By Curt Burnette
One of the birds that Gene Stratton-Porter studied, photographed, and wrote about was the loggerhead shrike. For her nature book "What I Have Done With Birds", she photographed a nest and the young birds in it at an oil lease east of Geneva, just east of the Wabash River. She was enamored with the five baby shrikes, calling them "darlings." They are striking birds in appearance, about the size of a robin with light grey bodies and some black and white on their wings and tails. Most noticeable is the black mask running through their eyes, and a hooked, hawk-like-beak. Although they are members of the perching bird group, like robins, jays, sparrows, etc, they are much like hawks in their feeding habits.
Two species of shrikes in the U.S. are the loggerhead and the northern. Both types of shrike are known as "butcherbirds." Shrikes have a notch in their beak that allows them to grab prey by the nape of the neck and sever the spine. Often, they impale dead prey on large thorns or barbed wire, much like a butcher will hang the carcasses of cattle and hogs in a cooler, waiting to be processed later into cuts of meat to be eaten. Butcherbirds' impaled prey can also be eaten later. Although they eat a lot of insects, especially grasshoppers, they will also kill mice, voles, shrews, snakes, frogs, and even other birds as large as cardinals.
Although the loggerhead shrike was nesting in the Limberlost area when Mrs. Porter lived here, we no longer have them around. The Limberlost would have been near the northern edge of the loggerhead's breeding territory, as they are more of a southern bird. The population of these birds is now in a steep decline, for unknown reasons.
The northern shrike is a winter visitor to the Limberlost area. They breed much farther north in the summer. They are rarely seen around here, and are the cause of a bit of excitement when one shows up. In the Decembers of 2012 and 2013, I discovered impaled voles (meadow mice) in a small locust tree in the portion of the Limberlost Swamp Wetland Preserve (LSWP) just west of Geneva's ball fields. One year the dead vole was intact, but the next year the impaled vole was headless. A gruesome find, but it told me a norhtern shrike was living in the area. Unfortunately, I was never able to see it. Then last Marsh, as I looked out a window of my yard, it was a northern shrike! This bird was very obliging in that it hung around my house for a number of days, allowing many excited birders to get good looks and photos. And just this past December, for a few weeks, a northern shrike was seen at the Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve. So, even though the loggerhead shrike is no longer found in the Limberlost, at least we are able to enjoy the occasional sighting of a northern shrike and thrill to the attractive but deadly butcherbird.
Note: This article was written by Curt Burnette for his Limberlost Notebook column in the Berne Witness in February 2018. In late 2018 and early 2019 Jesse Post and Kimberley Roll have seen northern shrikes at the Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve and the Limberlost Swamp Wetland Preserve.