“Blockheads; Loggerhead Shrikes”

The Good Samaritan had no idea what type of bird it was, but knew it was a baby, on its own and on the ground with cats in the area that would soon be checking it out or worse. With no parents or nest in sight, it was time to scoop up the little one and get it to safety. After leaving a few messages at wildlife centers with no return calls (it’s baby season, so everyone is very, very busy!), she decided to jump in her car and drive over two hours from her home in Dunn, NC to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. During the infant bird’s admission, discussion threw out possible identities such as an odd Blue Jay or Northern Mockingbird because the colors were similar, but after research his true identity was revealed; Loggerhead Shrike and the first of its kind to be admitted at our shelter. Loggerhead Shrikes are native to North America and have been introduced to some island groups such as the Bahamas or Caicos. Initially we placed the LHS youngster with four young Mockingbirds since they were all the same size, however we learned that a Loggerhead Shrike is indeed a songbird, but with raptor habits. So, we knew that the togetherness they now shared could not last forever. After a few weeks of growing, he was moved to his own playpen for the Mockingbirds’ safety. A Shrike eats many insects to include grasshoppers and beetles which is similar to the Mockingbird’s diet, but they also eat lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, mice, shrews, small mammals, roadkill, carrion and other birds. They will also not shy away from poisonous food items such as monarch butterflies or narrow-mouthed toads, but will wait about three days before eating them to allow for the poisons to break down. Shrikes prefer to hunt on cold mornings when insect prey are immobilized by the chilly temperatures. Therefore, working smarter not harder! A Loggerhead Shrike is smaller and more slender than an adult Robin, but larger and longer-tailed than a Western Bluebird. The head of a LHS is unusually large in relation to its body which is where the name Loggerhead, a synonym for “blockhead,” came from. They have gray feathers on the upperpart of their bodies and paler gray underneath. They wear a black feathered mask and their throat is white. Their 11 – 12” wingspan, flying low and swift, exposes black feathers with white patches. Sometimes, while hunting on the ground, they will flash those white patches to startle prey out of hiding. The tail is long and black with a white edge. To look at a Loggerhead Shrike, you would not think they are the heavy hunters they are, but it’s their bill that is very ‘raptoresque!’ It’s thick, strong, hooked like a hawk’s and features two pointy tomial teeth. Shrikes use their hooked bills to break the necks of vertebrate prey and can carry an animal as large as itself with its feet or beak. This masked predator hunts from utility poles, fence posts and other perches in much the same way raptors do. They do lack talons that hawks use for holding a meal in place while they eat, therefore Shrikes utilize a very unusual method for presenting their kill for eating. Shrikes will skewer their prey on thorns or barbed wire or wedge them into tree limbs for safe keeping, easy eating or caching for later consumption. So, if you see a large insect or a mouse impaled on barbed wire or possibly a thorn, that was no accident. You have a Loggerhead Shrike, sometimes referred to as a “Butcherbird,” in the area! They enjoy open country, including grasslands and shrub-steppe areas, where there are scattered trees, tall shrubs, fence posts, utility wires or other lookout posts. They tend to nest in northeast or southeast facing ravines in open country such as agricultural fields, pastures, prairies, golf course and cemeteries. Both sexes help find a nest site, inspect many locations before choosing and together they gather nesting materials such as twigs, bark strips, grasses, feathers, moss, fur, lichen and even flowers. The nest is about six inches round and the depression is approximately three inches deep. Loggerhead Shrikes often build their nests in thorny vegetation, which may help keep predators away. In the absence of trees or shrubs, they sometimes nest in brush piles or tumbleweeds. The average height of nests above the ground ranges from 2.5 to 4 feet. A clutch of five to six grayish buff eggs with yellowish brown markings are laid and incubated for 15 – 17 days. After hatching, the young will be fed by both parents for nearly three weeks before leaving the nest. Once fledged, the parents will continue to tend to their young Shrikes for three to four weeks by feeding them and teaching them adult hunting behaviors. The youngsters will practice hunting by picking up various objects and repeatedly press them against branches as if they are trying to make them stick.   The Loggerhead Shrike is recognized as a “common species in decline” due to habitat loss, harsh winters, collisions and human disturbance. It needs a large range for hunting and to accommodate their social grouping. A flock of Loggerhead Shrikes is known as an “abattoir” or a “watch” of Shrikes. There are groups across the U.S. who have implemented LHS breeding and release programs to increase their population. The longest living Loggerhead Shrike on record was a male from California who enjoyed 11 years and 9 months on the planet. Our little “Wild One” at the shelter is doing very well on his own in the nursery, demands his daily flight time and consumes his share of hearty food while awaiting his release day!!

best always and hope you are enjoying your summer!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of  “Save Them All”