For weeks before Christmas 2006 we caught glimpses of a Loggerhead Shrike at Prairie Ridge, patrolling the fencerow along the young lowland tree plantings, giving us great views of its black, gray and white plumage and signature hooked beak. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission currently lists the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) as a species of Special Concern. Birders began to make special visits to Prairie Ridge just to catch a glimpse of the bird. The ornithologists at the Museum were eager to band it in order to better track our local shrike population. Since this species is not often caught in the type of mist nets that we normally use for bird banding, three specially designed cages were fabricated.
On Thursday, January 4, 2007, a small group of scientists, educators, and volunteers gathered for a regular bird banding session and placed the new cages to test their luck in capturing this prize. Within 20 minutes, the shrike had found one of the cages. It hopped around on the top of the cage, looking for a way in as its human "captors" watched through spotting scopes and binoculars and held their breath. The shrike quickly found the open door and entered. Another moment of suspense ended when the door tripped shut. Success! Scientists then measured the bird's size, age, and amount of body fat. Two plastic colored bands and a small aluminum identification band were placed around the bird's ankle. The color bands will allow researchers to identify the shrike as an individual from a distance. The aluminum band is stamped with a unique identification number, #199163450, that will allow scientists from around the country to track the bird if they recapture it. After banding, we wished the shrike well and released it back into the fields of Prairie Ridge.
Loggerhead Shrikes, often called Butcher Birds, resemble mockingbirds but for their large heads, black mask-like markings, and hook-tipped beaks. These songbirds are predators, hunting large insects, small birds, snakes, frogs, and rodents. They will perch motionlessly and watch for prey before flying down and immobilizing it with their powerful beaks. Once captured, prey is often impaled on thorns to assist the shrike in eating it or to store it for later. Fond of shrubby grassland, the Loggerhead Shrike is becoming rare in North Carolina due to habitat loss.
If you would like to help scientists track these and other winter birds consider participating in Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch.
Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time Is It In Nature Archive.