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Phenology report: Birders witness imperiled shrike preying on a snake

A Loggerhead Shrike sits in a shrub in Jackson County on May 3, 2023. It is a grey-black bird with a hooked beak.
Kimberly Emerson via iNaturalist
A Loggerhead Shrike sits in a shrub in Jackson County on May 3, 2023.

KAXE Staff Phenologist John Latimer provides his weekly assessment of nature in Northern Minnesota. This is the week of May 7, 2024.

Predatory songbirds: Northern and Loggerhead Shrikes

During last Saturday’s phenology walk with John Latimer at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, members of the Bee-Nay-She Bird Club spotted a rare (in our area) Loggerhead Shrike! Even better, they had the chance to see it kill, carry, and eat a red-bellied snake.

Loggerhead Shrikes, a critically imperiled species in Minnesota, is far more rare than the Northern Shrike, which is a yearly winter resident. The Loggerhead Shrike is a summer resident in the state. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s compendium “All About Birds”, the Loggerhead Shrike “has become quite rare in the Northeast and upper Midwest and finding it there is much more problematic.”

A Loggerhead Shrike eats a red-bellied snake in Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge on May 4, 2024. The bird is grey and black and partially obscured by twigs. The snake's red belly is showing.
Ben Stubbs via iNaturalist
A Loggerhead Shrike eats a red-bellied snake in Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge on May 4, 2024.

To distinguish between the two species, first, think about the season. In mid-winter, Loggerhead Shrikes have long since migrated south, while Northern Shrikes have arrived from their breeding grounds in Canada to hunt the snowy fields and busy birdfeeders of Minnesota. In mid-summer, the opposite is true: Loggerhead Shrikes are here, but Northern Shrikes are not.

In spring and fall, when both species are possible residents, look closely at the black eye mask. Loggerhead Shrikes’ thick eye masks run from the side of the head, through the eye, and all the way to the base of the bill without changing much in width. Northern Shrikes have a shorter eye mask, which is a thick band from the side of the head to the eye, then narrows and fades as it reaches bill. In addition, Northern Shrikes are larger, have thin, light barring on the chest, and white-grey feathers at the top of the bill, while Loggerhead Shrikes are smaller, white-chested, and have black feathers lining the top of the bill.

A graphic shows a side-by-side comparison between a Loggerhead Shrike and a Northern Shrike. Beneath the Loggerhead Shrike's picture, text says: 
"Loggerhead Shrike
1 - Eye mask retains width and color near bill
2 - Black feathers above bill
3 - White-chested"

Beneath the Norther Shrike's photo, text says: 
"Northern Shrike
1 -Eye mask thinner and lighter near bill
2 - White/grey feathers above bill
3 -Light barring on chest (not always present)"
Charlie Mitchell - original photography by iNaturalist users emilymarvel and Kimberly Emerson.
Here is a quick identification guide for distinguishing Loggerhead from Northern Shrikes.

A murder mystery

Meanwhile, the students at Baxter Elementary reported that they found a dead Red-winged Blackbird; they wondered if a Northern Shrike was responsible.

Intrigued, I did a bit of digging online – this is what I learned. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Northern Shrikes have been observed taking down birds larger than themselves, such as the American Robin, Blue Jay, and Pine Grosbeak. So, Red-winged Blackbirds seem like a reasonable prey item, though they aren’t noted in Birds of the World as one of the shrike’s prey species.

A clue would be if the carcass had been eaten at all, and if so, which parts are missing; Apparently, shrikes start at the head and work down the body from there. I’d also weigh the availability of insects, as they apparently switch to being mostly insect-eaters in the summer. News to me!


  • Introduction (0:00-0:25) 
  • Frog chorus (0:25-1:31) 
  • Phenology walk at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge (1:31-6:25, 12:58-13:12)) 
    • Loggerhead Shrike eats a red-bellied snake (4:17-6:25) 
  • Plant development (2:22-4:03, 14:28-19:26) 
    • At Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge (2:22-4:03) 
    • Fly honeysuckle (2:43-4:03) 
    • In Grand Rapids (14:28-19:26) 
  • Birds (4:03-12:58) 
    • At Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge (4:03-6:25, 12:58-13:12) 
    • Hummingbird feeders (6:25-8:45) 
    • Bird arrivals in Grand Rapids (8:45-10:26) 
    • How to identify female Red-winged Blackbirds (8:54-10:26) 
    • Bald Eagle nest update (10:26-12:31) 
    • Great Blue Heron and Trumpeter Swan (12:31-12:58) 
  • Insects (13:12-14:28)
    • Dragonflies (13:12-13:29) 
    • Ant phenology! (13:29-14:08) 
    • Butterflies (14:08-14:28) 
  • Spring is right on schedule (15:02-15:22) 
  • Conclusion (19:26-20:20

That does it for this week! For more phenology, subscribe to our Season Watch Newsletter or visit the Season Watch Facebook page.

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).

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Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, she enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).