View all of the titles in the
by Stan Tekiela
March 8, 2021
I love rule breakers. You know, the critters in nature that don’t follow the rules we people lay out for them. A good example of this is the Opossum. How crazy is it for a mammal to have their babies borne after just 14 days gestation and spend the rest of their development outside of the womb and instead in a pouch located on their mother’s belly? How about White-breasted Nuthatches? They climb down trees headfirst while all the other birds are going headfirst up the tree. But one my favorite rule breaker is the Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor).
The Northern Shrike is a robin sized bird that is all gray with black wings and tail. It sports a handsome black mask like the fictional character, Zorro and a large thick black hooked bill. It breeds way up north in the Northwest Territories of Canada and Alaska. However, the Northern Shrike often moves out of its breeding range during winter in ten year cycles based on the availability of small mammals which is a major part of their winter diet.
Shrikes are considered a predatory songbird. These two words “predator” and “songbird” should not be used in the same sentence unless you are talking about a hawk, the predator, eating a songbird, the prey. By definition, predators kill their prey before eating it. And songbirds are defined as birds known for their songs. Songbirds are peaceful birds that inhabit our gardens and yards and fill the spring air with beautiful songs. Songbirds eat insects and seeds and don’t have a beef with any other birds. Except for the rule breaking shrike.
To be a predator like a hawk you need some basic equipment such as large strong feet with long sharp talons for holding and killing what you have caught. Here is where the shrike does not follow the predator bird rule. Remember, the shrike is a songbird, which have small weak feet used only to walk and hold onto branches when it perches. But that doesn’t stop the shrike from killing what it wants to eat.
Shrikes make a living in the winter by hunting, catching, and eating small mammals such as mice or voles. They perch high up and watch over an area for any movement below. Then they fly out and hover just above the unsuspecting mouse before dive down headfirst to deliver a deadly blow from their large bill. Just yesterday I watched a shrike do what I just described and grab a vole and shake it violently for 2 seconds and the vole was dead. That fast. I was amazed.
Shrikes also hunt other birds. They are well known for flying into a bird feeding station like a lightning bolt and as the bird’s scatter, the shrike rams into a bird in mid-flight stunning it and knocking it to the ground before landing on the prey and killing it with its bill.
Either way, after securing its prey, it carries the victum away with its bill. Again, since it’s a songbird with tiny weak feet it has to carry its food in its bill unlike hawks which carry their prey in their feet.
Now here is where it gets really interesting. The shrike is unable to swallow its prey whole, so it needs to tear apart its meal before swallowing. Again, a raptor such as a hawk will hold the prey item in its feet to stabilize it. The shrike’s feet are too weak to do this, so it has come up with an ingenious solution. It takes the dead little critter and impales it on a thorn of a shrub or on the barbs of a barbwire fence. Once impaled the shrike can tear it apart and eat. Therefore the bird is also called, the butcher bird.
Shrikes also use the impaled prey as a larder for future use. In one case a shrike was seen to return to the mummified remains of a frog it had skewered almost a year earlier showing that they also have a remarkable memory. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is a author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
This year we seemed to zip right past Groundhog Day without even noticing. Perhaps this is because during Covid time, everyday seems the same, just like the movie Groundhog Day. Nothing new or different. Just one day like the other. But for the Groundhog, also known as the Woodchuck, spring is a...
As winter loosens its grip on the northern states and it finally feels like spring, my mind turns to all the changes in nature. In particular, the animals in the northern climates that change the color of their coats (pelage) or the birds that change their feathers (plumage) from brown to white...
Bison and Wolf
The bison turned quickly, ready to charge. The two feet of snow didn’t slow its powerful hooves but rather kicked up a rooster-tail of shinny ice crystals into the cold winter air, highlighting the Bison’s efforts. What was surprising was how quickly the pack of wolves turned around...
Dog eat Dog World
There is no question about it! It is a dog-eat-dog world out there, and now I have proof. Recently on a trip to film wolves in Yellowstone National Park, I was reminded of this old saying. The week before I arrived an associate of mine witnessed a coyote chasing a Red Fox through the deep snow....
Do you have any interesting wildlife in your backyard? Any nesting birds, deer, turkeys, reptiles, amphibians, or other unique wildlife? Or maybe a fox or coyote den?
If so, contact Stan at firstname.lastname@example.org with your backyard wildlife. If he can get a good photo of the subject, he will send you a print of the photo to hang on your wall.
When he's out in the field, Stan relies on his Vortex Razor binoculars and Vortex Razor spotting scope to help find the subjects for his award winning wildlife photography.
Now, contact Stan for your special code to get a 10% discount off, along with free shipping, when you purchase any of the Vortex line of binoculars or spotting scopes.
For thirty years, professional wildlife photographer Stan Tekiela has counted on Hunt's Photo and Video to provide him with professional photography equipment.
From tripods to camera bodies and lenses, Hunt's has been Stan's place for everything that he needs. Personal service and prompt shipping means Stan can count on Hunt's to support his professional wildlife photography career.
Professional Wildlife Photographer Stan Tekiela always uses Feeder Fresh in his seed feeders to help keep the feeders and food dry, clean and mold free.
He also uses Feeder Fresh Nectar Defender in all of his hummingbird feeders. It safely keeps nectar fresh longer.