Species name: Lanius excubitor
UK numbers: 62 wintering/125 UK passage
Habitat: Open areas
Diet: Beetles, insects, small mammals and birds – often impaled on a thorn
On the school run, my teenage daughter used to delight in regaling me with tracks from her favourite indie music. Over the years not many tunes stuck, but quite unexpectedly, just the other day, a line from one of them trickled through the moving stave of my consciousness. It’s from the track ‘Dino Damage’ by Miniature Tigers, and set to an unsettlingly gentle melody it goes like this:
“…If you hold on, they’ll bite your fingers off
And tear you limb from limb.
It’s second nature to them”
This wandering fragment of verse must have come to rest because I was looking at a picture of a Great Grey Shrike. These are fabulous birds, but for most of us their searingly predatory nature manages to escape our experience, since they are rare birds, with just 50-70 spending the non-breeding season in the UK each year.
We normally just admire them on a high perch above the heath or moor where they come to winter, and we rarely see them in action. The same sanitised wonder applies to those prehistoric dinosaurs we love so much. Had a human ever met a T. rex there would have been only one result, and it would have been very quick, very blood-soaked and completely lacking in glamour.
The Great Grey Shrike is, like its very distant relative the T. rex, a specialised meat-eater. Every time it eats, something dies, except for the rare occasions that the bird scavenges (it has been known to eat the flesh of a dead cow!) This spells bad news for voles, mice and shrews, in particular. Their destruction isn’t pretty. It takes about a minute to kill a vole, a mammal that roughly fills the palm of your hand.
The shrike despatches it by biting the back of the neck multiple times until the spinal cord is ruptured. This can take many attempts (a shrike once killed a rat after biting it 117 times) and all the time, the vole will attempt to get away from the shrike and bite it back. The shrike does not hold the mammal under the feet but must dodge and peck until it hits exactly the right spot. It’s a death dance, with bleeding and suffering.
Once the vole is incapacitated, the shrike will carry it in its feet to a nearby perch to be ‘processed.’ With such a large prey item, that means wedging the carcass into the fork of a tree branch, or impaling it on a thorn or other sharp end. The shrike starts by eating the brain and other parts of the head, with the rest following. It slowly dismembers the body, often taking several feeding sessions to complete the job, sometimes returning in the morning. Fur, bones and other indigestible items are disgorged later as pellets.
It isn’t just small mammals that are taken by Great Grey Shrikes, although rodents can comprise the entire diet in the midst of winter. The predators also catch a few birds (I have myself seen one taking a Stonechat), as well as large number of insects in the summer and, again in fair conditions, reptiles. It seems that birds are difficult to catch; Great Grey Shrikes, though, will sometimes feed on those caught in nets, or on sick or inexperienced individuals.
This predatory story is unusual for a species that is essentially a songbird. Admittedly, Blue Tits and Chiffchaffs eating caterpillars or aphids are equally ‘carnivorous’, but songbirds taking other vertebrates is notable (members of the crow family do, of course, and Great Tits have been known to eat bats.) As a result, shrikes were once considered to be relatives of raptors such as hawks and falcons, birds of prey in the same league.
In fact, the morphology of shrikes is both intriguingly similar and utterly different to that of true raptors. Falcons kill off their prey in the same way as a shrike, by cutting through the spinal cord; both shrikes and falcons have a projection on the upper mandible of the bill called a ‘tomial tooth’, and a corresponding notch on the lower mandible, which acts as the cutting edge. Both also have hooked bills, of course.
Perch and pounce
Shrikes, though, have not evolved the claws of hawks or falcons (families which are, by the way, now known to be completely unrelated to each other, the falcons being closer to parrots). Shrikes invariably kill with their bills, while both hawks and falcons do their worst damage with their talons, before the final despatch. The traditional birds of prey hold meals down with their feet, but shrikes cannot do this. Although their feet are relatively large and well-armoured for songbirds, they don’t use their sharp claws for predation.
There are, though, some parallels in the hunting methods of raptors great and small. The shrikes are classic ‘perch and pounce’ experts, spending time on lookout posts watching the ground below for movement. On average (at least in one study) they remain on a perch for an average of eight minutes, unless they detect something edible, in which case they pounce upon it. Identical methods are used by Buzzards and Kestrels, from trees and fence posts.
Great Grey Shrikes are also quite capable of hovering if need be, sometimes for 10 or 20 minutes, especially if the surrounding herbage is thick and rank, giving cover to rodents and other prey animals.
Within a Great Grey Shrike’s winter territory, which often encompasses 100 hectares or more, there will be dozens of lookout points, many of which are used repeatedly. It pays a shrike to use vantage points at differing heights; it is easier to spot mammals the higher up you are, while insects are better spied lower down. The direction may matter, too.
Shrikes often face into the sun while hunting as it negates the chance of their shadow spooking prey. The dark face mask absorbs light, too, ensuring the birds aren’t dazzled.
They have forward-protruding eyes, which gives them excellent binocular vision, perfect for judging distance.
As mentioned above, shrikes habitually impale food on sharp ends, or they wedge it into the greenery, especially into branch forks. This skill is learnt early in life, and apparently a young shrike becomes a habitual ‘impaler’ or ‘wedger’ depending on whether thorns were available where it grew up.
Either way, this unusual behaviour of hanging corpses, which has given rise to shrikes’ nickname of ‘butcher birds’, has some extra uses besides allowing the shrike to dismember food and to store it for future use.
In the breeding season, shrike caches, or ‘larders’, are often placed along territorial borders. It is thought that a well-laden larder is a sign to the females in the area that the owner is a good potential mate, so much so that males will sometimes add non-edible items to them to increase the visual effect. Once breeding is underway, the ‘larder’ is used as a depository, stocked by the male, to provide for the female and young.
There is something wonderfully brutal and elemental about all this behaviour of the Great Grey Shrike and other shrikes. From their violent clashes with rodents, to their proud perching and casual storage of meat, they are about as far from ‘cuddly’ as any smallish bird could be. Pretty Blue Tits or Robins they are not.
In many ways they are the pygmy quintessence of the raptorial dinosaurs from which they are distantly derived.
Or indeed, miniature Tigers!
Where to see them
In open areas – heathland, farmland, coastal dunes, and scrubby margins. Often sit high in trees, on wires, or on fenceposts.