Let’s Not Shirk Shrikes

Shrikes are the bad boys of songbirds, a passerine gone to the Dark Side. Where raptors, who have the same diet, are romanticized, shrikes are cultural villains. Anyone who disagrees hasn’t read Nathaniel West’s harrowing novella, Miss Lonelyhearts, whose nasty villain is named Shrike.

But shrikes are beautiful, efficient and fascinating. There are 34 species worldwide in two genera, 32 of them in the genus Lanius. That genus includes both of North America’s shrike species, Loggerhead and Northern Shrike, and all five of Thailand’s true shrikes.1

Cornell’s Birds of the World (paywalled) describes shrikes this way:

Shrikes are passerines that evolved to become diurnal birds of prey, and their appearance and behavior converge on small raptors in many respects: their plumages of black, gray, white, and often earth tones; their large-shouldered, short-necked, large-headed appearance; and, except for a few cooperatively breeding species, their limited vocalization. With the strong feet and sharp, strong bill of a predator, shrikes take prey ranging from birds and amphibians to large insects, often storing them for later consumption on the spines of shrubs or barbed wire.

WC’s small birding group found four of Thailand’s five shrike species. WC managed photos of all four.

Gray-backed Shrike, Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand

This particular bird was baited in to mealworms scattered along the side of the road. He wasn’t our primary goal, which was Mrs. Hume’s Partridge (who failed to show). While shrikes may prefer vertebrate prey, they don’t turn their bills up at insects, including meal worms. And the shrike paid absolutely no attention to the other birds that were around.

Brown Shrike, Kaen Karchen National Park, Thailand

Brown Shrikes were everywhere. We saw the first one from our hotel window in suburban Bangkok while still in COVID quarantine. There are two subspecies in Thailand: the darker one is called Northern Brown Shrike; the paler, Philippine Brown Shrike. Some ornithologists think they are separate species, but it seems to be a minority view at this point.

Burmese Shrike, Doi Lang National Park, Thailand

These fellows (and these are two males) were pretty far away, so this is a heavy crop. More than their cousins, the Burmese Shrike eats mostly insects, although given the size of some of Thailand’s insects, that’s not a serious problem.

Himalayan Long-tailed Shrike, Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand

This is also a very heavy crop – the bird was perhaps 400 feet away – but the species is pretty enough to include despite the loss of details. The Himalayan is one of three subspecies that might become full species some day. They three certainly look very different.

As WC noted earlier, there are a lot of other groups of birds who aren’t shrikes but, because they have some of the features of a shrike, they got the “shrike” incorporated in their name. Here’s an example:

Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, Doi Lang National Park, Thailand

It’s not a shrike; the body shape is wrong, and the bill doesn’t have that distinctive hooked end that’s characteristic of a shrike. There are nine species of Shrike-babbler, in the genus Pteruthius, and they are apparently most closely related to Vireos, not either Shrikes or Babblers.

WC likes shrikes. They’re not his favorite birds, but they make a living, fill a niche and are prepared to fight well outside their weight class. Shrikes have been observed killing and eating Rock Pigeons, a bird that weighs about three times as much as the shrike.

1 There are any number of shrike wannabes: Shrike-babblers, Shrike-jays and Cuckooshrikes, to name just a few. Where early ornithologists couldn’t decide if a bird was a shrike or a cuckoo, for example, they dealt with it by giving it the common name “Cuckooshrike.” Sometimes the names are hyphenated; sometimes not; sometimes separated by a space, sometimes not. It’s all done, WC believes, to confuse birders.

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