Photo: Tony Tilford. A male red-backed shrike. Note the cock bird’s grey head, pink chest and black highwayman’s mask

Well-known for its seemingly brutal predatory and feeding habits, the red-backed shrike has become virtually extinct in the UK as a breeding bird – and is rarely seen in private collections either, says Bill Naylor. However, we shouldn’t overlook the attractions of this small but formidable passerine.

WITH its grey head, pink chest and black highwayman’s mask, the male red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio)
is handsome bird. But like all of the 30 or so species of true shrikes (which get their name from their “shrieking call”) it’s a natural born killer.

Although shrikes are passerines, they are just as much a bird of prey as any raptor species. Insects, lizards, mice, young birds and small adult birds are all on the menu. Bird ringers have found them attacking birds caught in mist nets. Gamekeepers used to shoot them on sight; aware they wouldn’t hesitate to kill pheasant or partridge chicks. 

Shrikes prefer open dry country, where in extended hot weather, insects thrive. They are fond of lizards and these are a favourite food on heaths and moorland. These birds also frequent overgrown derelict sites with lots of brambles.

Like all shrikes, the red-back prefers a vantage point, such as telegraph wires or the top of bushes. Here they will wait impatiently, occasionally flicking their tail until a victim comes into view. Then they hover or pounce, striking first with their feet and gripping prey tightly. Their feet lack the power of a raptor’s talons and the hooked beak does the killing.

Most shrikes’ beaks, like those of some raptors, are equipped with a secateurs-type notch for breaking a bird or mammal’s neck – a feature handlers of this species have sometimes discovered to their cost. Carrying prey in its beak, the shrike seeks a thorn bush, such as blackthorn or gorse, and impales it. Barbed wire and even the upturned tines of a discarded garden fork have been utilised to secure dead prey, which can be dissected at leisure. Bees and beetles, its favourite insect, are often impaled on teasel and other plant stalks.

The practical task of impaling prey for feeding (an example of tool use) has become a ritual for its own sake. And the behaviour appears ingrained in the DNA. Hand-reared red-backed shrikes have a compulsion to impale food. Caged individuals have been observed jamming food in between the food hopper and the bars of the cage to secure it and peck pieces off to eat. In the wild, impaled prey is frequently left to rot.

Is this to display evidence of their serial killing? Or is it a male’s advert to a female that he is a fit and capable hunter? Perhaps it’s just a “Keep Out” sign, signalling to other males that this hunting territory is occupied. Similar to all predatory animals, male shrikes will not tolerate other males in the vicinity. They will also often try to chase even larger birds away.

The compulsion to hunt is very ingrained. In Germany, “Nine killer” was an old country name, which stemmed from the belief that a red-backed shrike killed nine times before choosing prey as a meal. Lanius means butcher, and butcherbird is its most common name. It is no relation to the Australian butcherbirds Artamidae that also impale prey.

Other British country names for both the great grey shrike (L. excubitor) and the red-backed are “murdering bird” or “murdering pie”.

The fiscal shrikes – common African species and very attractive to boot, are popularly known as “jacky hangman”
for their habit of impaling rows of prey on barbed wire fences.

The larger great grey shrike is the most widely distributed shrike species occurring in north America, Europe and as far north as Norway. Although it visits the east coast of England in winter, it’s a mystery why it has never nested in the UK.

In Africa – its winter home – the red-backed is a common bird found throughout the Continent. It has a breeding range north of the UK, but our islands seem to be on the edge of its westerly range. In the past 100 years it has steadily become rare in this country. Before the First World War it regularly bred in the south and Midlands of the country. In the mid 1960s it was down to as low as 100 breeding pairs.

Now it is virtually extinct as UK breeding bird. But in 2010, there was restored optimism when two pairs bred
on Dartmoor and one pair nested successfully in Scotland. In 2011, it bred again in England. Its rarity is such that any pairs that go to nest will be guarded in secrecy around the clock. Such measures are essential because the attractive eggs of this bird have become a prime target of egg collectors.   

Now there is more chance of seeing it during spring and autumn migrations when it stops over on the east and south coast of England, occurring virtually from Land’s End to the far north of Scotland.

In captivity a large enough aviary with a number of perches will allow a pair sufficient room to exercise. They don’t come down to the ground often, but do enjoy bathing. But this needs to be monitored when the weather gets colder. They require additional inside quarters, as well as an outside flight.

All types of insects are eaten and shrikes particularly like locusts and crickets. But they don’t eat much insectivorous food. Calcium phosphorus and a high proportion of protein are important in their diet. Following a meal they regurgitate pellets of insect and parts.

A bulky nest of rootlets and other plant material is built in a thorn bush or brambles. In captivity, red-backed and other shrikes have built nests in a framed support of wire mesh. The deep cup is lined with soft plant material and the sitting bird can hardly be seen. Pairs are very territorial and resent nest inspections, attacking and dive-bombing aviary keepers. There are numerous accounts of pairs deserting or breaking their eggs if they are not allowed privacy and provided with a secluded nesting location.

The usual egg colour of this species is pink or olive spotted with brown, but there is much individual variation – one of the reasons egg collectors treasure them. This and the fact that they are single brooded has contributed to the red-backed shrike’s decline as a UK breeding bird.

Both sexes incubate the eggs for 14-15 days. Young are fed on a wide variety of insects. They beg silently and it may appear mistakenly the parents are not feeding them. As they grow, portions of animals (pinkies in captivity) are fed to the growing youngsters, which usually fledge after a fortnight and resemble duller versions of the female. Young are usually separated from adults at the end of the year. Some shrike keepers separate pairs in winter.

Red-backed shrikes are not bred frequently. UK softbill breeder Ted Easter wrote about his experiences in breeding and hand rearing the species in Cage & Aviary Birds in 2013. Unlike in the wild, Ted’s shrikes were double brooded.

Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture.

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