Lanius ludovicianus

Loggerhead shrike
Janet Ruth

Butcher Bird


Clad in somber shades

of sooty gray, ancient lava black,

       ashy white beneath,

she perches taut—

a nocked arrow—

       drawn and ready—

                   atop the mesquite.

Dark eyes peer

from coal-black mask,

       seek another condemned soul to harvest—

                   grasshopper, lizard,

       sparrow, mouse—

glossy ebony beak

with hook and tomial teeth—

       executioner’s ax, honed

                   to bring down justice

       at the base

of an unwary

victim’s skull.


Beneath her feet.

Last summer’s nest—

       constructed with her mate,

                   jumbled cup of sticks and bark strips

                               lined with grasses and scavenged fur,

                   in which she’d incubated

       five pale, dark-blotched eggs.


Beneath her gaze.

A larder, a cache,

her curiosity cabinet of comestibles—

       fence lizard impaled

                   on mesquite spine,

                               the brilliant blue of its belly

                   fading, skin dried stiff,

       on rapier tips

                   of New Mexico agave,

                               crispy black and yellow remains

                   of a horse lubber grasshopper—

       all stabbed and stored,

a pantry for later

times of wintry want.


A movement in the grass.

Let fly by instinct from her perch—

       an arrow loosed

                   in undulating flight,

       propelled through an ocean of desert air

                   with rapid bursts of wingbeat,

       an iron shaft fletched

                   with ebony feathers.

She hovers a moment

just above the grass,

       drops beyond sight

                   in flurry of wings

       and flash of beak.


in her beak she bears

       a twist of feathers

                   that the instant before

       was a grasshopper sparrow,

wings her way to tight-strung strand

of barbed wire, impales sparrow

on unnatural, rusty spines.


With a cry—harsh and joyous,

raucous and wild—she launches back

       into the frosty winter air

above her sere realm

       of sun-cured black grama grass

                   in shades of silver-gray,

       quaking subjects,

and spiny temples.

Both songbird and apex predator—

       her ancestors

                   have ruled here

       since the late Pleistocene—

a thornbird dynasty.




Janet Ruth is a retired NM research ornithologist, whose writing focuses on connections to the natural world. Her first book, Feathered Dreams: celebrating birds in poems, stories & images (Mercury HeartLink, 2018) was a Finalist for the 2018 NM/AZ Book Awards. See her on the web here.