By Ethan Hatchett
A killer hides in plain sight in grasslands across Georgia. Disguised as an ordinary songbird, the animal leaves its victims impaled along roadsides. But these grisly ornaments are not a warning to other creatures. For the loggerhead shrike, they are its means of survival.
Loggerhead shrikes are songbirds that behave like raptors in the way they hunt prey. Although this bird weighs less than 2 ounces and is only 8-9 inches long, the loggerhead shrike makes a strong impression for a small bird. Shrikes are light gray with a black eye mask and white breast. Their wings are black with a patch of bright white that is hard to miss when the birds are in flight. Their head is large with a thick, hooked bill.
As with loggerhead sea turtles, loggerhead means “block-headed” and refers to the animal’s big head. Shrike is related to the word “shriek.” Some might use that word to describe the species’ far from musical voice, which has been described as harsh and mechanical.
Loggerhead shrikes tend to hunt from a low perch, scanning the ground for prey (watch). Sometimes the birds will hunt from the ground, flashing their white wing patches to scare out animals, much like mockingbirds do. When they caught something, a shrike will use thorns, barbed wire and the forks of trees to immobilize larger prey and store dead ones. The bird then wields its hooked bill to shred its meal into bite-sized chunks.
The shrike’s unique way of caching food is helpful for surviving harsher winters and staying healthy during the physically taxing breeding season. It can even make male shrikes more attractive to females, which may be impressed by the stores of food.
During the warmer months, the loggerhead shrike’s diet consists mostly of insects. It will also eat small mammals such as mice and voles, small snakes, lizards, and small birds like sparrows and finches.
Loggerhead shrikes live primarily in open areas with short vegetation (often sprinkled with a few trees), such as grasslands, farm fields and mowed roadsides. Both female and male shrikes help find nesting sites in the breeding season, with the birds often preferring to nest in thorny shrubs for the added protection they provide.
The female builds the nest, but the male still helps by gathering and bringing her materials. The nest is woven together with rootlets, bark strips, twigs and other flexible matter. The lining is comprised of soft items such as moss, fur and lichens. A typical clutch for a loggerhead shrike is 5-6 eggs. They can lay 1-2 clutches a year. Mated pairs are mostly monogamous, staying together throughout the breeding season.
Georgia’s loggerhead shrikes are year-round residents. Shrikes in northern states spend more time on the move changing location based on available food and habitat to breed.
Unfortunately, the loggerhead shrike is in steep decline. Habitat loss, predation by feral cats, car collisions and pesticide use all play a role in the shrike’s decline. Although shrikes are versatile hunters, making use of whatever tools are available, without suitable habitat, even the most capable hunters need help.
The loggerhead shrike is one of the 640 species listed as a high priority for conservation in Georgia DNR’s State Wildlife Action Plan. This statewide strategy is focused on conserving populations of native wildlife species and the habitats they need before these animals, plants and places become rarer and more costly to conserve or restore.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
- If you see a shrike while driving slow down. They often dart in front of cars.
- Report shrike sightings or volunteer to be a shrike monitor or surveyor by contacting DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section at (478) 994-1438.
- Give a wide berth to trees with a shrike nest during the bird’s breeding season (March-August).
- Leave or plant thorny shrubs and trees within fields and along their edges to provide nesting sites and hunting perches for shrikes.
- Maintain a top string of barbed wire on tensile fences for shrikes to use.
- Where possible, maintain land as grassland or pasture, and free of invasive shrubs.
- Avoid using pesticides and herbicides when possible: They will reduce the prey shrikes and other grassland birds need.
- Keep domestic cats indoors. Cat predation can have a significant impact on shrikes and other wildlife.
Ethan Hatchett is a communications assistant in DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.