Larry McPherson didn’t plan on falling in love with shrikes when he headed to Arkansas’ Wapanocca National Wildlife Refugee three years ago. After retiring from 30 years of teaching photography at the University of Memphis, McPherson was excited to test out his new filming equipment—all 65 pounds of it—while capturing some bird calls. He had always been fascinated with bird vocalizations, and that day he hoped to capture some Painted Buntings or other birds singing. But then he saw the pair of Loggerhead Shrikes courting each other in a hawthorn tree. “The shrikes were perfect,” McPherson says. “They’re so unique and rather fearless."
Three years later, after hundreds of hours filming, editing, and consulting with experts, McPherson has his masterpiece, The Loggerhead Shrike. The film, which clocks in at an engrossing 22 minutes, originally aired November 2016 on the Memphis PBS affiliate WKNO, and more recently, McPherson, who lives in Arlington, Tennessee, screened it for the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in Mississippi. Now he's made his self-funded passion project available for the public to enjoy on Vimeo.
The documentary captures everything from the birds courting [05:29, 09:28] to fledging young [18:00], with plenty of zoomed-in, up-close shots that give viewers an intimate look into the world of shrikes. And yes, that includes their voracious and vicious eating behaviors such as impaling rodents onto tree thorns [03:40] and ripping off beetle wings for easier swallowing [01:40].
McPherson even documented never-before-seen behaviors: In one scene, a shrike captures a grasshopper, but before eating it, the bird uses its sharp, hooked beak to rip out the digestive tract, avoiding the foul-tasting chemical hidden within [02:40]. The scene was so impressive that McPherson co-wrote a paper about it for an academic journal with Loggerhead Shrike expert Reuven Yosef of Ben-Gurian University in Israel, who was also consulted on the film. Researchers are now investigating the chemical’s toxicity.
Another revealing moment shows young shrikes practicing their impaling, also an unknown behavior to experts. While adults will impale prey on thorns for eating, baby shrikes apparently practice their coordination with small leaves on branches and twigs [16:33].
Just as important as actual the footage to McPherson is the trove of valuable information provided by the narration throughout. In another scene, when McPherson can tell he's gotten too close to the birds by their calls, the narrator even acknowledges the mistake in full transparency. But for the rest of the film, McPherson's high-powered equipment allowed him to capture truly incredible footage and avoid interfering in the birds' lives. “Without a camera with that powerful reach, you’re not going to see anything at all,” McPherson says. “I was privy. I was allowed in the private life, only because I had this powerful equipment.”
For the two years of filming, McPherson traveled an hour and a half each way to see the shrikes, sometimes recording for a week straight during breeding season. Afterward, he took a year discussing shrike behavior with a long list of experts, including Yosef and the Peregrine Fund’s Tom Cade, as he slowly edited down roughly 150 hours of video into the final 22 minutes.
Although he managed to document new behaviors, McPherson says his favorite aspects of the film harken back to the original reason he headed to Wappanocca National Wildlife Refuge in the first place: birdsong. The changes in the Loggerhead Shrikes vocalizations captivated McPherson, from the varied, quick calls when the male is looking for a mate [04:40] to his more peaceful singing [14:45] around the brood. “I got a high learning the different flavors," he says.
This documentary was self-funded by Larry McPherson, who has made the film available to the public for free. If you would like to show your support for this project and McPherson's work, you can make a donation here.