I’ll happily confess that I’m not really one for pet birds: they’re noisy, they’re smelly, and some of them, I hear, have the disconcerting habit of outliving their human owners.
Even if cagebirds didn’t give me the slight willies, I gravely doubt that my first choice for a domestic companion of the feathered sort would be … a shrike.
I love shrikes, and have since I saw my first loggerheads in eastern Nebraska more than 40 years ago. Whatever the rest of the day afield has held, it is often the shrikes — common ones or rare, big ones or little — that press themselves most deeply into memory: a northern shrike chasing tree sparrows through the thickets, a great gray hounding innocent jays and magpies, red-backeds lighting up a brushy pasture, a southern gray singing from a Spanish fenceline.
In the house, though? Never. Of all things.
But as so often, and always so surprisingly, I find that my tastes are not universally shared.
In 1795, Johann Matthäus Bechstein, uncle of the poet and philologist and father of German ornithology, dedicated a lengthy chapter of his Stubenthiere to these “bold predatory birds” and their place in the fashionable bourgeois living room.
Like the European jay, the great gray shrike imitates many sounds. It does not quite succeed in replicating the songs of other birds, but its own flute-like note is that much more beautiful, quite similar to that of the gray parrot; it puffs out its throat like a frog…. Perhaps one might be able to teach it to speak, as it has some notes that are very like the human voice.
There is one thing to be very sure of, though, as Bechstein reminds us in his account of the lesser gray shrike.
Letting any shrike fly around in a room with other birds in it is not appropriate, because it is likely to want to kill its comrades — if not out of hunger, then out of jealousy or bad temper, or just to prove that it can.
Bloodlust notwithstanding, the male lesser gray is among the most desirable of cagebirds, “with a wondrous capacity to learn … the entire songs of other bird, among them the nightingale, the skylark … and the quail.” The woodchat, on the other hand, though its handsome plumage commends it, always mixes “its own screeching and squawking” into its imitations.
Then as now the commonest laniid in central and western Europe, the red-backed shrike was the birdkeeper’s favorite, readily captured, handsomely plumed, and easily fed. The song of the beautiful male
is a combination of the songs of the goldfinch, various warblers, nightingale, thrush nightingale, robin, wren, skylark, and woodlark, mixed with only a few of the shrike’s own coarse strophes.
Best of all, though,
if you place the shrike in a room infested with flies, he will quickly clear them out. He catches them most easily in flight; if you then stick a few pins into a twig, he impales the flies with an odd movement.
I’m still not convinced.