THE BUTCHER BIRD, or red-backed shrike/Should not be trusted with your bike/The pump and lights he whips away/And takes the spokes to spike his prey.” Relax, it’s not true! Still, the comic fragment by poet James Fenton does capture something in the character of this week’s cover bird: shrikes can’t be trusted. I mean, they perch there looking cute, airily rotating their tail and coughing up the odd pellet. Next minute they’ve grabbed and eviscerated a vole. I think I’ve mentioned before the ravenous red-backed I saw in Shetland once, which sat there eagerly devouring a redstart but still made a frenzied assault on a passing bunch of unsuspecting siskins.
All shrikes are full of character. British bird expert Ted Easter has written eloquently about his pairs in this paper, and I vividly recall an email from him describing how his cock red-backed had just begun to sing as they approached breeding condition. In recent years, much has been learned about shrike vocalisations, particularly that the red-backed, like other species, is a fluent mimic. Listen to: www.xeno-canto.org/335501, a 10-minute clip by sound recordist Ulf Elman in Sweden: he’s identified in one red-backed sequence the mimicked songs and calls of at least 27 different bird species; not only songbirds, either, but mallards and common gulls!
Mimicry, disguise… the red-backed is also one of those species in which certain older hen birds are known to develop male-like plumage characters. Last year I was delighted to observe such a bird for the first time: a migrant in Central Asia. But most pairs are like chalk and cheese. I remember visiting, in the 1980s, one of the very last of the regular breeding pairs in England, right next to the Lakenheath air base in Suffolk. The cock and hen perched up and posed side by side like royalty… but, sadly, they were waving goodbye. The next year their territory stood forlorn and unoccupied. Red-backed shrike has effectively now been lost as a wild British breeding bird, so if you ever get the chance to visit a captive pair of this elegant, cool, fascinating species – be sure to take it.
Averted Typo of the Week: “Few space cocks, last year’s birds.” Ground Control to Major Bargain Box… Enjoy those earth birds of yours this week!