Oh, Shrikes!

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We continue with the bird taxonomy lesson/rant with another family on another continent – shrikes. The all-knowing Wikipedia informs me that the name is derived from the Latin word for ‘butcher’  – or, at least, its scientific family, Laniidae, is. (Linguist nerds: the Latin word is Lanius, which happily also means executioner.)

Now, “butcher” might seem a trifle macabre for a bird of such lovely colors. It might seem an unfair judgement of a perhaps overly – practical beak and a glint in the eye that appears slightly evil when viewed in the wrong (or right) lighting. Taxonomists, one might shake one’s head. When they have any imagination, it’s too much.

In the shrike’s case, however, “butcher” appears to be entirely accurate. In Africa, they’re known as the fiscal – which happens to be the word for hangman. It’s not an unfair likeness to a serial killer that caused it. They are in the habit of picking up insects or small prey and literally skewering it on acacia thorns. In the absence of acacia, barbed wire will do, or really just any sharp point. It’s really a very practical adaptation: this way, they can rip their catch into smaller, manageable fragments. Heck, it even works for short-term storage. Stick it on – well, a stick, and then keep coming back for a nibble before it rots entirely. In the case of the toxic lubber grasshopper, it’s perfect – one to two days of dead impaled grasshopper later, all the poison has degraded and voila, dinner.

Satay, anyone?

(Note: shrike itself has a rather less gruesome origin. It’s simply the near-screaming sound of the bird’s call.)

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