During the first half of the 20th century, the sinuous, swooping flight of the loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) along the hedgerows of Illinois was a fairly common sight. Their grisly habit of impaling prey—small birds, mammals, snakes, and large insects—on the thorns of trees, and occasionally on barbed wire, earned shrikes the reputation of butcher bird of the hedgerow.

Shrikes live in a world of thorns, a necessary natural resource for these birds of prey. Because shrikes lack the talons needed to properly grasp prey while feeding, they skewer their meal on a thorn so they can rip off flesh with their heavy, hooked bill. Thorns also serve as a place to store prey for later feeding. And shrikes prefer to nest in thorn trees.

A loggerhead could be described as a “mockingbird on steroids;” size, markings, and color are somewhat similar. But these butcher birds have a more robust, powerful build—with heavier shoulders, neck, head, and bill. And, in keeping with their reputation, they sport a foreboding, black facial mask. Mockingbirds lack this marking.

Loggerheads are permanent residents of southern Illinois, and they breed in northern and central Illinois as well. Shrikes that nest in the northern United States appear throughout the state during migration. Nests are built in Osage orange, locust, hawthorn, and wild crabapple, and usually contain from five to seven gray-colored eggs with brown spots.

Shrike numbers have dropped drastically since the 1950s, and they are now on the Illinois threatened species list. Pesticide use, destruction of permanent pastures, and removal of Osage orange hedgerows have all contributed to the loggerhead’s decline. Pastures and hedgerows served as a substitute habitat for this species that originally lived on the thorny edges of savannas.

Shrikes cannot hunt in tall grasses. On the native Illinois landscape, they were very dependent on fire and grazing that produced the short-grass conditions needed for survival. Because of these specialized habitat requirements, loggerheads may not have been abundant during presettlement times.

Populations increased dramatically as farmers began taming the landscape. As permanent pastures were established, short-grass habitat was created that provided ideal, year-round hunting conditions. And, during the 1850s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, hedgerows were planted that supplied thorns in abundance. In the last decades, however, shrike populations have plummeted as agricultural practices have changed again—including the removal of some of the last vestiges of the Osage orange hedgerows that once checkerboarded the Illinois farmscape.