Thursday, June 5, 2008

Don't Confuse A Loggerhead With A Mocker

We haven't seen him in our yard for several years, but on a sunny warm May day, he arrived. He sits on a dead limb of a dogwood tree and surveys the comings and goings of the large insects and butterflies fluttering by. I make myself comfortable to watch for the catch, but it doesn't materialize. Evidently, beetle or butterfly fingers don't whet his appetite, or the warm sun has made him too lazy to make the effort for such a small prize.

Slightly smaller than a robin, the loggerhead shrike has a big rounded head, thick neck and an all black, hawk-like bill and hook-like claws.

Having the weak feet of song birds, the shrike kills its prey with his strong bill, shaking, twisting and choking it until it is dead. Small birds, shrews, small rodents, grasshoppers and other large insects are some of its favorite catches. Shrikes hunt only by day and have remarkable eyesight, comparable to that of hawks, eagles and falcons. They are the only truly predatory songbirds in that they consistently prey on vertebrate animals.

The shrike gets its nickname "butcher bird" from the habit of hanging its prey on thorny trees, barbs of wire fence, or wedging them into the crotches of limbs. The head of the victim is up, the body hanging suspended, much like a butcher hangs a leg of lamb or a side of beef from a hook in his shop.

These situations are used as pantries to store food for future use as well as a "dish" for his present meal. The thorny branch, his plate, holds the prey while he eats it. There are scientists who say shrikes don't return to eat the impaled food. There are others who say it does occasionally return for its stored food. I wouldn't know, but when I'm out on walks I see dried insects, a mouse or bird hanging on thorns, indicating the prey has been there for awhile.

Light gray covers the back and head of the shrike. A black mask covers the eyes. Black wings with a white patch, white throat and dirty white breast complete his attire. He blends well with his surroundings.

The only bird that could be confused with the shrike in our area is the mockingbird. Though both are black and white and gray birds, the shades and tones of the colors differ, the shrike's being much lighter. The shrike is a chunkier bird than the mocker and his head is larger with a thicker neck. The black, gray and white of the shrike are distinctly defined. They don't blend as they do in the mocker's plumage.

Breeding from Florida northward to southern Canada and westward to Louisiana, the loggerhead is a common resident of the Central Savannah River Area. He builds a bulky nest of twigs, leaves and grasses in a thorny bush or dense tree from eight to twenty feet above ground. Usually, a clutch of four to seven dull white to grayish or creamy white eggs is laid. They are thickly and evenly spotted and blotched with dull browns and light lavender.

The loggerhead is a poor songster. About the best he can do is a series of squeaky whistles, strangling gurgles and high-pitched pipings, though sometimes he might burst into harsh warble-like notes.

Common nicknames are French mockingbird, butcher bird and cotton bird, from the habit of using cotton in his nest.