Unique impaling behaviour of Shrikes

By in Animals

There are many fascinating stories to be told about the unique feeding behaviours of the 10,000 or so bird species that roam the earth. From hitting your head against a tree trunk 20 times a second, eating bones, drinking nectar, or cleaning a crocodiles teeth! However, one of the most ferocious and graphic ones must be that of the shrike family.

Great grey shrike

An amazing picture of a Great Grey Shrike having impaled a Dunnock. Photo by Glenn Vermeersch

Shrikes are formidable hunters that have the habit of catching insects and small mammals and impaling their dead bodies on thorns! Since they don’t have clawed feet this peculiar behaviour helps them to tear their prey into small eatable pieces. It furthermore serves as a cache so that the shrike can come back later, which may help males to impress a female (Yosef & Pinshow, 2005). Impressingly, the impaling behaviour of shrikes have even enabled them to eat extremely toxic grasshoppers by waiting for 1-2 days for the toxins to degrade (Yosef & Whitman, 1992).

The amazing picture above was taken by Glenn Vermeersch and shows the impaling behaviour in all its detail. Here is his story about how he managed to get this amazing shot:

As a nature photographer specializing in birds, I have been trying for five years to capture this behaviour with no success at all. In northern Belgium where I live, the shrike occurs only as a winter guest. It is also a very shy and intelligent species making it extremely difficult to photograph.

Shrike with mouse

A great grey shrike with a freshly caught shrew! Photo by Glenn Vermeersch

A few weeks ago I found a bird that was slightly less shy than I was used to. It occupied a small winter territory in a protected area. I contacted the owner and got permission to place a hide. Then, a long period of observation began. I got to know his favourite places and in which bush he impaled his prey. While observing, I got lucky and was able to photograph the bird with a freshly caught mouse shrew.

Eventually I built a small hide under one of the lookouts of the bird and one evening some it come back with a freshly caught Dunnock! The next morning I installed myself in my hide for the first time and waited for a long time. But it was all worth it because after 4 hours, the shrike came to collect his prey! An unforgettable experience!

Yosef, R. & Whitman, D. W. (1992). Predator exaptations and defensive adaptations in evolutionary balance: no defence is perfect. Evolutionary Ecology 6: 527-536. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2005.02.023Yosef, R. & Pinshow, B. (2005). Impaling in true shrikes (Laniidae): A behavioural and ontogenic perspective. Behavioural processes 69: 363-367. doi:10.1007/BF02270696

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  • kedar

    hi there
    i loved these shrikes pictures! i would love to save these on my pc. if you permit me i would like to include one, in the book i am working on; mentioning your name.

  • Jon Richfield

    Nice article and useful links, but please improve it by changing the references to “mouse”. That shrike is holding a shrew.

    • mudfooted

      Thanks Jon, very well noticed! Changed now. Cheers

      • Jon Richfield

        My pleasure; thanks for taking it in good part!

  • Jon Richfield

    Not sure that this is the right place to mention it, but I checked on the refs. I noticed an anomaly: Reuven Yosef and Berry Pinshow state in their abstract:
    “The impaling of prey is a behavioral trait restricted to the true shrikes (Laniidae).” This is a curious error for such an article. The Australian “butcherbirds” (Cracticidae) seem to practise the habit at least as avidly as any shrike. (And incidentally, though this does not actually contradict the statement, as far as I can make out, most species of shrikes do NOT impale their prey (certainly not in South Africa anyway!)
    I suppose it doesn’t matter citing the article, as that does not seem to be the main point of their work, but I wouldn’t like to leave anyone reading this to be misled into accepting that statement uncritically in case they happen to read it.

    • LarkingAbout

      Common Fiscals (old name Fiscal Shrike) in SA do impale their prey Jon. I have seen it on numerous occasions.

      • Jon Richfield

        Not denying that LarkingAbout; I grew up in the Cape and am familiar with the behaviour. What I said was that only a minority of our local species do it. For example the Bokmakierie does not and nor do any of the shrikes that concentrate on smaller prey.
        Plus, not only true shrikes do it, directly contrary to the statement I quoted, the main point of my post.

      • mudfooted

        Thanks Jon and LarkingAbout for your further thoughts about this topic. The article states “Australian Butcherbirds are known to wedge prey, apparently to save handling time, however, these species never impale prey on thorns. By contrast, in the Laniidae, vertebrate prey is impaled on sharp objects, decapitated and, in most cases, the brain consumed before other body parts.” I agree that this statement seems to be wrong as Australian Butcherbids also seem to impale their prey. A picture of one would be great.

      • Jon Richfield

        Hi MF.
        About the picture. Good point. I cannot supply one myself, being some 10000 km from the nearest Cracticus. However, I went online and typed into Google Images “Cracticus prey”. Lots of images, but very few showing any impalement activity. Well… actually there was not exactly a great deal showing the use of cracks and wedges etc either, though I never denied that either. The low frequency of supporting images does leave me a bit sobered. As a control I repeated the exercise with “Lanius prey” and got lots of hits. Still, I think that their statement certainly did invite criticism by its absolute assurance that “these species never impale prey on thorns”. This is very brash for unsupported assertion of a universal negative in a formal article, and all the more so as it is not logically necessary to the main thesis of the article as stated in the part that I have had access to.
        I reckon that I’ll stand by my objection for now whether it somehow proves incorrect at some future time or not.

      • mudfooted

        I Agree Jon, I look forward to some visual proof but I agree that the authors are too narrow in their statement. Thanks for your comments on this post! What is your background may I ask? Best wishes,
        Jolle Jolles (Mudfooted.com)

      • Jon Richfield

        Hi Jolle,
        I am South African, retired, an unfrocked entomologist who after three years in the government service spent the rest of his professional life as a computer consultant in a couple of multinationals and now spends his time writing, web surfing and naturalising.

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