During the 15th century a certain prince, in a region of what is now Romania, established a reputation for cruelty nearly beyond the bounds of imagination. Atrocities committed on his behalf in order to establish control of his small empire were particularly heinous. In Romania he is known as Vlad Tepes. English speakers call him Vlad III the Impaler. His legendary status was secured forever when novelist Bram Stoker loosely based an 1897 story on him and called it Dracula.
In October, a winter visitor showed up in North Dakota with a reputation for impaling victims on thorns or barbs, but no one is locking doors and loading weapons because of it. This visitor doesn't rule with an evil iron fist, this visitor is a bird: the northern shrike (Lanius excubitor).
Of the twenty-some shrikes in the world, two are represented in the Western Hemisphere. One, the loggerhead shrike, nests here in open grasslands with scattered trees then winters in the southern U.S. The northern shrike spends its summer nesting to the far north in the taiga and tundra before moving to southern Canada and northern U.S. for the winter. In essence, we northern prairie dwellers have shrikes year-round; one just replaces the other as the seasons change.
Northern Shrikes are robin-sized birds with a pale gray head and back. Its belly is white with hazy gray barring. Wings are black with white patches and the tail is black with white edging. Somewhat menacing is the face where it sports a black mask and a somewhat large, black and hooked bill. Sexes are similar, with females being slightly paler.
Appearances differ slightly between the Northern and Loggerhead shrikes but it's the favored habitats that contrast, in my opinion. Loggerhead shrikes are married inexorably to grasslands, while northern shrikes prefer woodsier, shrubby areas. So tied are loggerheads to grasslands that I have never found one in heavily cultivated Cass County, but it is an expected sighting in the grassy areas of Richland and Ransom counties.
What makes shrikes unique among birds is the fact that they are the only true predatory songbirds. It seems though, that to belong among the songsters, it had to give up a little something from the predator team. So it lacks hooked talons, with the ability to kill prey. Instead, the bird catches its prey with its feet then stuns or kills it with blows from its bill. In season, the bird prefers large insects but also eats small mammals and birds. And it's not afraid of taking on species its own size either, as it has been known to kill blue jays and robins.
Some sources I found declare the bird to be uncommon to almost rare. I agree with the uncommon part but I would scarcely call it rare, at least in our area. A day of driving around likely areas should produce a northern shrike or two. Any black-and-gray bird atop a lonely tree in the winter is likely to be a Northern Shrike. These birds are solitary and extremely shy, however, and rarely allow a close approach before flying away.
Northern Shrikes usually hunt from a perch where it intently watches its immediate area. If prey is seen, the shrike will pursue it in a direct chase. I once stood in a small woodsy area in December and watched as a Northern Shrike chased a house sparrow for about three minutes. Around and around the trees they flew with the sparrow squawking nearly the entire time. I never witnessed the final result but it sure was thrilling to see.
A kill that is not immediately eaten by the shrike is sometimes cached, or stored, on a thorn or stuffed into a branch fork. This habit has given the shrike the label of wanton killer but this is undeserved. Apparently the bird has an amazing ability to recall locations of stored food so that in times of want it can still feed. In one instance, cached prey was consumed eight months later.
With that in mind, a person can hardly equate the evil Vlad (who killed and tortured for sheer enjoyment) with the Northern Shrike. Its needs can only be met by the consumption of prey, something centuries of evolutionary tensions compel it to do. So don't quiver in fear over this predator. Instead, get out your binoculars and admire this unique songbird.