The Loggerhead Shrike
Not long ago, during a jobless stint I spent at my sister’s house in Texas, I came across a small lizard impaled on a thornbush. Its head was flattened, its torso ripped open and viscera all asunder. Understandably, it wore a haggard expression on its face, or what was left of its face.
“Hey,” I said to my sister Erin, who was planting azaleas in her garden. “Who crucified this lizard?”
Erin wiped her hands on her shorts and walked over. “That’s a frog,” she said, an eyebrow incredulously arched.
The thing was so mangled it was hard to tell what it was. Clearing her throat, Erin laid out the case: the crucifixion was likely the work of an avian called the Loggerhead Shrike, also known as the Butcher Bird, or, she went on, Lanius ludovicianus. About the size of a robin, the Butcher Bird impales its prey—frogs, mice, snakes, and, yes, even lizards—on thornbushes, cactus spines, and the like, and then uses its hard, hooked beak to disembowel said prey, often leaving the carcass to dry out in the sun like jerky.
The Butcher Bird, it turns out, is not a sadist, or not merely so. It lacks the powerful talons of other birds of prey such as hawks, vultures, and college co-eds with which to hold its victims in place while eviscerating them. Hence the thornbush trick, which my field guide referred to as “an ingenious adaptation.” The Butcher Bird also has a “cutting tooth” in its upper beak that it uses to sever the spinal cords of its vertebrate quarry, paralyzing and, one hopes, sparing them some discomfort.
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