Vlad the Impaler of the bird world now at Bronx Zoo: skewers prey on thorns and barbed wire

Jeremy Hance
September 15, 2009

The loggerhead shrike, also known as the 'butcher bird', employs a feeding strategy that would have been right at home in 15th Century Transylvania. Like the infamous Vlad the Impaler (the brutal prince which Bram Stoker based Dracula off), the loggerhead shrike is truly skilled at impaling. Using its hooked beak to break the spines of insects, lizards, rodents, and even other birds it then impales them on thorns or barbed wire to hold them while it disembodies them.

Now, the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Bronx Zoo has brought the loggerhead shrike into its collection, but the shrike is there to illustrate more than its unique feeding practices.

The terrifying-at least for insects-loggerhead shrike. Photo by: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS.
Climate change, habitat loss, and pesticides have devastated bird species inhabiting North America's grasslands like the loggerhead shrike. Populations began declining in the 1950s until today researchers estimate that there are only 100 wild pairs of loggerhead shrikes on the whole continent. The species has been classified as Critically Endangered in Canada, though it has yet to receive any endangered status in the United States. A subspecies endemic to San Clemente Island in California is protected in the US.

Loggerhead shrike impales mouse on a branch. Photo by: Kathy Radomski, USFWS.
To aid in the species' conservation, WCS has joined with the Wildlife Preservation Trust Canada, which is leading a captive breeding program to bring back the imperiled bird. The Canadian group is also conducting surveys in the wild and working with landowners to protect the shrike's dwindling habitat.

"The exhibit was intended to bring attention to an endangered species that is losing ground as a result of habitat changes," says Nancy Clum, Assistant Curator of Ornithology for the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Canada has a reintroduction program for this species and we are hopeful that there may eventually be a similar program on this side of the border."

Despite its fierce feeding practices, the loggerhead shrike doesn't look menacing: it’s an attractive little songbird with gray and black markings, including a black mask across its face. It possess incredible vision—it can focus on a grasshopper 45-64 meters (150-210 feet) away—which it uses as it watches for prey on a perch.

The Bronx Zoo has recreated the shrike's grassland habitat, including thorn bushes and a barbed wire fence, so the bird can continue to impale as it would in the wild.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (September 15, 2009).

Vlad the Impaler of the bird world now at Bronx Zoo: skewers prey on thorns and barbed wire.