My 7-year old niece once explained to me that herbivores eat plants, omnivores eat everything and “meatbivores” eat meat. Since the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) feeds on small mammals and even other birds – they must be “meatbivores!”
Carnivorous, of course, is the correct term for meat-eaters and there is no shortage of carnivorous birds, but the number of meat-eating passerines (aka songbirds) is few and far between. While raptors such as eagles, osprey and owls have strong, sharp talons to seize and restrain prey, the robin-sized Loggerhead Shrike has weak feet. Instead it relies on swift flight, a powerful beak and a deadly notch at the end of its bill to break the neck of its prey.
A few years ago I spotted a Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea guttata) expertly impaled on a barbed-wire fence out in the Everglades. I figured some masochistic 8-year old boy had captured it and spiked it for fun, but a few days later I noticed a Loggerhead Shrike perched on the same fence, systematically dropping down to the dead insect, pulling a piece off and flying back to its perch. It repeated this several times – undeterred by my presence.
Until that time, I had no idea anything ate lubbers. Alligators spit them out. Mockingbirds vomit them back up. Every insectivore, omnivore and “meatbivore” knows to stay away from this brightly-colored, foul-tasting grasshopper, yet here was a bird munching away on this insect’s innards.
Impaling prey serves several purposes for the shrike: it allows the weak-footed birds to secure their food while they pick it apart, and it allows them to store food and return to it later. In the case of the toxic Lubber Grasshopper, impaling the insects and leaving them in the hot Florida sun allows the toxins to essentially “cook out” of the bugs, making Loggerhead Shrikes uniquely Lubbivorous.