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The Red Backed Shrike { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 9, 2015

Red Backed Shrike



The Red-backed shrike belongs to the Order of birds known as the Passerifromes { perching birds} and the family Lancidae within that Order. The genus name of Lanius which derives its name from the Latin lanius indicates a butcher. The specific name of collurio derives from the Greek Kollurion,a thrush sized bird mentioned by Aristotle.

Here in the UK they are currently added to the Red List of Conservation concern due to historical and recent declines in population numbers. There are approximately 227 records per year in the UK,where their current status is a former breeder and passage visitor. { Source BTO}

The European populations are 3 concern, most in Europe depleted. The total population size of Europe is estimated at between four point three million and eight million . The population sizes vary greatly from country to country there follows a few examples.

In Austria the population is estimated to be between 20,000-40,000. Belgium between 1,500- 2,000. Croatia between 70,000 -150,000. France 120,000-360,000.Germany 90,000-190,000. Spain 240,000-500,000. Ukraine 360,00-460,000. { Source Birdlife}

The birds breed in Eurasia wintering south to southern Africa. They inhabit open woodland,Scrub,Savanna and farm land.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Feladair, the Welsh Cigydd Cefnoch and the Irish Scrach n Droimrua.

Loggerhead shrike of America

Originally appeared on Flickr transferred to Commons by Snowmanradio. The image was taken in Texas USA.
Originally appeared on Flickr transferred to Commons by Snowmanradio. The image was taken in Texas USA. | Source

What are Shrikes ?

Shrikes are thrush -like birds in respect of their general form with short hooked bills and strong feet and every bit as predatory as the small falcons. They tend to drop down upon their prey from a perch or even catch birds and insects on the wing.

Most shrikes have a Eurasian and African distribution with two breeding in North America where the species is represented by the Loggerhead shrike and the Great grey shrike. There are almost 30 species in the genus Lanius and in others there is One in the genus Corvinella the Yellow backed shrike. One in the genus Urolestes the Magpie shrike and two in the genus Eurocephalus the Northern White crowned shrike and the Southern white crowned shrike.

Here we review the Red backed shrike and as usual we commence with a description of the species under review.

Red backed shrike and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the Red Backed Shrike

The upper part of the male is grey excepting the scapulars and back which are chestnut brown. The wing coverts are black,margined with chestnut. The wings are dark brown, the feathers edged with chestnut . The two middle tail feathers black, the rest white on the basal half,black edged with white on the terminal half.

The frontal band,lores,and ear coverts are black and the iris dark brown. The under parts are a rosy buffish colour whiter on the chin and under tail coverts,the bill and feet are black.

The female is usually quite unlike the male,her upper parts being reddish brown,slightly barred in the mantle. her under parts are buffish white, barred except in the centre,with brown. There is no black on the head, but a pale buff streak above the eye.

Handsome bird


General and back ground information

The Red backed shrike was once a common migratory visitor to Britain.The birds last stronghold was in Breckland but by 1988 just a single pair remained. In 1988,for the first time no birds were recorded in the UK. However,in 2013 breeding was confirmed in Devon {south coast of England} with two young known to have fledged. The return to the south west of England has been an unexpected development, and it has raised the question is climate change going to bring back some species to their former haunts?

Historical observations

As mentioned above the Red backed shrike used to be a fairly common visitor to the UK. Seebohm, {1800's} observes " it is a common visitor to the whole of the continent of Europe up to the latitude of 64 degrees,with the exception of the Spanish Peninsula.

Butler, {1896},states that in Great Britain this bird is common but local,though most abundant in the southern counties however it is rarely met with in Cornwall, he goes on to add "that in Wales and the central counties it is not uncommon, yet it is becoming rarer in Norfolk,and in Lincolnshire it is almost unknown {East Anglia England}. In the northern counties it is rare,probably increasingly so. To Scotland it is only a chance straggler, though it has been recorded breeding in the south east. In Ireland a specimen was shot in 1887 and others were said to have been seen at the same time"

The common 'butcher bird' reaches us early in May { if indeed it attempts to do so} and generally leaves our shores again in August or September. The name 'Butcher bird' has been given to the species {and other shrikes} owing to its habit of impaling its prey upon thorns { see illustration}, in order it is said to be more readily torn to pieces.

