Northern Shrike

Impaling a shrew on a thorn, the Northern Shrike affirms its nickname as the "butcher watchman."  

Photo by Larry McGahey, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Larry McGahey, Flickr Creative Commons

The Northern Shrike belongs to the genus Lanius, which means "killer of nine," referring to the shrike's habit of caching prey. The shrew impaled at the Dietrich Alexander Wildlife Area was one of those nine.

An uncommon visitor to southern Wisconsin, the shrike breeds in the far northern stretches of Canada and Alaska, preferring scattered spruce woods and willow and alder scrub bordering streams or tundra. The Shrike at Faville was perched atop a Bebb's Willow overlooking open prairie, on a clear day in the single digits, perhaps mirroring its arctic tundra home.

The only songbird to consistently prey on vertebrates, the shrike has been known to mimick the song of other songbirds, luring them to their deaths. It's been called a merciless hunter, often chasing prey for minutes on end. The northern shrike has the eyesight of a diurnal raptor, often scanning from a perch then powerfully swooping and striking its prey with its hooked bill. However, the shrike lacks talons, making it more difficult to consume its preferred diet of birds, rodents, and large insects. It is believed that the shrike's habit of impaling its victim allows the bird to pick apart its prey, and caching provides a buffer against food shortages.

Look for the shrike at Faville Grove perched on willows or dogwood overlooking open prairie habitat. A good spot might be along the frozen water of the Laas Tamarack or around the savanna in Buddy's prairie.

By Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward