Wednesday, August 27, 2008


The shrike (specifically the loggerhead shrike) is the name of a bird that I read about this summer in the paper and, after doing so, immediately wanted to find a place for in a poem. Here it is in this photo taken by Jon Gavin at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The loggerhead shrike is often mistaken for a songbird, but the two couldn't be more different. Physically, the way to distinguish the two is by the hooked beak on the loggerhead shrike. Unlike the songbird, the shrike's beak is curved at the tip, like a bird of prey.

It's curved this way because it is...a bird of prey....a bird of prey so sadistically violent it has earned the nickname, "the butcher bird."

The shrike uses its hooked beak to break the necks of its prey--small lizards and other small birds--and then impale its paralyzed victims upon sharp branches, thorns and barbed wire.

Not only is the bird distinguished by the manner in which it kills its prey, but also by the sheer amount of killing it does. The article in the paper that I read (I wish I had saved the photo) showed one little shrike that had killed 40+ lizards, birds, and insects. It pictured the shrike and a stretch of a barbed wire fence in the background, along which the shrike had impaled all these creatures in a row.

The loggerhead shrike lacks the talons other predatory birds have with which to tear its prey apart, and this explains why it impales its prey-- in essence, it turns its victims into popsicles from which to peck at and sustain itself. However, as was mentioned in the article, the loggerhead variety of the shrike kills far more than it could possibly eat. It posits that the bird kills as many creatures as it does, and puts them on display, in order to show female shrikes what a vigorous and strong potential mate it is.

So, where the songbird sings to attract a mate, the shrike kills. How deliciously evil--this was my first thought, but then I wondered how evil is that, really? When all the killing is done, all the guy shrike is doing is trying to impress the girls. Aren't they the evil ones by being impressed with such carnage?

I read somewhere about a type of bird that seeks out shiny objects, e.g. scraps of aluminum foil and colorful bits of ribbon and cloth, to weave into its nest in order to attract the ladies. Are these birds any different from the shrike, essentially, in their behavior being a means to the same end?

And how different is the natural world in comparison to our own? I am reminded of a Dave Chappelle comedy sketch -- at about four minutes in, he delves into the question of materiality and male/female relationships -- in which he says (albeit in much coarser language) than a man would live in a cardboard box if only that would be sufficient to attract a potential mate. However, men live in nice homes, drive expensive cars, and pursue the lucrative careers with which they are able to obtain these things because this is what women find attractive.

Are then the material girls who are impressed with our society's dragons really that much different than female shrikes?

How I got from ornithology to Dave Chappelle I really don't's early...i need a cup of coffee...

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