Over the years they slowly disappeared. And then they were gone. I last saw a Loggerhead Shrike in Swoope in 2014. The Loggerhead Shrike is a “common bird” whose population is in “steep decline”. In this post, I will describe the bird, chronicle its population, report efforts to bring the bird back and relate what you can do to help.
The Butcher Bird
The Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus, is a songbird with a raptor beak. It is known as the “Butcher Bird” because of its carnivorous diet and habit of impaling its prey on thorns.
We used to see them on a regular basis. There was a nesting pair in the thorn bushes of an old hedgerow in the pasture behind the house. I lament that we may have had the last nesting pair in Augusta County on the farm where I live and work.
In 2006, the late Yulee Larner, “Bird Lady” of Augusta County, wrote about birding in Swoope,
“This is the only place in Augusta County where we find nesting Bobolinks and the most consistent location for year-round records of the endangered Loggerhead Shrike”, News Leader, 3/11/2006
I used to see them every year somewhere in Augusta County, Virginia in the 80’s. We saw them in the backyard when we lived on Old Greenville Road in Mint Spring. I remember showing them to my daughter when she was young. She stood on a chair behind the sliding glass doors of the living room with my binoculars – and saw them.
It was a rare bird even then, and to be honest, not many people even know about them. They are about the same size and color as a Mockingbird. I’m a birder. And even in birding circles if you claim to have seen a Loggerhead Shrike they tilt their head and squint one eye saying, “Oh, you probably just saw a Mockingbird.”
Loggerhead Shrike Behavior and Diet Much Different than the Northern Mockingbird
The Shrike has an unmistakable black mask and does not have the behavior or the song of the Mockingbird. Shrikes are carnivorous and stun their prey with their beak. The Butcher Bird impales their prey such as small birds, small mammals, reptiles and large insects on thorns and barbed wire. They are rather hard to detect and their song is not really a song at all but more of a shriek.
Mockingbirds, on the other hand, are not hard to detect at all. They like to sit on a high perch such as the top of a pole or on the top branch of a tall tree and sing their hearts out with an infinite number of clear and vibrant songs. They often sing all day and into the night.
This Shrike Species is “Threatened” or “Endangered” in Fourteen States
This songbird, capable of killing vertebrate prey by severing its vertebre is listed as “endangered” in Canada and either “threatened” or “endangered” in fourteen states including four states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York.
The Loggerhead Shrike is the only Shrike species endemic to North America. Its population has declined by 76% between 1966 and 2015 according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Its population is expected to be cut in half within 24 years, according to scientists at Partners in Flight. Globally, it’s a “common bird” because its population is stable in the Southern parts of its range as in Texas, Florida, and Georgia. But, in it’s transitional or migratory range as in Virginia it is on the brink of extirpation.
“There are only about a hundred individual Loggerhead Shrikes left in Virginia and only a few known breeding pairs”, states Dr. Amy Johnson, Director of Virginia Working Landscapes, a program of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Decline Coincides with the Introduction and Increased Use of Chemical Pesticides
“Loggerhead Shrikes have been listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern in several states and Canada, and have been proposed for federal listing (the subspecies that nests on San Clemente Island, California, is listed as endangered). The species’ decline coincides with the introduction and increased use of chemical pesticides between the 1940s and the 1970s, and may result in part from the birds’ ingestion of pesticide-laced prey from treated fields.”
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
No one can really pinpoint why the bird’s population in the migratory zone has declined so rapidly. Scientists speculate that chemical pesticide use, loss of habitat, and climate change are partly to blame.
Bringing Back the Bird
Biologists from the Virginia Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute have partnered with Wildlife Preservation Canada and the Toronto Zoo to support an ongoing reintroduction program. Using birds acquired from the Toronto Zoo, they are breeding Loggerhead Shrikes at the Smithsonian Zoo’s facilities in Front Royal, Virginia and transporting captive-bred juveniles into Canada to be released each year with juveniles from the Ontario program. Their hope is that this will enhance efforts to repopulate this migratory sub-species to its former range while enabling biologists to learn valuable information about their reproductive biology.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources are also involved with the reintroduction program.
The Plan is Working!
Last year, one bird, raised in captivity and banded in Canada was seen in Augusta County, Virginia. It was captured on video by citizen scientist, Jean Shutt.
How You Can Help Bring Back the Loggerhead Shrike
Maintain and Establish Critical Habitat
Shrikes prefer shrubby, thorny habitat for nesting and open pasture for hunting. Red Cedar, Osage Orange, and Hawthorns are their preferred nesting trees according to Dr. Johnson. Hedgerows with these trees adjacent to grazed pasture are ideal but lone trees and shrubs in pastures are beneficial as well. Contact your local USDA office or the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for assistance in establishing habitat.
Contribute to Organizations
I have provided hot links to organizations that have “on-the-ground” research and programs to bring the Loggerhead Shrike back to its original range. Please go to these websites and find out how you can volunteer and/or contribute to their missions.
