It’s spooky season! While there are plenty of clearly spooky animals out there, there are also some very understated ones.
For example, today’s animal: the loggerhead shrike.
Loggerhead shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus) are unassuming birds. They’re about the size of a robin, just 8 – 10 inches long and with a 12-inch wingspan. Like other songbirds, loggerhead shrikes use their feather coloration to attract mates. They have pretty gray, black, and white feathers, with a black mask around their eyes. Loggerhead shrikes are found in central Canada and the Greater Midwest of the United States, preferring to live in open areas with brush and thickets.
Loggerhead shrikes get their name from their harsh, raspy song. ‘Shrike’ comes from the Old English word for ‘shriek.’ But Loggerhead shrikes also go by another name: the butcherbird.
A raptor’s soul
Loggerhead shrikes have a raptor’s hunting proclivities but in a songbird’s body. They are predators that will eat both insects and larger vertebrates, like mice and small birds. Unfortunately, while they do have a falcon’s hooked beak, Loggerhead shrikes lack the talons or claws of other predatory birds.
So, they improvise: Loggerhead shrikes kill their prey by impaling them on thorns or spikes.
After tackling their prey from the air, Loggerhead shrikes bite their prey’s neck with a pair of sharp projections on their beak, known as tomial teeth. This attack helps paralyze their prey by injuring the spinal cord. The next step is to ram the unfortunate target into the nearest pointy object – we’re talking cactus spines, branches, and even barbed wire fences. With their food stuck and almost (if not already) dead, the Loggerhead shrike is ready to feast.
Sometimes, Loggerhead shrikes go after meals as big if not slightly bigger than themselves. Remember, they’re only the size of a robin! Rodents like mice and rats can get pretty big, and Loggerhead shrikes have been known to kill birds as large as Northern cardinals. To kill these larger animals, Loggerhead shrikes bite down on their neck to paralyze them. Then, the Loggerhead shrike quickly shakes its head back and forth. This whipping motion creates accelerations of up to 6 g-forces, about the same amount of force as a high-g roller coaster or the whiplash in a low-speed, rear-end car crash. If you’re the size of a rat, this force is enough to snap your neck.
Stocking the larder
Besides killing their prey, spiking their food gives Loggerhead shrikes a convenient place to store food for later. These food stashes are known as ‘pantries’ or ‘larders.’ By setting some food aside, Loggerhead shrikes ensure they have a food source when live prey is scarce or when they need extra nutrition, such as during the breeding season.
In addition to being handy for storing food, a fully stocked larder can help Loggerhead shrikes land a mate. During the breeding season, male Loggerhead shrikes frequently kill and display more food than they need. These gruesome displays signal to female Loggerheads which males are strong and capable enough to provide for potential offspring.
Another benefit of larders is that it makes some prey more palatable. Loggerhead shrikes will eat toxic prey like monarch butterflies and eastern narrow-mouth toads. Leaving them impaled for a few days lets the toxins degrade, making them safe to eat (and presumably tastier).
So, if you’re walking through the prairie and see a bunch of dead mice, insects, and lizards impaled on a barbed wire fence, don’t be scared. You’ve probably just stumbled upon a Loggerhead shrike’s fully stocked larder.