Wild Profile: meet the northern shrike

Published: January 15, 2019

By Tom Reichner/Shutterstock

One of our most adorable songbirds is also our most vicious. The carnivorous northern shrike has a sharply hooked beak and a taste for mice and small birds. A shrike will swoop down from its perch in a treetop to attack ground-dwelling prey, or seize birds—black-capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, house sparrows—in mid-air with its feet or bill. Then it will break its victim’s neck and impale the body on a spiky twig or a thorn.

Northern shrikes spend their summers in the far north, only arriving in cottage country for the winter. Listen carefully—both males and females sing during the cold season. Their song is a muddled mix of warbles, high trills, squeaks, and chatters, but they can also imitate the calls of other birds. They use this trick to lure in prey.

Canada’s other species of shrike, the loggerhead, is slightly smaller than the robin-sized northern shrike, but has a similar black mask—and the same brutal feeding behaviour. No wonder both species are also known as “the butcher birds.”

Featured Video