Wednesday 25 May 2011


Image via Wikipedia
On the face of it, the Shrike is entirely unsuitable for a blog that investigates the Monstrous and bizarre side of nature. It's a bird. It's a cute, fluffy, little bird, not unlike sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes and all sorts of other darling lovelies. Why on earth would I be concerned with what at first glance appears to be a complete sweetheart?

Well, a closer look at the Shrike's beak may give you an inkling. It's not particularly big, but it is hooked and appears to be quite sharp. Quite a lot like the flesh tearing beaks of raptors like eagles and hawks, in fact, for the Shrike is a predatory bird with a flesh tearing beak of its own. You will, though, need to know more to find out why this small, unassuming passerine is known as the Butcher Bird.

There are actually 31 species of Shrike, 2 in North America and the rest across Europe, Asia and Africa.The smallest one's are just 16 cm long, while the largest are more like 50 cm. Some can be found in woodland, many in scrubland and a lot of them migrate from place to place for the winter. What they share is their method of hunting. Shrikes tend to avoid densely wooded areas because they need a good view of the ground around them. They don't fly up and look down like so many other predatory birds, they instead select a high perch to serve as a lookout post, sort of like a crow's nest on a ship. Once something catches their interest, a large insect for instance, the horror truly begins.

Image via Wikipedia
One thing to understand is that the butchery that will soon ensue allows the Shrike to eat things that other birds of its size couldn't deal with. Here, this may include lizards and other vertebrates, animals with soft, vulnerable necks. Do noises like *CRACK!* and *SNAP!* mean anything to you? Swooping down, the Shrike uses its powerful beak to break those necks for a swift, simple kill. How very humane.

One potential problem for the Shrike is that they don't have the powerful talons of eagles and owls. They can't carry off food in their feet or hold it down as they tear strips out of it. They have a somewhat despicable solution to this. They pick up the corpse in their beak, carry it off to a thorn or bit of barbed wire and carefully impale it. The Shrike can now rip off chunks of flesh to his cold, little heart's content. They might even leave it there as a macabre larder, a terrible morgue full of those who dared cross the Shrike's path. What was once the vibrancy of life is now a mere article in a kitchen cupboard, a most disrespectful and horrific end. It's a bit like the atrocious antics of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia alias Vlad Tepes alias Vlad the Impaler alias Dracula. Or indeed the wholesome, family orientated custom of impaling the severed heads of traitors on pikes at London Bridge to serve as a warning to others, a practise that survives to this day. Sort of.

One interesting side effect of this habit involves the North American Shrikes. Do you remember the Lubber Grasshopper with its bright colours and nasty taste and horrible toxins? Placing one on a thorn and leaving it there for a couple days allows those toxins to degrade, so the Shrike can eat this large insect without ill effect. That's clever! But it's clever in a serial killer way.

Naturally enough, a Shrike's stash of food is of the utmost importance to a Shrike. Males attract females with their massive collection of impaled dead things and sometimes even impaled, brightly coloured but inedible things. It seems that impaling stuff is really, really important, even if it's useless. Sort of like incredibly fast supercars that obey the speed limit and get caught in traffic. Males also have a courtship ritual which involves pretending to do yet more impaling and feeding his potential partner. Every night is kebab night when it comes to Shrikes.

If all goes well, the pair will build a nest for their eggs. They will also ruthlessly defend their territory with all its scurrying lizards, broken necked mice and skewered insects. A wholesome, family orientated environment for raising the next generation.


TexWisGirl said...

love this! :)

Crunchy said...

Thank god the male doesn't go impaling the eggs, too. @_@

Joseph JG said...

Hahaha! Yeh, that would definitely be a step too far!

Lily said...

Love these pictures and video

Lily @