This past week we saw for the first time in over a year a very rare and imperiled bird in Virginia: the Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus. The genus name is Latin for butcher and Shrike is a derivative of shriek. The bird doesn’t really have a pretty song, it shrieks. It also has a dark mask over its eyes…a shrieking butcher with a mask….very appropriate for this Robin-sized bird. Its diet consists of small birds, large insects and mice usually killing its prey by a blow to the back of the neck with its beak, stunning them. While stunned, the bird impales the prey on a thorn where it can tear its flesh with its small raptor-like beak.
This is a picture of one of the Loggerhead Shrikes in Swoope taken by Greg Moyers.
This Shrike was once abundant from Canada to Central America but has drastically disappeared from the Northeast part of the U.S. Virginia lists the bird as “Threatened” since there have been only two to ten sightings of breeding pairs in recent years.
Shrikes are in Swoope due to ideal habitat: vast acreage of grassland with scattered trees and shrubs many with thorns such as the Hawthorn. Since this is cattle country, there are also barbed wire fences which the birds also use to impale their prey.
It’s still a mystery why their population is declining because ample habitat exists; especially here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
After reading a couple articles on the shrike, it seems like the VA populations are actually doing relatively well compared to other mid-Atlantic states’. I can’t believe it impales its prey! It’s interesting that it has to do that to feed since it lacks the sharp, gripping talons that large raptors use to kill their prey. I hope we can figure out why this unique species declining and do something to save / study it!
I think the reason for their decrease in numbers is not just habitat loss, but all of the alterations that we do to our habitat. Even though there are still lots of open plains with bushes and space for them to reproduce. The food supplies (insects, small reptiles) might be depleting due to unsustainable methods of land use by humans. Insecticides, fungicides, fertilizers, and pesticides, are all chemicals that are killing their food supply. Also changes in landscapes such as adding road traffic is having an impact on their numbers. There have been cases where the birds impact vehicles.
After reading your blog post I checked the Loggerhead Shrike’s profile on IUCN. The website has recognized their population as declining but states that their population in general is very large so they are listed under “least concern.” Although it would be interesting to find out why their population is in a decline even though they have a large enough habitat. Great to hear that you were able to have a sighting though!
I did some further research on the butcher bird and found a case study about the species in Minniesota. This study was conducted for two years to identify causes of decreased population. Through data collection and use of a model it was determined that the population of these birds in Minnesota was decreasing by an annual rate of 20 percent. They excluded availability of breeding ground as one of the causes of decreased population indicating that the cause of decreased population is outside their breeding grounds. It also seems that the habitat in the valley is highly available to the Loggerhead Shriek. Maybe there is something that the birds are allergic to which resemble their normal prey causing them to get sick? I would be surprised if the reason for their decline is not assosciated with human behavior
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