Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE GREAT AMERICAN SHRIKE.
LANIUS BOREALIS, Vieill.
PLATE CCXXXVI.--MALE, FEMALE, and YOUNG.
Although this species spends the greater part of the year in our most
Eastern States, and in countries still farther north, many individuals remain in
the mountainous districts of the Middle States, and breed there. In severe
winters, it migrates as far south as the neighbourhood of the city of Natchez,
on the Mississippi, where I have shot several and seen many more. In Kentucky
it is not a rare bird at that season, but along the coasts of our Southern
States I have never met with it, nor have I heard of its having been seen there.
In spring and summer it retires from the low lands of the Middle States to
the mountainous districts, where it generally remains until autumn. About the
20th of April, the male and his mate are seen engaged in building their nest, in
the covered and secluded parts of the forests. I found several of their nests
placed on bushes not above ten feet from the ground, without any appearance of
choice as to the tree, but generally towards the top, and placed in a fork. The
nest is as large as that of the Robin, and is composed externally of coarse
grasses, leaves and moss, internally of fibrous roots, over which is a bed of
the feathers of the Wild Turkey and Pheasant (Tetrao umbellus). The eggs are
four or five, of a dull cinereous tint, thickly spotted and streaked with light
brown towards the larger end. The period of incubation is fifteen days.
The young are at first of a dark bluish colour, but when they become
covered with feathers, they assume a dull rufous tint above, and are
transversely barred with zig-zag lines from the throat to the abdomen. In this
State they remain until late in autumn, and might seem to one not acquainted
with them to be of a different species. They remain with their parents all that
time, and not unfrequently even during winter. Caterpillars, spiders and
insects of various kinds form their first food, together with small fruits; but
as they grow up, their parents bring them the flesh of small birds, on which
they feed greedily even before they leave the nest.
This valiant little warrior possesses the faculty of imitating the notes of
other birds, especially such as are indicative of pain. Thus it will often
mimic the cries of Sparrows and other small birds, so as to make you believe you
hear them screaming in the claws of a Hawk; and I strongly suspect this is done
for the purpose of inducing others to come out from their coverts to the rescue
of their suffering brethren. On several occasions I have seen it in the act of
screaming in this manner, when it would suddenly dart from its perch into a
thicket, from which there would immediately issue the real cries of a bird on
which it had seized. On the banks of the Mississippi, I saw one which for
several days in succession had regularly taken its stand on the top of a tall
tree, where it from time to time imitated the cries of the Swamp and Song
Sparrows, and shortly afterwards would pitch downwards like a Hawk, with its
wings close to its body, seldom failing in obtaining the object of its pursuit,
which it would sometimes follow even through the briars and brambles among which
it had sought refuge. When unable to secure the prey, it would reascend to its
perch, and emit loud and discordant notes of anger. Whenever I could see it
strike its victim, it appeared to alight on its back, and instantly strike its
head, which on such occasions I have several times found torn open. If not
disturbed, the Shrike would then tear up the body, and swallow in large pieces,
not well cleared of the feathers, every part excepting the wings. It now and
then pursues birds that are on the wing to a considerable distance. Thus, I saw
one follow a Turtle Dove, which, on being nearly caught, pitched on the ground,
where its skull was bruised in a moment; but the next instant both birds were in
The courage, activity, and perseverance of this species, are quite
surprising. In winter, when insects are scarce, and small birds rare in the
Eastern States, I have known it to enter the cities and attack birds in cages.
During my stay at Boston, several of them were brought to me, that had been
caught in the apartments in which cages containing Canaries were kept, and in
every instance after the little favourite had been massacred. Near the same
city I observed an individual poised on wing, in the manner of our Sparrow Hawk,
for several minutes at a time, over the withered grass and sedges of salt water
meadows, when it suddenly pounced on some small bird concealed there.
Although its feet are small and apparently weak, its claws are sharp, and
it is capable of inflicting a pretty severe wound on the finger or hand. It
bites with great pertinacity, and will seldom let go its hold unless its throat
Its flight is strong, swift, and sustained: it moves through the air in
long undulations which have each an extent of twenty or thirty yards, but it
seldom rises very high, unless for the purpose of obtaining a good point of
observation, and in its usual flight merely passes over the tops of the low
bushes rapidly and in silence, in starts of from fifty to a hundred yards. I
never saw one walk or move on the ground.
They are extremely fond of crickets and grasshoppers, as well as other
kinds of insects, and they feed on the flesh of birds whenever they can procure
it. The individuals which I have kept in cages, appeared well pleased with
pieces of fresh beef, but they generally remained dull and sullen until they
died. As it was only during winter that I had them in confinement, when no
coleopterous insects could be procured, I had no opportunity of observing if,
like Hawks, they have the power of throwing up hard particles of the food which
they swallow, although I should suppose this to be the case. Their propensity
to impale insects and small birds on the sharp points of twigs and on thorns,
which they so frequently do at all seasons of the year, is quite a mystery to
me, as I cannot conceive what its object may be.
