killing for a living



“’There’s a promise goes with it,’ Mr. Garfield said. ‘I’d like you to promise never to shoot anything with it but the bloodthirsty animals—the cruel ones like weasels and hawks. Never anything like birds or prairie dogs.’

‘What about butcher birds?’

‘Butcher birds?’ Mr. Garfield said.

‘Shrikes,’ said the boy’s mother. ‘We’ve got some over by our place. They kill all sorts of things, snakes and gophers and other birds. They’re worse than the hawks because they just kill for the fun of it.’

‘By all means,’ said Mr. Garfield. ‘Shoot all the shrikes you see. A thing that kills for the fun of it—’ He shook his head and his voice got solemn, almost like Mr. McGregor the Sunday School Superintendent in town, when he was asking for the benediction. ‘There’s something about the way the war drags on, or maybe it’s just this country,’ he said, ‘that makes me hate killing. I just can’t bear to shoot anything any more, even a weasel.'”
-Wallace Stegner, “Butcher Bird” (1941)

The open-air abattoir of our desert is the tree with thorns. Russian olive works well, as does acacia; both are exotics but the shrikes don’t seem to mind. Also introduced and handily appropriated is barbed wire, which has the additional benefit of being fully exposed to the sun, having no canopy overhead. The shrikes impale their prey on these projections to prepare them, in a manner, for proper consumption.

Being passerines of a rapacious sort, shrikes lack the gripping talons of a raptor but possess in full its killer instinct. They are predatory songbirds—smaller than robins yet substantially more violent. Swooping down to tackle prey sometimes as large as itself, the shrike delivers a calculated bite to the nape with its hooked beak, maiming the creature or severing the spinal cord to paralyze it. The victim is then transported back to the shrike’s roost where the butchery commences.

Skewering prey on thorns and barbed wire serves a number of functions. Most importantly, it anchors the flesh so the shrike can tear lustily, bodily at it; without this leverage, the bird can only stand atop the carcass and yank, which usually results in a lot of falling off and flailing about. (Perching feet don’t have the meat-hook-like grip and sinew of talons.) Hanging chunks of flesh will desiccate and slowly break down, making for easier portioning and digestion. This also serves to detoxify certain prey: poisonous compounds in, say, Monarch butterflies start degrading after several hours in the sun, becoming more palatable with age. Lastly, there’s the cache factor. Because acacias and fences are usually rife with thorny excrescences, there’s ample room for storage—why not keep hunting while the getting’s good? Especially if the cuts only improve as they mature. Woodpeckers hoard mast, jays stash pignolis; shrikes dress carcasses to garland the abattoir.

How is the shrike’s apparent forethought in storing calories different from that of other species? Shrikes are often accused of being ravening, truculent butchers, killing not only out of necessity but a weird sort of sadism, too, festooning trees and fence lines with their macabre spoils. But shrikes kill in order to eat; they impale this prey in order to better consume it. Projecting cultural values over all—as humans are wont to do—we see in its behavior a moral defilement, and we judge it accordingly. Labeling the shrike as cruel and profligate is not merely malapropos, it’s a textbook case of the pot calling the kettle black.


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