Bird Database

Northern Shrike

(Lanius borealis)

State of the Birds
At a Glance



Short distance




Unknown, but possibly habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change

Conservation Actions

None identifified

Northern Shrike

(Lanius borealis)

For a bird lighter than a robin, the Northern Shrike is an aggressive and tenacious predator. During the breeding season in the far north, they feed primarily on insects but supplement this diet with small birds and mammals. When they move south for the winter the proportions flip, and birds and rodents predominate. This is especially true in places like New Hampshire where insects are absent entirely in the colder months. Shrikes are ambush hunters and are most often seen perched high on a tree or power line surveying a patch of open habitat. Prey are captured in the feet and – in the case of vertebrates – dispatched with a bite to the neck that severs the spinal cord. For this purpose they have a small “tooth” on their upper bill much that those of falcons.

Shrikes lack the raptorial talons of hawks and owls, which makes it harder to hold prey down while it is being eaten. Instead they carry it to something that will secure it for them, such as a thorn, fork in a branch, or barbed wire. Only then can they start methodically tearing apart their meal with the bill. From this behavior shrikes have earned their nickname of “butcher birds,” with the thorn or fork serving the hook upon which human butchers used to hang their meat. Despite their size, Northern Shrikes have been recorded killing and carrying away birds as large as a pigeon (five times the shrike’s weight). Smaller fare are more typical, but birds slightly larger than the shrike are still common prey, including robins, Blue Jays, and Mourning Doves. Mammals eaten are almost entirely mice and voles.

Although regular winter visitors, Northern Shrikes are not easy to see in New Hampshire. Their numbers vary significantly among years, and they occur at low densities. Some years, however, see larger than typical incursions from the north, much as are seen with classic irruptive species like winter finches. The reasons for these fluctuations are poorly known but are presumed to include variation in boreal mammal populations (e.g., lemmings). The combination of the species’ remote breeding range and fluctuating winter numbers make determining shrike population trends difficult. The best we can usually do is look at extremely large scales, and this sort of analysis suggests declines in western North America and slight increases in the east.

Seasonal Abundance

Relative abundance based on eBird data. Numbers indicate likelihood of finding this species in suitable habitat at a given time of year, not actual numbers encountered.

Northern Shrike
Range Map

Information for the species profiles on this website was compiled from a combination of the sources listed below.

  • The Birds of New Hampshire. By Allan R. Keith and Robert B. Fox. 2013. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological club No. 19.

  • Atlas of the Breeding Birds of New Hampshire. Carol R. Foss, ed. 1994. Arcadia Publishing Company and Audubon Society of New Hampshire

  • Birds of the World. Various authors and dates. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

  • Data from the Breeding Bird Survey

  • Data from the Christmas Bird Count