Wednesday, May 14, 2008


While bird watching along a rural West Virginia road last week I came across this disturbing scene. It was a male red-winged blackbird impaled on a barbed wire fence. I found this to be both fascinating and disturbing.

I've been thinking about this bird ever since. Did it accidentally fly into the fence wire during a territorial chase with another male? Was it being pursued by an accipiter? Or is this perhaps the largest ever recorded victim of a loggerhead shrike?

Shrikes of both North American species often impale their food items on thorns and barbed-wire fences. There are several possible explanations for this. One is that the shrikes' songbird-like feet are too weak to grip the prey item while the hawk-like bill rips it apart. A second theory is that this is a shrike's way of saving the food item for later consumption. Yet another theory holds that males use these impaled prey items as a means of impressing the ladies.

Loggerhead shrikes are extremely rare breeders in West Virginia. As elsewhere they are vanishing from their former breeding range in the state. No one really knows why.

Some friends and I went back to the scene of the crime the following day. The male blackbird was still there—seemingly untouched from the day before. We scanned the surrounding meadows, trees, and fence lines for any sign of a shrike but received no joy from our searching.

This disturbing scene will remain a mystery it seems. And I cannot seem to get it out of my head. Perhaps it was an omen of things to come—good or bad, who knows? I just know I felt sorry for this individual red-winged blackbird. What a way to go...

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