird that can seem harmless at first glance. Its size is around 9 inches, or somewhere between that of a sparrow or robin. It can be confused with the much more common Northern Mockingbird, and like the Mockingbird, its song is also a sequence of whistles and trills that mimics other birds.

A closer look, however, reveals something much different. This bird is a fierce predator with a hooked beak that is used to snap the neck of its prey. The Northern Shrike feeds on mammals, insects, and small birds. It often kills more than it can eat at a given time, storing excess food on thorns or barbed wire fences. These traits have earned shrikes the name “Butcherbirds.”

For much of the year, this bird lives in the Arctic while breeding and raising its young. During the winter, it migrates south to the Midwest and the Great Plains, sometimes traveling as far south as Texas. In Indiana, popular locations to see this bird include Goose Pond, the Dunes National Lakeshore and State Park, Prophetstown State Park, and the Universal Strip Mines. Naturally, these birds can be found in other locations as well, if you know where to look.  Northern Shrikes can be found in open areas with plenty of dead trees and snags. When scanning for them, look for a gray bird with a black mask sitting alone at the top of one of these trees or snags.

My first experience with one of these birds was when I was just becoming a birder. I was with a group at Cowles Bog searching for a Northern Shrike that had been reported earlier in the day. I wasn’t sure what a shrike was or why it was so special, but a description of the “butcher bird” piqued my interest. Not only did I get to see the bird, I also got to hear its song. It was a special experience, and a big reason why I kept birding.

 

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