Any of about 64 species of solitary, predatory songbirds (family Laniidae), especially any of the 25 species of the genus Lanius. Shrikes kill insects, lizards, mice, and birds with their bill or may impale their prey on a thorn (earning them the name butcher bird). Most species are gray or brownish and have a harsh call; several Eurasian species have reddish or brown markings. The great gray shrike (L. excubitor), called northern shrike in Canada and the U.S., is about 10 in. (25 cm) long and has a black mask. The only other New World species is the similar but smaller loggerhead shrike (L. ludovicianus) of North America.
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Shrikes are passerine birds of the family Laniidae. Most shrike species occur in Eurasia and Africa, but two breed in North America (the Loggerhead and Great Grey shrikes). There are no members of this family in South America or Australia.
Some shrikes are also known as "butcher birds" because of their habit of keeping corpses. Australasian butcherbirds are not shrikes, although they occupy a similar ecological niche. Several African species are known as fiscals, derived from the Afrikaans term for the hangman, fiskaal.
Shrikes are medium-sized birds, up to 50 centimetres in length, with grey, brown, or black and white plumage. Their beaks are hooked, like that of a bird of prey, reflecting their predatory nature, and their calls are strident. Shrikes are known for their habit of catching insects, small birds, or mammals and impaling their bodies on thorns. This helps them to tear the flesh into smaller, more conveniently-sized fragments, and serves as a "larder" so that the shrike can return to the uneaten portions at a later time.
They inhabit open habitats, especially steppe and savannah. Some species breed in northern latitudes during the summer, then migrate to warmer climes for the winter. Shrike make simple, cup-shaped nests from twigs and grasses, in bushes and the lower branches of trees.
The Prionopidae and Malaconotidae are quite closely related to the Laniidae, and were formerly included in the shrike family. The cuckoo-shrikes are not closely related to the true shrikes.