Juvenile. Note: brownish overall and scaled breast.
  • Adult. Note: thin black mask, light gray cap and back, longer/heavier bill with pale base to lower mandible.
  • Juvenile. Note: brownish overall and scaled breast.
  • Juvenile in flight.
  • Juvenile. Note: brown head and scaly flanks.

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Northern Shrike

Lanius excubitor
Members of this diverse group make up more than half of the bird species worldwide. Most are small. However their brains are relatively large and their learning abilities are greater than those of most other birds. Passerine birds are divided into two suborders, the suboscines and the oscines. Oscines are capable of more complex song, and are considered the true songbirds. In Washington, the tyrant flycatchers are the only suboscines; the remaining 27 families are oscines.
Shrikes are predatory songbirds, with bills adapted for killing prey. Most members of the family are found in Eurasia and Africa, but two are resident in North America. These solitary birds perch in conspicuous spots on top of fence posts, on wires, and in trees and shrubs. From there, they pounce on large insects or small vertebrate prey. Because their feet are not strong enough to hold and tear flesh, shrikes impale their prey on a thorn or barbed wire tine or lodge it in a tree crotch to hold it while they feed. Shrikes often leave the carcasses of larger prey impaled or lodged, returning to them later for further meals. Shrikes are typically monogamous, and both parents raise the young.
Uncommon winter resident.

    General Description

    This medium-sized, gray songbird is the larger and paler of the two species of shrike in North America. The Northern Shrike has a light gray underside, and a darker gray back. Its wings are black with white patches, and its tail is black with white corners. It has a large bill that is hooked at the end, and a narrow, black mask across its face. The female is slightly browner with a less distinctive mask than that of the male. Young birds are almost totally brown. Their wings are dark, but when they are folded up on the perched bird, they can be difficult to see and use as a fieldmark. The juvenile also has a less obvious mask, a paler bill, and barred underparts. Northern Shrikes, in comparison with Loggerhead Shrikes, have larger bills and narrower masks. Northern Shrikes occur in Washington only during the non-breeding season; for most of the year, they do not occur in Washington at the same time as Loggerhead Shrikes.


    Found all across the Northern Hemisphere, Northern Shrikes breed in northern boreal forests in semi-open areas along streams or edges. They winter in open lowlands, but prefer areas with more tree and shrub cover than those frequented by Loggerhead Shrikes.


    Northern Shrikes need large territories and thus are found only in low densities. They hunt by watching from high perches, then flying swiftly down after prey. Shrikes use their hooked bills to break the necks of vertebrate prey. Because their feet are not large or strong enough to hold prey, shrikes find a crotch in a tree, a thorn, or barbed wire to hang their prey on while they eat. Prey may be left on such a site for later consumption. During courtship, males sing to defend their territories and attract mates. Their song is complex and often includes imitated parts of other birds' songs.


    Northern Shrikes eat mostly small vertebrates, especially voles and other rodents. They also eat small birds and large insects, and can kill prey as large as they are.


    Both sexes probably help with nest building. The nest is usually located in a low tree or large shrub, 6-15 feet above the ground. The nest itself is a loose, bulky cup of twigs, grass, bark, and moss, lined with feathers and hair. The female incubates 4-7 eggs for 15-17 days. Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest at 19-20 days. The parents continue to feed and tend the young for another 3-4 weeks.

    Migration Status

    Migration occurs in mid-fall and early in spring. Numbers on the wintering grounds can vary considerably from year to year, with large numbers occurring in invasion years.

    Conservation Status

    Christmas Bird Count data reveal a decline in wintering birds in Washington. Oregon, however, has seen a slight increase, which may reflect a shift southward. Many populations of Northern Shrikes around the world are in decline, and while there is no clear evidence of decline in North America, this species should be monitored carefully.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    Winter visitors, Northern Shrikes can be found in Washington from late October to mid-April in appropriate habitat throughout the state. Their abundance varies, but they are typically more common in eastern than western Washington, and more common early in winter rather than later. In the shrub-steppe zone, Northern Shrikes are one of only a few species of songbird present in winter.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest CoastUUUR RUUU
    Puget TroughUUUR UUU
    North CascadesRRRR UUR
    West CascadesRRR RR
    East CascadesURR RUU
    OkanoganUUU UUU
    Canadian RockiesUUUU UUU
    Blue MountainsUUR RRU
    Columbia PlateauFFF UFF

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

    North America map legend

    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern