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.
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:
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
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.
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
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!