Be on the Lookout for the Birds
If you see a Loggerhead Shrike be very observant. Identify the bands on the legs (if present) and watch their behavior. Write down the location and time of day and report your siting to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at:
or the Loggerhead Shrike-Shrike Force.
Keep Cats Indoors
The domestic cat is the number one killer of birds in America. Keep your cat indoors and promote programs that foster the humane reduction of feral cat populations.
Do you have a Shrike Story? I’d love to hear from you.
It is unfortunate that we have dwindled so many different species of all different kinds of animals in North America because of misused chemicals and pesticides. Living next to multiple fields that utilize spraying each season with pesticides and chemicals, It doesn’t take much to convince me that none of them are any good for humans or animals. The smell is terrible and I worry about letting my dogs out in the field for a few days after spraying. We need to cut down on the use of these chemicals because studies are clearly showing how harmful they can be on a quantitative level. As far as the Loggerhead Shrike, it is comforting knowing that good Samaritans and researchers are doing their part in trying to save the species. If we continue on this path and cut down on chemical pesticide use we can save more species from being endangered or extinct! I am also interested to read into Cat Wars to hear more about the correlation between domestic cats and the killing of birds.
Another example of a species caught in the crossfire of human actions. Although it is uplifting to see that the shrikes are being reintroduced and protected in the environment, it sucks that the population was devastated in the first place. I do remember seeing a documentary from national geographic or something similar, about how these birds impale their prey and being extremely intrigued. It showed a thornbush covered in impaled small rodents and insects, like a twisted graveyard. It was fascinating but also pretty dark. Such a cool bird.
It is interesting to me that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has only given a prediction as to why the Loggerhead Shrikes population has declined so drastically. I wonder if they are actively performing experiments or doing research to more conclusively establish the link between certain pesticides and the bird’s decline. I feel like this would be a really important step in restoring the species, because if the pesticides are still in use in the area, releasing more birds probably won’t help the population all too much. Have they established that these chemicals are not being used as heavily in the areas where the Loggerhead Shrikes population remains stable? It seems like there are still a lot of unknowns regarding their dwindling population, which is nerve-racking because it could make it hard to protect them. I think the section of the article that provides some different ways to help was really useful because no matter the root cause, these practices can help prevent the situation from worsening.
Before reading this article, I did not know of the Loggerhead Shrike, or much about birds in general. I find the distinct marking of the black mask and beak interesting, and I was shocked to learn it is a carnivorous species. It is scary to see the rapid decline of a species in such a specific area when it is known as a “common bird” in other places of the country. This is a prime example of how dangerous chemical pesticides can be for species and ecosystems. It is fantastic to see institutions working together to reintroduce the Loggerhead Shrike back into the migratory range and that it is already seeing some progress. However, it does worry me that if farmlands are still using chemical pesticides on their fields the problem could continue and the birds would never regain their full population. I would be interested to learn more about the specific chemicals in the pesticide that harms the bird, and if there are alternatives to using it.
I found it interesting that this “common” bird seems to be pretty tough and resilient in all aspects but is still falling victim to declining population. I realized that it is important to care and monitor even “common” birds so that they can stay common and not become endangered. Even though the bird is endangered, it is super encouraging to see people and organizations come together in hopes of increasing the numbers of this bird–and it’s working!
Although the restoration efforts from the Virginia Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Wildlife Preservation Canada, and the Toronto Zoo provide a spark of hope, it’s unfortunate to see yet another species become threatened due to human causes within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It seems like reduced pesticide use after the 1970’s may allow Loggerhead Shrike populations to increase with the help of breeding efforts, and hopefully TMDLs and other efforts will continue improving the environment they inhabit. The part about domestic cats posing the largest threat to Loggerhead Shrikes is incredibly interesting because I work with cat rescues in Harrisonburg and Northern Virginia, and I am a big proponent for reducing outdoor cat populations both for the cat’s health and for the health of the ecosystem. Trap-neuter-release programs are incredibly important to reduce feral cat populations, especially in Harrisonburg because we have so many feral cat communities.
The status of the Loggerhead Shrike is categorized as a, ‘Least-concern’ species, meaning that they are not endangered, but their population is declining. Although this is not the ideal status of this fierce bird, it shows promise of increasing the shrike population. This blog is very insightful to not only environmental issues on-hand, but ways that we as citizens can help. Since the cause of the strike population decrease is likely due to chemical pesticide and banning chemical pesticide use would take a lot of time, effort, and many people, the next best way the help increase shrike population will still make a noticeable impact. It is amazing that we as people can do something about this, because the loss of a species to extinction would have snowballing impacts across the food web. Now that I know what this bird looks like, I will be on the lookout for it in the future,
I’ve heard of the Loggerhead Strike and its decline before. I was intrigued by how it was one of the only small birds of prey in the Mid-Atlantic. But it is one of the species we’ve lost in the region. But in terms of its conservation status, it is listed as of “least concern” because it is still common in other areas of the world. According to some conservationists, more than 1,000 species have been pushed out of their habitats in recent years due to loss of habitat and climate change. Furthermore, around 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. Overlooking the loss of a species in one area, while it may be plentiful in another, should be treated more seriously. It goes to show how fast that species could disappear from where it currently thrives. Reading about the efforts from local groups to bring the Loggerhead Strike back is reassuring though, as it goes to show how local citizens can work together to fight climate change impacts in their areas.