I have represented three of these birds of different sexes and ages, and
therefore differing in colour and size.
GREAT AMERICAN SHRIKE or BUTCHER-BIRD, Lanius Excubitor,
Wils. Amer. Orn.,vol. i. p. 74.
LANIUS SEPTENTRIONALIS, Bonap. Syn., p. 72.
LANIUS BOREALIS, Greater Northern Shrike,
Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 111.
GREAT AMERICAN SHRIKE, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 258.
GREAT AMERICAN SHRIKE, Lanius Excubitor, Aud. Orn. Biog.,
vol. ii. p. 534;vol. v. p. 434.
Fourth quill longest, third little shorter, second shorter than sixth,
first half the length of second; tail long, graduated; bill brownish-black at
the end, paler towards the base; upper parts light ash-grey, the ends of the
scapulars and the upper tail-coverts greyish-white; a streak of whitish over the
eye; loral space and a patch behind the eye brownish-black; first row of smaller
wing-coverts, larger coverts, and quills, brownish-black; secondary quills and
coverts edged and tipped with whitish; base of primaries white, forming a
conspicuous patch when the wing is extended; tail-feathers brownish-black, outer
web of lateral feathers, and more than a third of its inner web from the tip,
white; the extremities of all the rest, excepting the middle two, also white,
gradually occupying less extent on the inner feathers; lower parts
greyish-white, the fore part of the breast tinged with brown, and faintly marked
with transverse undulating lines of dark grey, as are the sides. Female
similar, but with the head and neck slightly tinged with brown, and the lower
parts more banded.
Lanius Excubitor of Europe differs in being considerably smaller,
and in having the white on the wings and tail more extended, the bases and a
great portion of the inner webs of the secondaries, except the inner three,
being of that colour, as well as the bases of the primaries, and forming a
conspicuous spot when the wing is closed, and the outer tail-feathers being
often white in their whole length.
Male, 10 2/12, 14 2/12.
Breeds from Pennsylvania northward. During winter, migrates westward to
the Mississippi, and as far south as Natchez. Not uncommon.
The dimensions of an adult male presented by Dr. T. M. BREWER of Boston,
and preserved in spirits, are:--Length to end of tail 10 2/12 inches, to end of
wings 7 5/12, to end of claws 8 2/12; extent of wings 14 2/12; wing from flexure
4 8/12; tail 4 8/12.
The roof of the mouth is nearly flat, with a median prominent ridge
anteriorly, and two papillate ridges behind. The posterior aperture of the
nares is 7 twelfths long; the tongue is slender, 7 twelfths long, emarginate and
papillate at the base, concave above, horny toward the end, the margins
lacerated, the tip slit. The width of the mouth is 7 1/2 twelfths. The
oesophagus, [a b c],
is 2 inches 10 twelfths long, of considerable width, having
an average breadth of 4 twelfths; the proventriculus, [b c], 5 twelfths in
width, its glands forming a belt only 3 twelfths in breadth. The stomach, [d
e], is broadly elliptical, 11 twelfths long, 9 1/2 twelfths broad; its muscular
coat thin, being composed of strong parallel fasciculi, its thickest part not
exceeding 1 twelfth; the epithelium thin, tough, reddish-brown, longitudinally
rugous. The pylorus is very small, with a semilunar margin. The intestine, [e
f g h i j], is 12 inches long, its greatest width 3 twelfths, the least 2
twelfths; the coeca, [i], 2 twelfths long, and scarcely 1/2 twelfth wide, their
distance from the extremity 1 inch; the cloaca, [j], oblong; its width about 6
twelfths. The stomach contained portions of a mouse, including two front teeth.
The trachea is 2 inches 4 twelfths long, 2 twelfths broad at the upper
part, 1 1/2 twelfths at the lower; its rings about 55, with 2 dimidiate rings;
it is considerably flattened below, but roundish at the upper part. The bronchi
are of moderate size, with about 12 half rings. The muscles are as in the
Thrushes, there being four pairs of inferior laryngeal, of large size.
In another individual, the tongue is 7 twelfths long, the mouth 8 twelfths
in width; the oesophagus 3 inches long, its average width 3 1/2 twelfths; the
intestine 12 inches long. The lobes of the liver are very unequal, the left
smaller. The aperture of the ear of moderate size, roundish, 2 twelfths in
diameter. The contents of the stomach were a small bird and some insects.
CRATAEGUS APIIFOLIA, Mich. Fl. Amer., vol. i. p. 287. Pursh, Fl. Amer.
Sept., vol. i. p. 336.--ICOSANDRIA PENTAGYNIA, Linn.
This species of hawthorn bears a great resemblance to that so common in
Europe. It grows on the banks of rivers and in damp woods in several of the
Southern States, and attains a height of twelve or fifteen feet. The leaves are
somewhat triangular in their general outline, inciso-lobate, the lobes acute and
deeply toothed; the flowers white, and the berries ovate or oblong, of a deep