Loggerhead Shrike: A Songbird That Thinks It’s a Raptor

Updated: Jul. 11, 2024

The loggerhead shrike is a cardinal-size songbird, native to North America, that acts more like a bird of prey. Learn how to spot one.

With its black mask, fearless nature, and habit of impaling its prey with impunity, a loggerhead shrike is the bird world’s Zorro. Here’s how to identify these birds.

What does a Loggerhead Shrike Look Like?

Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) -perched on a snagSandi Smolker/Getty Images
Loggerhead shrike

Male and female loggerhead shrikes look the same and keep the same plumage year round. Its trademarks are its oversized head compared to its body, bold black mask, and thick, hooked, black bill. It also has a gray cap and shoulders. Its black wings contrast with its pale gray breast and belly, which might be faintly barred, and its long, black tail has white edges. When it flies, its wings show flashing white patches.

Learn how to identify another gray songbird, the northern mockingbird.

Loggerhead Shrike vs Northern Shrike

Very similar to the loggerhead shrike is another species, the northern shrike. True to its name, that bird has a much more northerly range, appearing south of the Canadian border only in winter, and even then only in the northern states. The northern shrike is slightly larger than the loggerhead and has narrow horizontal bars across its chest, and its black mask is thinner. Young northern shrikes during their first winter are strongly washed with brown.

Loggerhead Shrike Range and Habitat

Couclc17 Carla Pettit 002Courtesy Carla Pettit
Look for these birds perched in open areas

Loggerhead shrikes like open land, as long as the vegetation is low and spiky, and they have places to perch and look for prey. Their range includes most of the United States, though they’ve become rare in the Northeast and upper Midwest.

Only those in the northern portion of their range migrate in the fall and only as far as the southern United States and Mexico. Birds in the middle and southern United States stay put year-round.

“If its diet suits it, it stays put,” says Sam Ansaldi, program director at the Fenner Nature Center in Lansing, Michigan.

What Do Loggerhead Shrikes Eat?

Loggerhead Shrike with preyStan Tekiela Author / Naturalist / Wildlife Photographer/Getty Images
Loggerhead shrike with prey

During the summer, loggerheads look for grasshoppers, moths, beetles, and other large insects as well as amphibians, lizards, small mammals, small rodents and snakes. During the winter, rodents make up most of its diet.

How they hunt is what truly sets them apart. Its beak has a sharp “tomial tooth,” which is its main weapon. It either hover-hunts like a kestrel or pounces on prey from a low perch, using this miniature dagger to pierce the nape and sever the spine.

“A loggerhead shrike is an absolute precision hunter,” says Sam. “The tomial tooth helps it incapacitate prey. Many songbirds hunt invertebrates as a protein source. However, loggerhead shrikes, which are more muscular and have a big head compared to the rest of their body, are like little snipers. It strikes once, then carries its prey away with its beak and impales it on the spine of, say, a hawthorn or locust tree.”

Loggerhead Shrike Larder

Loggerhead Shrike Holding Texas Horned LizardArthur Morris/Getty Images
Loggerhead shrike holding a Texas horned lizard

Sometimes a loggerhead shrike eats its catch immediately, tearing it apart in seconds, but often it saves it for later, earning the nickname, “butcher bird”. If you see prickers on a bush laden with dead animal remains, you’ve found a loggerhead’s “larder.”

Scientists believe the size and visibility of a male’s larder serves several purposes: to lure a female, as a food cache during the winter, and to advertise its ferocity, that is until nearby corvids steal its stash, and it has to restock.

“At first you might think it’s an adorable songbird perching by the worst Christmas tree you’ve ever seen, but it truly is a butcher bird,” says Sam. “I once saw a loggerhead shrike systematically impale a 2 ½-foot garter snake every 6 inches so it wouldn’t fall from its larder.”

While these tiny tyrants may sound demonic in the grisly way they treat their prey, they actually serve an important function in the ecosystems where they live, helping keep insect populations in check and getting rid of weaker or diseased small animals.

Loggerhead Shrike Courtship

In the spring, males challenge each other by bowing, fluttering their wings and stamping, They also might face away from each other then whirl back around. To attract a mate, a male shows off with short flight displays, calling, dancing and offering food to the female.

“During courtship, males present nest material, especially hair or fur, all different types, to the female, like taking her flowers on a first date,” says Ansaldi. “When mating, they also chirp and call softly, which is different from the loud shriek-like call for which the bird is named.”

The pairs are basically monogamous, though females might select a new mate for a second brood after the first brood fledges.

Nests and Eggs

Bnbbyc19 Linda OneillCourtesy Linda Oneill
Loggerhead shrike flying away after feeding young

Due to their penchant for skewering prey but also for protection and concealment, they often pick a nest site in a thorn bush or spiky tree, or they might opt for a dense jumble of branches or a brush pile.

Both parents help build a 6-inch diameter, cup-shaped nest from twigs, grass and bark, and line it with softer flowers, moss, fur and feathers, about 2 1/2 to 4 feet above the ground.

The female then lays four to six gray-buff eggs flecked with gray-brown. She incubates the eggs for about 2 weeks while the male brings her food and defends the nest. After the eggs hatch, they both feed their brood, which fledge in another 17 to 20 days.

The fledglings continue to depend upon mom and dad for food for another two to four weeks before becoming fully independent.

The instinct to impale is so ingrained that even young birds grasp objects in their bills and touch the objects repeatedly to a branch to try to get them to stick.

Loggerhead Shrike Songs and Calls

Bird sounds courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

Both males and females vocalize to assert their territory though it’s hardly singing. Their name, shrike, means “shriek” in Old English, which describes their raspy call.

Next meet the elf owl, the smallest owl in the world.

About the Expert

Sam Ansaldi is the program director at the Fenner Nature Center in Lansing, Michigan. He has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Olivet and a master’s degree in education from Michigan State University. A full-time naturalist for most of his career, he has worked at zoos, universities, a conservation authority in Ontario, Canada, where he banded and worked on captive breeding of shrikes.