It is sad to see such a unique and important species become so rare in Agusta County which I call home. The sad part about all of this is that most people are unaware of species like these being highly endangered and in need of protection. If pesticides are the leading problem for the survival of this species then that should be the first priority to solve. New advances in genetic modification can be used to both help corps grow and help the loggerhead shrike to thrive where it has in the past.
It is sad to hear about the decline of this species of bird in my home state, and I can’t say that I remember ever seeing one in person. The fact they there are organizations trying to help this bird species come back in those 14 states, but with the continued use of pesticides, I’m sure their chances of returning to large numbers is bleak. I’m curious as to why this species in particular is so sensitive to the pesticide use when plenty of other bird species that eat invertebrates are still plentiful in the state. I will for sure keep my eye out for these birds in the future.
It seems I know more species of animals that are in danger of extinction than not. I wonder if any “mockingbirds” I have seen have been shrikes that fooled my untrained eye. I’m glad the reintroduction program has been a success so far. I’m curious to know how birds being bred and partially raised in captivity impacts their migration patterns and instincts. This bird sounds surprisingly advanced in its hunting strategy, both in using a tool to kill its prey and how it specifically kills invertebrate animals by severing the spine. I didn’t know birds were capable of such a calculated killing method. The pesticide use harming the population makes sense to me but how it specifically impacts this range is very mysterious (as stated in the article). I also wonder why the change in pesticide use over the years, which I am assuming has become more limited since the 80s, has not halted or slowed the decline in the population. I might need to investigate further pesticide usage in the area, in terms of spread, regulation and variation in usage over the years.
I think it’ very admirable that people are working so hard to bring back the Loggerhead Shrike population. It’s interesting to know that even though the population is steady in the southern states like Texas, the population is suffering in Virginia. I wonder what is different about the east coast that is making it difficult for these species to thrive. I also wonder what kinds of species populations I’ll see changes to 40 years from now. Hopefully I won’t see the same sharp decline; I hope to only see increased populations and flourishing species diversity. But if feral cats continue to reduce the bird populations then we might have a problem. I didn’t know that domestic cats are the number one killer of birds in America. Maybe I should adopt a cat to help the loggerhead strike comeback…
Typically, the topic of endangered species gets a lot of light due to the presence of larger, more “famous” animals that are in decline. When most people think of species in danger of extinction, I’m sure they have images of pandas, tigers, rhinos, and other large wildlife that have dominated the popular news on this topic. This is of course not the case, as outlined by the decline of the loggerhead shrike population. It is devastating to see this sort of loss hit animals that are so close to our homes. I didn’t grow up seeing pandas in my backyard and its hard to personally relate to that kind of loss, but hearing stories of others who live so close to me who used to hear and see the shrikes and no longer can makes me realize how widespread of an issue this is. Moreover, knowing that such decline can be caused by the sort of practices I have been surrounded by my whole life makes me even more shocked about this loss. It is encouraging to know that there are people doing things to help mitigate this problem and that there are always options for anyone to get involved.
It is always sad to see that there are so many species like the Loggerhead Strike being listed as “threatened” or “endangered” species. These creatures have been thriving for years but with increasing human involvement we have single-handedly decimated their populations. The vast majority of species that are now extinct are because of humans. I think we forget sometimes that before us, animals ruled the Earth, and we need to respect that. Although we may not see it immediately, every animal has its place in the ecosystem it resides in. Disruptions to that ecosystem such as a large majority of one species being reduced can have catastrophic effects.
It’s always discouraging to see a species of animal slowly disappear, whether its the fault of humans or of natural causes or both. I really like the Loggerhead Shrike’s color pattern, especially their iconic black mask. It’s sad to hear that there are only about one hundred Loggerhead Shrikes left in Virginia currently as that makes your chances of seeing one very low. Although the bird’s population is declining, it is encouraging to see that there are a few different things we can do as individuals to help save and restore the species. After learning about the Loggerhead Shrike’s decline, I will definitely make more of an effort to keep a look out for these birds and to take appropriate actions if necessary.
Its discouraging to hear stories like this where a species with a long term presence is slowly declining. Its also cool to see how bird watchers keep such a close eye on bird populations. Its encouraging to hear a few ways we can help bird populations, really in my opinion the biggest problem are homeowners obsessing over manicured clean cut lawns.