The loggerhead shrike is a robin-sized bird, about 8 to 9 inches long, with a wingspan of about a foot. The breast is white and the top of the head and back are gray. The wings and tail are black with white patches. A distinctive black mask covers the eyes and cheeks. The sexes are similarly marked and are hard to distinguish. The thick, short bill has a hooked tip. These birds occur throughout New Mexico and the southern U.S. year round, with a breeding range extending up the Great Plains and into Canada. Its preferred habitat is open shrubby country, but they also inhabit open forests and prairies.

Shrikes are predators, with a widely varied diet of prey, from insects to many small vertebrates, like rodents, lizards, and other birds. By consuming grasshoppers, beetles, and other crop-destroying insects, they perform a valuable service in agricultural lands. They will also take amphibians, snakes, snails, and even fish. They scan the surroundings from a perch and pounce on a prey animal on the ground or may snatch a bird in flight. Their feeding habits resemble hawks, but shrikes are in the order Passeriformes, or perching songbirds. The small size of the shrike, and the short and weak talons prevent shrikes from subduing prey animals with the feet as do the larger raptors. Therefore, when capturing prey they characteristically impale the animal on a thorn or barb to hold it immobile and feed on it there, tearing it apart with the hooked beak. An impaled prey carcass may also serve as a territorial marker to other shrikes in the area. The shrike does have a rather large head and strong neck muscles. Prey larger than the shrike may be killed by piercing the neck and rapidly twisting to break the back.

Loggerhead shrike nestlings. Photo by James Taulman.

Loggerhead shrike. Photo by James Taulman.

The female incubates a clutch of 4 to 8 eggs in a cup nest built of grass and twigs, hair and feathers in a shrubby tree. The male brings food to her. Both parents hunt and bring food to nestlings, who may continue to be fed by the parents for a month after fledging. Nestlings that do not survive are sometimes eaten by the parents or fed to other nestlings. Shrikes may live 8 years in the wild. The oldest recorded banded bird was over 12 years old.

Shrike populations are stable throughout much of the U.S. but declining in the northeastern states. The reasons for the declines are uncertain but may include habitat loss to development, global warming, and pesticide use. The photos here were taken in Moriarty and on the prairies of South Dakota, with Nikon P900 and P510.

James Taulman is a retired wildlife ecologist who enjoys exploring New Mexico’s natural areas and observing the state’s diverse wildlife. His research publications can be accessed at researchgate.net, searching for James F. Taulman; and wildlife videos are on YouTube, under James Taulman.