However, one eminent ornithologist, who kept them in confinement states " considering that my bird swallowed five of the largest cockroaches I could find in succession,without even dismembering them,I think the explanation can hardly be founded on fact."

The food of the shrike consists of insects,young and old birds { even up to its own size},amphibians,lizards and small mammals such as mice. It seizes prey suddenly dropping upon it when the attack is unsuspected. The indigestible part of its food is disgorged in the form of pellets,after the manner of hawks and owls. It is also powerful on the wing.

The alarm note is a harsh 'chuck' or 'char', the call note a harsh chirp,the song although short is not unpleasant. It frequents hedgerows principally, but also sides of coppice's and woods, and such places as old deserted quarries and lime pits. It has a habit of moving its tail rapidly from side to side and hurling it around,when excited by the appearance of danger.

Illustration of a shrike with its victims impaled on the thorns.


Female Red backed shrike

Taken in Poland
Taken in Poland | Source

Keeping wild birds was once a popular past time


Red backed Shrike


Red backed shrikes in captivity

In the days before it was made illegal to capture or harm wild birds {with a few exceptions} it was common practice for Bird catchers to obtain them by any means to sell as cage and aviary birds and even for the table. Thankfully those days are behind us now ,but as part of our avian history a few lines on the subject follows.

Herr Mathias Rausch, {1891} states, " The best singer and mocker among the rapacious birds is acknowledged to be the Red backed shrike or thorn piercer. he is also the commonest and most widely distributed of all,has much as he can be found in the wild state throughout much of Europe."

" Especially good and varied singers are,however, only to be met with in regions rich in birds. I have already owned Red backed shrikes which copied the nightingale**, the Quail**, the Blackcap** the Garden warbler,the Icertine warbler,the Meadow and Tree pipits** and Song thrush perfectly,and portions of the songs of other birds tolerably well. The only pity is that the voice of the bird is so weak,that it is unable to reproduce the song of many other cage birds kept at the same time, but it always repays one to tend and care for this songster as a cgae bird..

" Moreover it is easily and cheaply secured by such bird keepers as cannot put up with too loud a bird song,and who make a point of not keeping several birds on account of their dissimilarity of song,for by its song they will at once be happy in both respects"

Butler, 1896 shared the following information to fellow bird keepers on the care and feeding of the shrike.-- " of course this savage though pretty bird should never be turned out into an aviary,as it would undoubtedly murder and devour its companions even though as large as itself. A flight cage,therefore, is the most suitable home for it. The staple food should consist of egg,pieces of cheese,with the addition of minced raw beef,cockroaches or other insects,and occasionally a dead mouse or bird. Indeed the food for all shrikes should be almost exactly the same food for most of the Corvines, but somewhat less variant,because the latter eat fruit,nuts and even acorns,greedily,as well as the usual soft food."

Butler went on to give this further advise " It is best to rear this species from the nest,for then it is supposed to become very tame and confiding. My brief experience of the bird,caught when quite youing,and given to me on the 12th of August 1896, is that it is as wild as any adult bird,and cuts itself all to pieces in its incessant efforts to force its way through the wires of its prison. From the nature of its food its cage needs constant cleaning, otherwise it smells awful. Its note of rage 'char','char' is frequently uttered,but nothing else.

" As it will not now learn its natural song,a few good performers such as the nightingale,blackcap and skylark should be kept in cages near by,in order that it may study their notes. One advantage in this bird is that however wild it may be,and however intolerable the odour of its cage may be, the bird always appears to enjoy robust health.

" Even if one is ill,and perchance no fresh food is supplied to the bird for twenty four hours, he makes no trouble of that, but only attacks his food more vigorously when the opportunity comes. Moreover,having by foolish behaviour so reduced his wings that he cannot reach his perch,he constantly passes the night on a box in the corner,these are the redeeming points in its character."

