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V

THE BUTCHER-BIRD

“BUTCHER-BIRD” is not a very pretty name, but it is expressive and appropriate, and so is likely to stick quite as long as the more bookish word “shrike,” which is the bird’s other title. It comes from its owner’s habit of impaling the carcasses of its prey upon thorns, as a butcher hangs upon a hook the body of a pig or other animal that he has slaughtered.

In a place like the Public Garden of Boston, if a shrike happens to make it his hunting-ground for a week or two, you may find here and there in the hawthorn-trees the body of a mouse or the headless trunk of an English sparrow spitted upon a thorn. Grasshoppers are said to be treated in a similar manner, but I have never met with the bird’s work in the grasshopper season.

The shrike commonly seen in the Northern States is a native of the far north, and comes down to our latitude only in cold weather. He travels singly, and if he finds a place to suit him, a place where the living is good, he will often remain almost in the same spot for weeks together.

In size and appearance he resembles the mockingbird. His colors are gray, black, and white, his tail is long, and his bill is hooked like a hawk’s.

He likes a perch from which he can see a good distance about him. A telegraph wire answers his purpose very well, but his commonest seat is the very tip of a tallish tree. If you look across a field in winter and descry a medium-sized bird swaying on the topmost twig of a lonesome tree, balancing himself by continual tiltings of his long tail, you may set him down as most likely a butcher-bird.

His flight is generally not far from the ground, but as he draws near the tree in which he means to alight, he turns suddenly upward. It would be surprising to see him alight on one of the lower branches, or anywhere, indeed, except at the topmost point.

Small birds are all at once scarce and silent when the shrike appears. Sometimes in his hunger he will attack a bird heavier than him self. I had once stopped to look at a flicker in a roadside apple-tree, when I suddenly noticed a butcher-bird not far off. At the same moment, as it seemed, the butcher-bird caught sight of the flicker, and made a swoop toward him. The flicker, somewhat to my surprise, showed no sign of panic, or even of fear. He simply moved aside, as much as to say, “Oh, stop that! Don’t bother me!” How the affair would have resulted, I cannot tell. To my regret, the shrike at that moment seemed to become aware of a man’s presence, and flew away, leaving the woodpecker to pursue his exploration of the apple-tree at his leisure.

The shrike has a very curious habit of singing, or of trying to sing, in the disjointed manner of a catbird. I have many times heard him thus engaged, and can bear witness that some of his tones are really musical. Some people have sup posed that at such times he is trying to decoy small birds, but to me the performance has al ways seemed like music, or an attempt at music, rather than strategy.

Southern readers may be presumed to be familiar with another shrike, known as the logger head. As I have seen him in Florida he is a very tame, unsuspicious creature, nesting in the shade-trees of towns. The “French mocking-bird,” a planter told me he was called. Mr. Chapman has seen one fly fifty yards to catch a grasshopper which, to all appearance, he had sighted before quitting his perch. The power of flight is not the only point as to which birds have the advantage of human beings.


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