The widespread Loggerhead Shrike is an uncommon breeding or year-round resident across much of the U.S. Despite being classified as a Passerine (the group containing most of our songbirds) and lacking the strong, gripping talons of hawks, falcons, and eagles, it is a predatory species capable of taking insects, snakes, rodents, and birds nearly as large as itself, though sparrow sized birds are more common prey. It has a hooked beak for tearing flesh, and it has acquired the nickname “butcherbird” because of its proclivity to impale its prey on thorns or barbed wire fences.  Knowing this, birders wishing to see such a cache from a shrike should, after locating an area in which shrikes are regularly observed, concentrate their search in thorny trees or shrubs and along pasture edges where barbed wire fences offer artificial “thorns”.

loggerhead shrike

Loggerhead Shrike. © Sam Crowe

Dressed in an attractive pattern of black, white, and gray feathers, a Loggerhead Shrike could perhaps be mistake for a Northern Mockingbird, or vice versa. The wings are darker black in shrikes, the black face mask is distinctive in shrikes, and the stubby, hooked beak might be apparent with a good look. Doesn’t sound like an identification challenge? Consider that during the winter months, an Arctic relative, the Northern Shrike, makes rare but regular appearances across much of the northern and central U.S. A quick glance at a field guide will show that Northern Shrikes are quite similar in appearance to Loggerhead Shrikes, and may be overlooked by casual observers accustomed to seeing the latter.

What should a careful observer look for when observing a shrike in winter? Several differences are apparent upon close inspection.  Northern Shrikes have a noticeably longer beak than Loggerhead Shrikes, with a more prominent hook at the tip.  Northern Shrikes are paler gray on the back and head, though this may be hard to judge without a nearby Loggerhead Shrike for comparison. Careful observation of the black face mask will show that it extends slightly above the eye on Loggerhead Shrikes, while remaining below the eye on Northern Shrikes. The line of feathers bordering the upper bill are black in Loggerheads, but white in Northerns. Faint barring on the breast is more pronounced on Northern Shrikes. Northern Shrikes are also slightly larger, though again, this is hard to judge on a single bird without the other species for reference.

juvenile northern shrike

Juvenile Northern Shrike. © Greg Lavaty

There are useful age-related differences between the two species as well.  Juveniles of both species have more heavily barred breasts than adults.  Juvenile Northern Shrikes have a brownish appearance overall, while juvenile Loggerheads are mostly gray.  Juvenile shrikes also provide one example of the helpfulness of an understanding of molt by birders.  Juvenile Loggerhead Shrikes molt out of their juvenal plumage by early fall, while juvenile Northern Shrikes retain their juvenal plumage until spring. Therefore, a brownish shrike with a heavily barred breast seen in the winter months must be a Northern Shrike.

There is much concern regarding declines in Loggerhead Shrike populations. Uncommon wherever it is found, it is a fascinating species worthy of a few hours of observation should you encounter one along a country road, or spot its telltale prey dangling from a thorn or fence. Worthy of your time as well is the chance to find its larger northern cousin on a blustery January morning.

Thanks to Dan Reinking for sharing the above information.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>