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The loggerhead shrike (Lanus ludovicianus) is a predatory songbird about the size of a blackbird. It is bluish-gray above and white below. The wings and tail are mostly black with white patches. It resembles a mockingbird but can be distinguished by its grayer color, darker wings, a shorter, darker tail, a short, hooked beak and a broad, black mask through the eyes and across the bill. In flight, the shrike has a much faster wingbeat than a mockingbird. Juveniles are paler and browner. Its song is seldom heard and consists of an assortment of short-warbled phrases and harsh squeaks. When alarmed, it utters shreaking clacking notes.
Shrikes are usually seen perched along roads on fences or utility lines, scanning for prey. They feed mainly on insects, especially grasshoppers and beetles; however, they may eat any animal they can overpower, including small mammals, birds, snakes, frogs and even, crayfish. They often hang their prey in tree or on barbed wire fences before eating it. This habit, unique among North American birds, has earned them in nickname, "butcher birds." They do this mainly to anchor their food in order to tear it apart but may also store food in this way for later use.
Shrikes require open land with lookout perches for hunting, preferring areas with short vegetation such as pastures, lawns and freshly-plowed fields. They seem to prefer sites with a variety of different types of land uses. They nest in dense, brushy vegetation, either in hedgerows or isolated trees, adjacent to feeding areas and usually on roadsides. Nearly half or all shrike nests found recently in Indiana have been in red cedar, but multiflora rose, sassafras and many other plant species are also used. The amount of cover provided is more important than the type of plant.
Shrikes build bulky, sturdy nests of stick and roots, well, lined with a variety of soft materials such as hair, feathers and cotton. They lay four to seven (usually five or six) speckled eggs which take about 17 days to hatch. The young leave the nest after about 19 days and may remain with the parents for up to a month while they acquire hunting skills. Mortality of young birds is very high during this period. Shrikes may raise two broods in a year. Nest sites are usually reused the following year if they have not been disturbed.
In presettlement times, when Indiana was largely forested, shrikes probably did not occur here. As the forests were cleared, shrikes expanded their range to occupy newly created habitat. By 1900, they were common throughout the state, especially in the north. Since World War II, however, changes in human demographic patterns and farming practices have eliminated much of the hedgerow and pastureland habitat that the shrikes require and they have declined over much of their range. Pesticides such as DDT may also have taken their toll. The loggerhead shrike is considered endangered in Indiana, and the northeastern subspecies is being considered for federally threatened status as well.
By the 1960s, the loggerhead shrike was believed to be nearly gone from Indiana. In the 1970s, very few were sighted and only one nest was found. Since 1980, however, sightings of shrikes have increased, and in the late 1980s, about 100 breeding pairs were located, mostly in southern Indiana. Most of these birds were in the southwestern counties of Davies, Dubios and Spencer. Many were found in Amish districts where more traditional farming practices have maintained suitable habitat. Some population remains in Indiana during the winter; however, the wintering grounds of the remaining population are unknown.
Although Indiana’s shrike population is much larger than previously believed, its limited distribution makes it vulnerable. While the use of DDT is now banned, farming trends continue to cause the loss of shrike habitat. The key to conserving skrikes in Indiana is the maintenance of suitable nesting and feeding areas and the protection of known nest sites. Since nearly all shrikes occur on private land, efforts must be made to increase public awareness of the value of hedgerows to wildlife and appreciation of shrikes as valuable pest control agents. Road maintenance departments and utility companies can also play a role by avoiding disturbance of roadside nest sites. In addition, opportunities exist for the creation of shrike habitat on state-owned, reclaimed strip mines.