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The Bill of the Shrike

by Robin Tuck
January 1998

We were out birding, and saw a Shrike. One of our companions said "Short bill, it's a Loggerhead." I think he was right. It looked like a Loggerhead Shrike to me. Several days before, Julie and I had seen a Shrike we identified as a Northern Shrike. Our identification was based on the black eye-patch being faint and not crossing over the bill.

So I gathered several of my field books and examined the pictures, noting the bills. Darned if I can tell from the photos a long bill from a short one. And as far as beak curvature, they both look "strongly hooked" to me.

To me, this implies that many birders vocalize a single identifying field mark when what they really see is the general appearance of the bird. This habit causes confusion for new birders who cannot identify the differentiating characteristics at a glance. Sometimes, this habit causes embarrassment when the identification is wrong.

As a result of this question, I will now be more careful when I see a Shrike and take the time to notice the bill length and curvature, and will pay more attention to the other plumage details.

Often we do not have the opportunity to take the time necessary to study a bird out, because other birders we are with want to hurry on to the next bird. In this case, note the bird's location and return to it later and spend the time. True birding excellence can be ours if we invest the time and effort to achieve it.