The concrete felt cold beneath me. I’d sat on its frozen surface for more than an hour. Thankfully warm winter sun fell on me and heated the dark colors I’d chosen to wear (smartly so I might add, for the temperature never rose above freezing—or for that matter, it never came to within five degrees of freezing). Yet the harsh chair that threatened to numb my bottom with chill and discomfort couldn’t make me leave.
A tiny motte near the sidewalk offered something worth seeing. Or at least something worth trying to see. Hunting the frozen ground and using the bare branches to survey the area for prey, a loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) flitted through a ligneous maze, dashing to bare earth and back again as it looked for breakfast.
Not large birds by any stretch of the imagination, shrikes have chutzpah that leaves mouths agape. I watched one once as it tried to drown a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). It should be noted that a killdeer weighs twice as much as a shrike. How the small killer thought it would carry away the larger bird had it succeeded in drowning it I will never know. But it didn’t succeed: the poor killdeer took a beating before making good its escape. (Several times I thought the shrike held the plover underwater long enough to win the battle, but the killdeer showed impressive stamina coupled with a very strong will to survive.)
On this particular morning, however, killdeer was not on the menu. The shrike hunted in a small stand of trees alongside a road, traffic separating us from a neighborhood just across the way and a vast meadow of prairie grasses laid out on the other three sides. The golden field hid pipits and meadowlarks, the occasional harrier sweeping across low to the ground and kestrels perched conspicuously throughout the area. Bluebirds, crows, hawks, woodpeckers and sapsuckers, herons, ducks, sparrows, chickadees and titmice… I had difficulty keeping track of all the species. And though so much life bubbled and percolated no matter where I looked, I played the part of a stone as I watched the shrike.
Despite never having an unobstructed scene, I figured it best not to move. The shrike didn’t seem to mind me so long as I sat still, so at least I could watch as it went on with its hunt. The predator eventually dropped to the ground for a split second, grabbed something, and returned to the branches with its prey. That’s when it showed a behavior that often leads to bizarre collections of critters hung like drying laundry.
Shrikes are known for impaling their prey. Sometimes they leave the food impaled and come back to it later; sometimes they impale it to subdue it, then they eat it immediately. Amazingly, toxic prey such as poisonous frogs and grasshoppers are left impaled for days at a time before being consumed, a practice thought to dissipate the noxious chemicals. (And for some toxic species, the shrikes will only consume the parts that do not contain the offensive substance.) But no matter the varied reasons behind the practice, this bird offered a quick glimpse of how determined they can be about it.
The larva it held found itself quickly pressed against a tiny sprout on the branch. The shrike ensured it ran the insect right through, pushing and manipulating the meal until it could be pushed no further. Then it pulled the grub off the branch. I thought that would be the end of it. But not so fast!
With entrails dangling from the prey, the shrike moved to a different branch, positioned itself facing me, and then proceeded to impale breakfast on another branch. The larva nearly split asunder at that point. The job apparently done, the shrike slipped the food from the tree and flew across the street to a brick fence. It landed there and enjoyed its catch.
I remained seated for some time longer hoping the shrike would return to the motte. It regrettably had other plans. After dining, it sat on the brick fence for a few minutes before flying in the opposite direction through the neighborhood opposite the park.