Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 10

The brutal ‘butcherbird’ that impales its prey on barbed wire

The loggerhead shrike is nicknamed the “butcherbird” thanks to its rather gruesome practice of impaling its prey on sharp thorns, twigs and barbed wire.

This little songbird, which can take down prey heavier than itself, waits patiently on high perches — sometimes using telephone wires — and keeps a look out for a potential meal. Once it spots a victim, it swoops down and uses its raptor-like hooked beak to make the kill — repeatedly biting the back of its neck to paralyze it. A study published in 2018 also found that for larger prey, loggerhead shrikes will hold its prey by the neck and shake it with force equivalent to a human experiencing a slow rear-end car crash. By shaking its prey like this, the bird damages the spinal column — essentially using the victim’s body weight against it.

Impaling prey may also act as a way for males to show off their hunting capabilities to females. A 1989 study on a related shrike species in Israel found that a male’s cache increased prior to the breeding season and that males with the largest caches bred first and sired more offspring. Another study found that impaling prey can help reduce the toxicity of a kill. The highly toxic eastern lubber grasshopper (Romalea guttata), for example, causes gagging, regurgitation and even death in some predators. But when a loggerhead shrike impales the insect and returns a couple of days later, the bird can consume it safely.