Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the October 4, 1996 entry in Jim's book The Dunes of Samayaluca. The Dunes are in northern Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert about half an hour south of the US/Mexico border between El Paso, Texas and Juárez

At 10 AM a raspy call erupts from the next dune's slope. Something white perches there on a brown, decaying flower-stalk emerging from a wastebasket-size cluster of bristling, bayonet-shaped yucca leaves. The binoculars show an old friend, a bird I've known since I was a kid on the Kentucky farm, the Loggerhead Shrike.

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianusIt's a handsome bird and it's handsome not because of colors, which are merely gray, white and black, but because of the boldness of its patterns. It's mostly gray with a white throat, black tail, and black wings with white patches that flash during flight. And shrikes wear black face masks like cartoon characters robbing banks. For beginning birders, the black mask separates it from similar-looking Mockingbirds.

You expect hawks and owls to be hunters of small animals other than insects, but not songbirds like shrikes. Nonetheless, . Loggerhead Shrikes prey on rodents and birds as well as insects. Songbirds aren't supposed to have hooked beaks like hawks and owls, but even from thirty feet away  I can see this shrike's upper mandible curving downward into a conspicuous hook.

Shrikes, like all other predatory birds, have the problem of keeping their prey stabilized while they dissect their prey. However, shrikes don't have the powerful feet that owls and hawks do to hold their prey, so shrikes sometime impale and immobilize their victims on sharp things like spines and thorns. I've often found mice and grasshoppers on cactus thorns and barbed wire spines, surely the work of shrikes. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a shrike without there being something spiky nearby.

Once in Mississippi I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike perched on a fence surrounding a suburban home's backyard garden, and I thought I'd finally seen one away from all spines. But then I noticed that the bird was perched on a chainlink fence with the top border wires snipped off, forming sharp spikes jutting into the air every inch or so.

This bird simply has an irrepressible passion for spikiness.

from the December 14, 2003 Newsletter issued from the woods south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

My jogging road courses across flat land between a large pasture and an expansive, open field. These are part of Sandy Creek's floodplain. As the sun rises during my daily runs I love having an horizon-to- horizon view of the open sky, with the sky's clouds, fog or clearness setting the tone for the upcoming day. When the fields are white with frost or dark and soggy with overnight rain, I exquisitely feel that dry frost or penetrating wetness on my legs, arms, face, and deep inside my lungs. Rarely the wind howls across the fields at dawn, shaking the power lines and whistling through the pasture fence. I think that running across an open, windy area provides about as much of a free feeling as a landlubber can experience.

Especially on those rare windy mornings a certain bird can be expected to appear on the swaying power lines. Not only must this bird enjoy the wind's wildness, but also he must enjoy watching me, for sometimes after I jog past him he flies down the line so he can see me pass again. He looks very much like a grayish mockingbird, except that he's a little chunkier, has a bill that hooks downward instead of being straight, and across his face he wears a black mask. He's the Loggerhead Shrike, LANIUS LUDOVICIANUS. "Ludovicianus" means "of Louisiana," so the species is right at home in our area. The species is migratory, but its summer and winter ranges overlap here, so it's found here year round.

Loggerhead Shrikes have an obsession for sharp things -- whether it's spines on cacti, thorns on trees, or barbs on barbed-wire fences. This passion complements the bird's practice of storing prey by impaling it in spiny places where it's likely to be left along. If you ever find a mouse or a grasshopper stuck on a spine well above the ground, a good bet would be that it's the work of a shrike.

Years ago while working on a story I interviewed someone at Mississippi State up at Starkville. Spotting a shrike on the campus's manicured grounds I wondered what he was doing in such a tame environment. But then he flew to the top of a chainlink fence and I understood, for the cut wire atop the fence was jagged and sharp enough to cut skin. I've simply never seen a Loggerhead Shrike where no spininess existed.

Sometimes the jogging-road shrike crosses Liberty Road onto this property. However, he doesn't range freely across our fields and woods but rather orbits around a big Honeylocust tree next to Sandy Creek. And you know that Honeylocusts bear branched spines powerful enough to puncture tractor tires.

This is one bird you don't expect to see in a forest, for it is a creature of open places. It's interesting to note that in the late 1800s the Loggerhead Shrikes' distribution expanded into the US Northeast, probably because of deforestation and agriculture. However, since the 1940s its distribution and numbers have decreased as abandoned, marginal farmland and pastureland have returned to being forested. The species continues to decline in numbers in most but not all places.

It would be sad to lose this species, if only because it's always wonderful to be in the presence of any being whose whole personality is colored by an irrepressible passion for something not destructive -- even if that something is "sharpness."

The Loggerhead Shrike's summer distribution map is at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/ra6220.html and its "Christmas Bird Count" winter distribution map is at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/cbcra/h6220ra.html