T h e   B u t c h e r   B i r d
Butcher Bird

For centuries humans have learned and perfected ways for storing food for future use. Freezing, cold storage, canning, drying, to name just a few of the ways food is preserved. Humans also remember where they put their food and to eat it before it spoils. Animals have also been storing food for future use for centuries but part of natures plan is that they forget where they put some of it.

If it weren't for squirrels burying acorns and other nuts and forgetting where they buried some of them, there wouldn't be as many new trees growing in the forest. Woodpeckers, squirrels, blue jays chipmunks and the list goes on of all of woodland creatures that store food. Most all forget where some their seeds and nuts are stored and sure enough a new plant is started.

One of the strangest habits of any bird that preserves food for it's future use belongs to the Butcher Bird. You've never heard of a Butcher Bird? Well, the real name of this bird is the Logger Head Shrike. There is a northern and a southern representative of this bird. Here in Tennessee we have the Logger Head Shrike. They are beautiful black, white, and gray birds about the size of a robin. Their habits, in many ways, mimic those of hawks and other predatory birds. Once you have identified them you may be able to observe them out in the countryside sitting on a fence or power line or maybe in the top of a bare tree branch. They always need to see what is going on around them. Their eyesight is very good and can spot their prey as some distance.

When I was a youngster I raised one and turned him loose as soon as I could. He enjoyed finger food. My finger for his food, and let me tell you his beak could punch a hole in my finger and did it often without hesitation. My family often heard the moans and groans at feeding time and it wasn't the bird doing the moaning. A few years ago a friend and I were banding birds and took the challenge of banding a shrike. With a modified hawk trap baited with a mouse, inside a small wire enclosure for it's protection, we placed it not far from a shrike on a telephone wire. We didn't have to wait long before the shrike made a dive at the mouse and became entrapped. Forgetting my childhood experience with this powerful little bird I made the big mistake. I barehanded that bird, and sure as shootin' he not only punched a hole in me, but wouldn't let go. My friend was doing the best he could to release the bird from my finger with a pair of forceps. I was in much pain, turning pale, and breaking out with a cold sweat. My wife, bless her heart, seeing my situation still thought of the bird. Please don't hurt him, she said to my friend. The bird was released with his new band on his leg. I also had a new band on my finger but mine didn't have numbers like his, just a spot of blood.

These little birds with such powerful beaks can catch and eat mice, small snakes, grasshoppers and other insects. That's part of the reason why they are called butcherbirds. The other part is how they store their leftovers. When full and want nothing else to eat they will still catch food thinking to eat it later. Here is the strangest part of their eating habits. The shrike will take a cicada, large grasshopper or other food particle and impale it on a thorn or a barb on the barbed wire fence. I have found many dried and drying specimens in this manner. Only once have I ever seen one come back and reclaim his prize. They don't just half-heartedly place the food item on the thorn or barb. The food item is driven all the way on making sure the sharp point shows through. By impaling the food it helps them to eat it then or store it for later. The shrike uses it's beak like their big cousins the hawks but their feet are small and are not used as talons.

These small, hawk-like birds are still around but not as plentiful and they used to be. They love the countryside fence rows and shrub rows in big fields. The nest is built in a thick shrub or cedar 6 to 10 feet about the ground. And they like their privacy. According to most banding records these birds don't migrate as much as other birds. So if you spot one of these "Butcher" birds you will most likely see him again near that spot again soon. Look for signs of these birds as you walk along the countryside fences in your area. If you find a grasshopper hung out to dry on a barb it's a sure sign one is around.

This is one bird you will probably never see at your birdfeeder so providing food for them is out of the question. There are ways to help birds like this though and that is by providing open land and hedgerows. This provides nesting sites and open hunting grounds for them. There are many animals in nature that we cannot help directly. We can however, provide space and protection for them and they will do the rest. We know that since the time of creation man has altered nature, all too often, to meet his needs and his greed. Once in a while we should take God's world in consideration and lend a helping hand to restore its beauty. May God bless you as you study and observe his natural wonders.

Burney Tompkins

    - Uncle Burney

("Manna, October 2005")

Copyright 1995 - 2006

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