And finally Meyer conveys to us --" A male Red backed shrike was caught in the a garden by a cat, the gardener,who saw the circumstances,succeeded in rescuing it from the animal the very moment it happened,in time to save its life. It was put in to a cage and placed in the sitting room,in the house close by . There were several persons in the room at the time,but notwithstanding their moving about,the female,its companion,came to the window settled on the cage,and was secured by one of the party,without attempting to fly away,they were subsequently both placed in the same cage."



Nest and eggs

The nest of this species is most frequently placed in a hawthorn bush of hedge, but sometimes in a fork of a stunted tree,seldom more than five feet from the ground, and frequently less. In character the nest is somewhat like those of the Greenfinch,but deeper. The nest is large for the size of the bird being six to seven inches across the edge of the top tends to project over the sides. The outer walls are formed of grass stalks and moss.

Meyer relates--"The female will hardly fly from the nest when she has eggs,and if disturbed after the young are hatched both parents remain either side of the bush that contains the nest, or on a nieghbouring tree, until the danger has passed,and,to draw off attention from the spot,they keep moving in opposite directions,uttering all the while their alarm call. We have seen them help the young ones out of the nest for the purpose of hiding them in the thicket beneath,and the moment they have reached the ground,not another chirp is heard from the nestlings which have apparently received a signal to be quiet, although the parent birds perched in a tree at a little distance,keep up the continued clamour."

The eggs four to six complete the set,tend to show a good deal of difference in the form and tinting. The general character of the markings is very characteristic in most specimens laid by this bird.

The ground colour varies from greenish-white,to a creamy colour and even a salmon pink. The spots also may vary and can be from olive to reddish-brown with underlying spots of bluish-ash. Sometimes surface spots are lacking, the grey markings only being in evidence.. The spots are usually confined to the broader half,rarely to the apical half,and still more rarely,irregularly scattered over the whole surface. However, in most eggs they are larger and form an irregular zone just above the middle.

Eggs of the Red backed shrike.


Young birds

The young birds are somewhat similar to the female, but whiter on the forehead,with ill-defined eye streak, their upper parts are barred,and their feet greyer.

The breast above is yellowish and yellowish white below the chest is barred at the top with brown edged with a lighter shade. The tail yellowish brown,darker at the tip, the outer feathers edged with white.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, they are wonderful birds. What would you do without your camera! Glad you caught it in that Mockingbird tree. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Such gorgeous birds. I met a shrike a couple of years ago. It was on the top of Mockingbird Tree, and I am glad that I viewed it through my camera lens before ignoring it as a mockingbird.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi, In the USA it is represented by the Loggerhead shrike, Thank you for your vote up and interesting,much appreciated. Best wishes to you.


      Hi, thank you so much for your kind and encouraging comments and for all your votes. I love the term 'jacky hangman' I have not heard that one before. You learn something everyday. have a nice weekend,best wishes to you.


      Hi, not a swallow although the tail is somewhat similar. yes their cousins do occur in your country and every bit as interesting. Best wishes to you.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      My young son declared this a swallow because of it's tail. I think maybe they are not in our desert but their cousins are here.

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      4 years ago from Norfolk


      This is a stunningly beautiful hub with the most gorgeous pictures. I am familiar with the African Shrikes which we knew as Butcherbirds or “jacky hangman" . They had a really mean disposition and would hang their prey up on thorns and fences to eat later. Nevertheless, this hub deserves to be visited and commented a lot more on than has been done already. Simply gorgeous, Voted up, beautiful, interesting, shared and pinned

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      4 years ago from New York

      Seems like a beautiful but deadly bird. Its hard to imagine the habits you state from such a small bird. I'd never heard of him before but yet you state he is here in the US.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hello Devika,

      It is a pleasure to share these beautiful creatures with you. You are very kind and your share tweet and votes mean so much. Thank you my friend. Best wishes to you..

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I shared, tweeted, Pinned, and more. I am impressed about this so different bird. I have not see this one as most of which you have written about. The few that I have seen is by pure luck. I like birds and reading about them is so interesting. Voted up, interesting and useful.


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