Tuesday Tune

photograph and text by Brian Willson

What does a Northern Shrike, aka Butcher Bird, sound like?
Beek!” and “Shraa!”

We’re entering that time of year when birdsong subsides here on the 44th parallel—or, more accurately, has already subsided. You won’t hear much, outside of our resident chickadees, a feeder finch or two, a few woodpeckers, gulls at the shore, and a scattering of far-northern birds that swing down this way for the darker season.

Speaking of the latter, here’s one for you: the northern shrike.

Shrikes, described as “predatory songbirds,” look sort of like mockingbirds but act like perverse little hawks. They’ve got no talons but do sport a strong, hooked beak, which they use to assassinate little rodents and birds, which they’ll often impale on handy thorns or plant spines to dine on later. The name “shrike” even has a sort of gruesome ring to it—but it turns out it comes from their raspy, shriek-like call.

Northern shrikes nest way up in the tundra and visit us sporadically from late fall through early spring. They’re not exactly common, but I’ve seen two this year at Beech Hill in Rockport, one in March and one just the other day. Both birds were singing.

Shrikes will sing at any time of year—if you want to call it that. They have a crazy repertoire of shrieks and rattles, strange liquid sounds, and cries of “beek!” and “shraa!” When I first heard the song early one spring, I though it was a out-of-season catbird, until I spotted it perched on a twig atop a small, leafless tree.

That’s where you’ll see them, sitting high, scanning an open field for prey, looking for the world like an everyday, innocuous songbird yet hiding a bloodthirsty secret.

If you’re hiking these days over open terrain, keep your eyes and ears peeled for the “butcher bird.”