Notes from Napanee: Shrikes & snakes, oh my!

As you might already know, shrikes are often referred to as “butcher birds” for their unusual feeding strategies.

As you might already know, shrikes are often referred to as “butcher birds” for their unusual feeding strategies.  Since shrike species (including loggerhead shrikes) lack talons to grasp prey items like raptors would, they instead resort to impaling their prey on thorns, barbed wire, or other sharp points! This allows them to immobilize their prey for easier consumption. Prey items can include anything from small insects and arthropods (see photos), to even small rodents, amphibians, and reptiles! Shrikes will impale prey items in various locations to eat later on; this occurs especially during the breeding season when food demand is extremely high (imagine 4-7 hungry little mouths to feed… that requires a lot of preparation!). But male shrikes have also been known to keep a good food cache in their territory to attract a mate, which makes sense considering he’s got to prove that he’s up to the task of being a dad.

On the subject of reptiles as shrike prey… just last week I was monitoring a pair of loggerhead shrikes to see what they were up to. I observed one bird carrying nesting material to her probable nesting site, and I watched as she delicately placed each stick to her preferred orientation when constructing her nest. In the meantime, her boyfriend was out and about hunting insects, no doubt preparing for the busy days ahead feeding his young. I watched as he landed in a nice open area of prairie smoke (a common wildflower seen here), and he appeared to “wing-flash” repeatedly. “Wing-flashing” is a behavior seen in a few different species of birds (ex. Northern mockingbirds are known to do this as well), and it’s essentially when the bird will flick its wings outward to flash their bright white wing patches! It’s been suggested that this may startle any insects hiding in the grass, so the bird can snatch them up for a good meal. However, after watching the bird continually wing-flash for a few minutes, I realized something even MORE cool was happening here…

 Shrike carrying away a snake, taken with an iPhone through a scope (screenshots from a video)

As I watched closely, I noticed the bird was battling a snake! Not just a small one, either… it was a snake that appeared to be about twice the body length of the bird! Eventually, the battle between shrike and snake came to a close, and the shrike had won. The shrike picked up the snake in his beak, and carried his prize away and out of sight – I presume he took the snake to impale on a thorn somewhere so he could eat his snack a little bit easier (see photo series).

We are still in the early days of the loggerhead shrike breeding season here in Napanee. Many of the pairs here are either incubating or have just started incubating their eggs. Our team is looking forward to watching these shrikes become successful parents in the coming weeks!

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