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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

BirdNote®: The Butcherbird

Air Date: Week of

Northern Shrike posing in Nome, Alaska, on the coast of the Seward Peninsula. (Photo: Mick Thompson, CC)

Wander through the open tundra and green taiga forests of northern North America in summer and you might hear the sweet and herky-jerky call of the Northern Shrike. But as BirdNote’s Ashley Ahearn warns: don’t be fooled, this singer has a dark side. It’s a ferocious hunter, a demon butcher of tweet street that impales its prey on thorns or even barbed wire, then slowly tears it apart. That’s why the shrike is also known by another name, the “butcherbird.”


CURWOOD: Halloween may be over but as Ashley Ahearn of Bird Note reports, some birds do have a spooky way to catch their dinner.

The Butcherbird

[Song of Northern Shrike]

AHEARN: The Northern Shrike is a robin-sized, pale gray bird with black wings and a jet-black mask. But don’t let this quirky, metallic song fool you. It’s the call of a bloodthirsty killer.

[More song]

The Northern Shrike breeds in the tundra and taiga of the north, but migrates south for the winter, perching on the tops of tall trees and shrubs to look for prey.

A juvenile Northern Shrike begs for food. (Photo: © Robert Mortensen)

The shrike is a meat-eater, diving down from its tall perches to catch insects, small mammals, and even other birds. It’s such a fierce hunter, it’ll often take down prey bigger than itself. Then it carries its meal over to a thorny bush, or maybe to a barbed wire fence, and impales it, sticking its meat on a hook, before slowly tearing it apart — the way we might eat a rotisserie chicken.

That’s why shrikes are also known by another name, the “butcherbirds.”

If you want to see a Northern Shrike in action, head to open country in Canada and the northern U.S. And listen for the “butcherbird’s” innocent-sounding song.

I’m Ashley Ahearn.

[Song of the Northern Shrike]

Adapted from a script by Frances Wood
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Sallie Bodie
Managing Producer: Jason Saul
Editor: Ashley Ahearn
Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone
Assistant Producer: Mark Bramhill
Narrator: Ashley Ahearn
Song of the Northern Shrike recorded by Kevin J. Colver. Used with permission. Eastern Washington ambient recorded by C. Peterson.
BirdNote’s theme was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
© 2019 BirdNote November 2019

ID# 110905NSHR NSHR-01b

CURWOOD: For pictures fly over to the Living on Earth web site, loe.org



This Butcherbird story on the BirdNote® website

Click here to learn more about identifying the Northern Shrike in the wild

Audubon Society | Shrikes Have an Absolutely Brutal Way of Killing Large Prey

Learn more about the latest Shrike research


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