For WPC’s loggerhead shrike field technicians Ashlea and Julie, witnessing one of their nesting loggerhead shrikesimpaling and eating an eastern milksnake before ripping off a piece to feed its nearby nestlings was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If you know much about the loggerhead shrike, and shrikes in general, you’ll know the come by the nickname “butcherbird” quite honestly. Shrike are “perch and wait” hunters, similar to raptors, but they lack the talons and strong feet of a raptor so instead, they “cache” or store prey that is too large for them to swallow on a thorn or piece of barbed wire.

You would think that with their nickname being what it is, and given their habitat is full of hawthorns and barbed wire to spear things on, it would be quite common to see caches of dead animals bedecking the trees and fences like some kind of morbid holiday ornaments. However, in our entire season up to as recently as June 13th, we had seen not one piece of evidence that these birds cache food at all!

Then, one lucky afternoon as we were monitoring at one of our nest sites and having one difficult time finding where the adult birds were foraging, one popped into a hawthorn not 100 m from our location with a long stringy thing pinched between its mandibles and dangling as it moved. What happened next was incredible: as we watched, the shrike moved to a dead hawthorn branch and began pushing the prey item (looking a bit worm like) onto a thorn.

When viewed with the scope I could see the animal had belly scales, indicating it was a snake – albeit a small one – but a snake nonetheless!

An eastern loggerhead shrike impaling an eastern milksnake on a hawthorn tree.

After the shrike had pierced its prey on the thorn, it used its bill to bite, tear and swallow a piece (likely the head) off it before moving back to the nest tree. Once we were sure the bird was clear of the area we went to investigate the cache and found a headless eastern milksnake about 1 cm in diameter and 18 cm long dangling from the thorn.

We could imagine how many feedings one snake could provide to tiny mouths at the nest and were so excited that we finally had found a cache and even better, watched the shrike in action making it! After snapping a picture, we headed out of the site reassured that the birds were still actively feeding young.

This observation may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one we certainly do not take for granted. It is part of the rewards of being an endangered species biologist.

Ashlea Veldhoen

Carden Biologist – Eastern Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Program

Ashlea Veldhoen has been working with birds in various capacities including captive wild birds in an educational setting, wildlife rehabilitation, bird banding stations and as an ornithological research technician where she first learned to do nest searches for pairs of semipalmated plovers in Churchill, MB with Dr. Erica Nol. Ashlea has two diplomas in Ecosystem Management Technology from Fleming College and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences from Trent University. When she is not chasing shrikes on the Carden Plain, she enjoys dog walks, birding and gardening for nature at her home.