Butcher birds: stocking the larder

Don’t know if you’re like me and always root for the underdog?   With the nesting season in full swing, the birds around the garden have adapted to wary vigilance – there are raptors about, and smaller more common birds of the prey, the fiscal shrike.   They too have chicks in the nest and we watch as they stake out an area and then swoop down to catch their prey.  Commonly known as ‘butcher birds’ for their custom of spiking their live prey onto sharp thorns or barbed wire.

We regularly sight the little four-striped field mice and i’ve been lucky to grab photo opportunities when they’re out sunning themselves or at times raiding our kitchen.  There’s no harm done (other than the loss of cotton tassels from the carpet runners used for nesting material) as we shoo them out sometimes with an added bit of encouragement with the use of a broom.

A far cuter species is the dainty Cape pygmy mouse – about half the size of a field mouse but a most engaging and agile creature.    My neighbours have a policy of catch and release when these little fellas pitch up in their kitchen and for some years we’ve been relocating them in a custom designed box to an open patch of vegetation on the other side of our houses.

The smallest of the mice species, the pygmy mouse.

Imagine then, while we were quietly enjoying a beer at sunset, a butcher bird flew in and spiked a mouse on a sharp thorn at the top most reaches of the bougainvillea creeper.  Brutal!  But was it one of the relocated pygmy mice?!  Or was it more likely to be a ‘stripey’?   Darn it’s cruel out there.

30 thoughts on “Butcher birds: stocking the larder

    1. It was all about the timing! Minutes later and i’d have missed the action. Still it’s made me more aware of looking carefully at bouganvillea and other thorny plants. Perhaps you’ll be lucky and reporting your own impaling sightings?!

    1. Isn’t it interesting how we do that? I find it so satisfying when the prey gets away, or can outmanouevre the predator …. I’d be hopeless as a contest sports referee – always wanting to level the playing field.

  1. It IS brutal out there, yet I cannot help feeling that the Common Fiscal gets a particularly bad press. Last year I watched a Fork-tailed Drongo eating a Cape White-eye it had caught and before that a Burchell’s Coucal made short work of Cape Robin fledglings … in your case though, having already formed a relationship of sorts with the mice, this natural act must seem especially brutal. Your photographs of the mice are lovely to see.

    1. I admit it …. this tendency to be sentimental over some creatures and not others, but i get your point over the Common Fiscal and bad press – starting with their common names! Fickle too as the next day i watched the same pair of fiscals hunting hairy caterpillars which are wreaking havoc in the shrubbery, with much satisfaction! Your observations on Fork-tailed Drongos and Coucals are a revelation Anne- i had no idea they preyed on other birds. Just goes to show how nature determines the balance.

  2. Your little mice are very sweet indeed, and I agree, it’s distressing to see them meet such an end. We have a butcher bird too! It has the same modus operandi and hangs its catch on a spike or in the fork of a tree. I forgive it because it has a beautiful song, and I can’t be responsible for the way it behaves towards other animals. Feral animals do far more damage anyway.

    1. I relate to some of aspects of a Gondwana sharing of landmass and species distributions so I was curious about your butcher bird’s song reputation – found a recording on YouTube – what an impressive repertoire! Nothing like the Common fiscal which has an abrasive, wheezy component to it’s song. Like a rusty hinge needing oil; though now i’m beginning to understand a bit more about the skills of this ‘butcher’, and that sharp cutting hook and beak. Actually, for their size, i grudgingly admit they’re remarkably adapted to a hunting life. I could be won over as long as the mouse population picks up again……

    1. Thanks for these comments Brian, i’m beginning to see them in another light! I had a look on Mr Google and found a super article in the Guardian – Red-back shrike and a glowing description of a charismatic little ‘raptor’ – i also listened to a recording – quite a songster! As is the Great Grey! Jane over at her Mudgee garden also mentions the Australian species as a songbird! Melodies and song refrains – so that helps to change their appeal!
      Sad to read that they’re rare.

  3. I like rooting for the underdog. Anyone can come out tops. Butcher birds is quite the name for the birds who are determined to get their share – they sound very determined. Beautiful shots of the pygmy mouse. Looks like you caught it when it was hungry 🙂

    1. You sound like a kindred spirit, Mabel 🙂 They are very vigilant and determined, though I guess they only catch what they need? Thank you the Cape pygmy mouse is everything in miniture 🙂 They are incredibly agile and jump like and olympic highjumper (in miniture mouse terms). My neighbour designed a trap box and fitted it out like delux Hilton suite – they are very successful in luring them in with seeds, and honey bread…. they are fed like kings for a couple of days and then we release them back into the big wide wilds …. (feel a bit mean about that) – seems that they prefer an indoor kitchen range.

      1. Agile always makes it a bit more challenging to take photos, but I guess that’s where the fun lies 🙂 Indoor kitchen range sounds like luxury, no wonder they enjoy their stay 🙂

  4. I imagine Mufasa and Simba viewing the scene from atop a hill while Elton John plays a piano solo of the “Circle of Life” and a bereft family of striped mice comfort their widowed mother…

  5. Ahhh what a great post Liz, even though the subject matter is quite brutal. I love those little striped field mice – well not in my house – but they are super cute and quite tame. I didn’t realise the fiscals could lift a mouse though, I thought they stuck to insects but you have seen first hand why they deserve the monikers “Butcher Bird” and “Jackie Hangman”.

    1. A rare opportunity yes! Catching the action was quite something…. and i’d forgotten the other common name – Jackie Hangman – which after impaling the mouse is all rather like medieval torture. In a macabre fashion this is nature at it’s most effective; a small bird managing this size of a feast other than impaling it would i imagine be near impossible?

      1. Absolutely. I’m still amazed. And trying to block out that song on repeat in my head. The medieval reference is so apt though, especially as they are bold, confident birds. Argh the visions ……

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