National Geographic
Menu

The Butcher Bird – Life, Death and Fast Food on the Plains

Loggerhead Shrike on American Prairie Reserve. Photo: Dave Shumway
Loggerhead Shrike on American Prairie Reserve. Photo: Dave Shumway

Heading into the seventh month of a year-round citizen science program on American Prairie Reserve, I’m able to witness the hidden treasures of the ecosystem in ways I’d never imagined. Thanks to volunteers from around the world, we’re able to capture, document and share what’s happening at a level of detail that we can’t do on our own, especially across such a vast landscape. Stories like the butcher bird are one of millions waiting to be told through first-hand encounters with nature. By combining data collection with adventure and personal experiences, the conservation of grasslands and other endangered places is more captivating and achievable than ever.  - Sean Gerrity

======================================================================

By Katy Teson, American Prairie Reserve

Perched above the open prairie, the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicanus) isn’t a typical songbird. It’s much darker than that. Loggerhead Shrikes are called “butcher birds” for a reason – they impale their prey on sharp objects for safekeeping and for ease of tearing it apart later.

Less than ten inches tall and with a foot-long wingspan, this miniature aggressor doesn’t lack in swagger. Their excellent eyesight enables them to spot meals like grasshoppers, mice, snakes, frogs, and even other birds! While Loggerhead Shrikes don’t have powerful talons like raptors, they make the most out of a small hooked beak and their feet to transport prey to a skewer of choice, like barbed wire or a small tree branch. These food caches, also called pantries or larders, might linger for days, weeks, and months, especially in winter when food sources are scarce.

Breeding season, typically April through July, intensifies this hoarding behavior since males use the predatory tactic (and convenient meal service) to show off for the opposite sex. This helps explain why our Landmark citizen science volunteers have recently found more of these prairie shish kabobs as they travel across the project area.

June Landmark volunteers walking transects across American Prairie Reserve spotted this grasshopper meal on a barbed fence wire. Photo: Landmark/APR
June Landmark volunteers walking transects across American Prairie Reserve spotted this grasshopper meal on a barbed fence wire. Photo: Landmark/APR

In June, Landmark’s camera trap project also captured video of Loggerhead Shrikes on the prowl and after a successful hunt.

Above: Loggerhead Shrike with captured cricket perches on a fence in front of a Landmark camera trap. 

 

The Reserve’s 300,000-acre expanse easily hides creatures, big and small, and their unique behaviors. Thanks to the year-round Landmark volunteer program with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, we now have the boots on the ground to document the intricate — and disturbingly clever — parts of life on the northern plains in all seasons. As Loggerhead Shrike populations continue to decline across North America, we’re keeping a close watch on this summer resident as well as other prairie birds that add color, sound, and cunning survival strategies to the prairie ecosystem.

A Landmark Adventure Scientists aims down the fenceline before a storm rolls in.  Photo: Mike Kautz/ASC
A Landmark adventure scientist aims down the fenceline before a storm rolls in. Photo: Mike Kautz/ASC

American Prairie Reserve (APR) is assembling a world class wildlife reserve in northern Montana, with the goal of one day creating a seamless 3.5 million acre grassland ecosystem. APR’s President Sean Gerrity is a National Geographic Fellow and was recently profiled by The Innovators Project. Learn more about the Reserve, including the Landmark adventure science program and current progress, on the Reserve’s website