Photo: Matthew Studebaker/Audubon Photography Awards

Northern Shrike

Lanius excubitor

This tough bird feeds on rodents and smaller birds for much of the year. It spends the summer in the far north, appearing in southern Canada and the lower 48 States only in winter. Solitary and wary, the shrike is likely to be seen perched at the top of a lone tree in an open field, watching for prey.
Conservation status No clear evidence of decreasing numbers in North America, but the species should be watched, since various kinds of shrikes around the world are showing declines. An odd historical note: in the 1870s, when the House Sparrow from Europe had just been introduced here, a warden was hired to shoot Northern Shrikes on the Boston Commons in winter to protect the sparrows! Although the warden killed as many as 50 shrikes one winter, this episode probably had little effect on the total population of the species.
Family Shrikes
Habitat Semi-open country with lookout posts; trees, scrub. Breeds in far north in partly open or scattered spruce woods and in willow and alder scrub along streams or edges of tundra. Winters in similar semi-open areas, sometimes in open grassland with a few high perches, but seems to prefer some brushy areas nearby.
This tough bird feeds on rodents and smaller birds for much of the year. It spends the summer in the far north, appearing in southern Canada and the lower 48 States only in winter. Solitary and wary, the shrike is likely to be seen perched at the top of a lone tree in an open field, watching for prey.
Photo Gallery
  • adult
  • immature (1st winter)
  • juvenile
  • adult
Feeding Behavior

Forages by watching from an exposed perch, then darting out in swift, powerful flight after prey is spotted. Uses its heavy hooked bill to kill its prey, although small birds attacked in flight may be forced to the ground first with the shrike's feet. Dead prey is sometimes impaled on a thorn and then eaten later.


Eggs

Clutch size varies, often 4-7 eggs, up to 9 in Alaska. Eggs pale gray or greenish white, spotted with brown, olive, and gray. Incubation is probably mostly or entirely by female, about 15-17 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave the nest about 19-20 days after hatching, are tended by parents for several more weeks.


Young

Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave the nest about 19-20 days after hatching, are tended by parents for several more weeks.

Diet

Includes small birds, rodents, large insects. Varied diet includes many small songbirds, especially in winter and early spring; also many voles and other small rodents, and many large insects when available. Especially in Eurasia, also known to eat lizards, frogs, snakes.


Nesting

Male sings to defend nesting territory and perhaps to attract a mate, giving a surprisingly complex song that includes imitations of other birds. Nest: Placed in a low tree or large shrub, often in spruce or willow, usually 6-15' above the ground. Nest (probably built by both sexes) is a loosely made, bulky, open cup of twigs, grass, bark strips, moss, lined with feathers and animal hair.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Moves south rather late in fall, returning north early in spring. Numbers on the wintering grounds vary from year to year, with many more appearing in the occasional "invasion winters."

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Migration

Moves south rather late in fall, returning north early in spring. Numbers on the wintering grounds vary from year to year, with many more appearing in the occasional "invasion winters."

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Mixture of warbles and harsh tones with a robin-like quality.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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