Butcher Bird MAG

By Molly Larsen, Anchorage, AK

I saw a shrike today. It peered at me from its superior perch in a pine tree. I could tell it was sizing me up from the look in its black, shiny eye. That eye looked right at me like I was a dung beetle; I found that strange, because I am approximately one hundred and ten times its size and could probably crush its skull with the palm of my hand, but for now, I am the bug, at least in its eyes.

The northern shrike, or the butcher bird as some call it, is a bird of prey the size of a sparrow but with a hunter’s eye, a predator’s sharp talons, and a hooked beak reminiscent of a hawk. At first glance the bird could be mistaken for a small magpie, but looking closer, I see that its black and white markings leave no room for the shimmery blue-green quality of the magpie.

With its startlingly long beak and sharply contrasting feathers, the shrike looks like it has been built especially for its lifestyle – either that or its physical ­characteristics shaped the way it lives. The bird is known for its caches of small vertebrates, which are often found impaled on anything sharp. One of the few predators that kills more than it can eat, the butcher bird is disliked by some for its gruesome hunting techniques.

Everyone hates a killer. Animals are given brutal reputations simply because of the way evolution has shaped them to survive. A mistake almost everyone makes is attributing human emotions to creatures that are driven completely by instinct – the very instinct that has allowed them to survive. The killer whale and the butcher bird are just two examples that have been assigned the title of cruel killer, but they are no more destructive than a moose gruesomely gutting an alder with its antlers, leaving it to die from lack of capillary action moving the sap from its roots to the branches.

Human beings have entered into a dangerous way of thinking. We seem to believe that carnivores are ­violent, and thus inherently evil. In truth, carnivores are the keepers of existence on earth. The chase, the powerful jaws closing around innocent throats, yelping, helpless jerking legs, limp necks, death, bloody muzzles, exposed bones, and rotting carcasses are what keeps this planet in balance.

Humans are so far removed from our preda­tory past that we pall at the sight of a calf being led to slaughter, lambs gutted from nose to tail, and piglets staring down the barrel of a shotgun, waiting for something good to come flowing from those two black tubes. Yet we consume animal products by the ton and pretend that they drop from the sky in ready-made patties, cute little saus­ages, meatballs, packaged ground beef, and tidy bacon strips. We would love to think that it’s that easy – no blood, no guts, no severed heads.

The butcher bird does us a favor by bringing the ­reality of killing for survival back into focus. The butcher bird gets its name from the creative way it gathers food. Using its powerful neck, beak, and talons, it strikes its prey and scoops it up. In anticipation of a food shortage, the shrike impales its prey on pointy tree branches, thorns, shrubs, or anything sharp enough for skewering. This bird has been known to kill animals many times its size and wedge them in the fork of a tree for later.

The shrike stares me down. It is perched in that tree over there, about four feet above a string of barbed wire that holds a menagerie of dead rodents, small reptiles, amphibians, and insects. As I approach, I see a rabbit, twice the bird’s size, hanging by a barb puncturing the fur and skin of its back. I count the limp carcasses: three rodents, two frogs, a dragonfly, and a green and yellow lizard – not bad for a bird that looks like it could be related to my grandmother’s canary. One look into its penetrating black stare, and I know that this bird has never been caged. It was hatched to fly free, to depend on no one but itself.

I am proud that I can look at this scene and feel ­only rapt attention, acute interest, and respect for the bird. Many would find it repulsive, shrinking from the sight of this carnage, but these same people eat meat daily without wondering about their food’s previous life. I wonder why the idea of food having a former life is repulsive to some – to me the idea has always been rather charming, though I can’t say why. Maybe it is because I am comfortable with death and killing. This may sound radical, or violent, but I assure you it is not. I do not mean malicious killing, or killing for fun, I mean killing from necessity. Survival of the fittest, the strongest, and the best equipped is a natural truth that is as irrefutable as death. With death comes survival; the two go hand in hand.

The little bird knows this truth of life, not consciously, but instinctively. I take a last look at it, perched confidently on its branch – I say its branch, because with the look in its eye, there is no other soul to whom the branch could belong. The impaled creatures below are the shrike’s lifeline, quite literally. They are strung out like so many colorful beads on a necklace, leading the bird through life by ensuring food, always replenished, day by day, bird by bird, mouse by furry dead mouse.

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This article has 2 comments.

StellaRose said...
on Jan. 21 2010 at 5:55 pm
Although slightly macabre, your article is very fascinating.

on Nov. 23 2009 at 1:42 pm
imangelyo BRONZE, Hancock, Maine
4 articles 0 photos 2 comments

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Awesome! But have some stronger words instead of because or other words

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