Red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio)

French: Pie-gri├Ęche ├ęcorcheur
GenusLanius (1)
SizeLength: 17 cm (2)

The red-backed shrike is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List, Annex 1 of the EC Birds Directive and Appendix II of the Bern Convention. Protected in the UK under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (3).

Measuring 17 centimetres in length, the red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio) is slightly larger than a house sparrow. Males are easily recognisable by their striking appearance. They have a bluish-grey head, black eye mask, chestnut coloured back, black tail framed with white, salmon pink underparts and a hooked black bill. Females and juveniles do not have the black eye mask of the male and are dull brown; juveniles also have bars on their back. The voice includes a harsh 'chack chack' alarm call, and males produce a sustained warble in which the songs of other bird species are copied (2).

The red-backed shrike breeds throughout most of Europe except for most of the northern areas, central and southern Iberia and many Mediterranean islands (3). It migrates via south-east Europe to tropical and southern Africa and north-west India for the winter (2). Formerly widespread throughout much of England and Wales, the species has undergone a drastic decline since the mid 19th century. By 1980 the species was found only in heathland in East Anglia, and in 1989 there were no confirmed records of breeding (4). Nesting in the UK has since been sporadic, with hopes of a natural recolonisation from Scandinavia after a number of pairs bred in Scotland between 1977-79 (4).

In the UK, red-backed shrikes once bred in a wide range of habitats, including commons, waste land, scrubby habitat and heathland (4). More recently however, the species has only been found on lowland heaths (4).

When hunting, shrikes sit in prominent positions such as on fence posts in order to spot potential prey. They take a range of prey and use a variety of hunting methods. They swiftly drop onto beetles and other invertebrates dwelling on the ground, but can also chase after flying insects and catch them on the wing. Small birds, mammals, lizards and frogs are also taken, and are killed with a sharp peck to the back of the head. Prey items are often impaled on thorns in order to build up a food supply for periods of bad weather. These 'larders' have earned the species the name 'butcher bird', and according to superstition the red-backed shrike only feeds when it has killed nine creatures. The name 'nine killer' comes from the German 'neunmoder' (5).

The cup-like nest is built from plant stems, roots and grass, is lined with moss and hair and is located low down in dense thorny bushes. Eggs are laid between the end of May and late July; only one clutch consisting of three to six eggs is produced each year (2).

The main reasons for the decline of the red-backed shrike in the UK are not yet fully understood, but may include habitat loss. In areas where extensive scrub clearance has occurred, the rate of decline has been shown to be double that which occurred in other areas. Agricultural intensification including pesticide use may have contributed to the decline of this species by reducing prey availability. Although the species is relatively tolerant of human disturbance at the nest site, if larders are disturbed they tend to be abandoned. Sadly, egg collecting has also taken its toll on the species. In addition to the above factors, demographic effects have also come into play; as the breeding densities were so low, individuals struggled to find mates (3).

As the reasons for the decline of the red-backed shrike are so poorly understood and details of the species' habitat requirements are not yet known, at the moment there are no clear guidelines on how to conserve this bird. Research is currently being conducted in Austria on the ecology of the species in order to guide habitat management in the UK.

Practical measures to protect the species have included the wardening of breeding sites by the RSPB and Forestry Commission in order to minimise disturbance by birdwatchers (4). The red-backed shrike is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority, and is part of English Nature's Species Recovery programme; the Species Action Plan aims to ensure that any breeding pairs are successful, thereby maximising the chances for recolonisation (4). Despite these measures, however, there is still a very imminent danger that the red-backed shrike will become extinct as a breeding bird in the UK (3).

For more information on the red-backed shrike and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
  2. RSPB (November 2001)
  3. Battern, L. A., Bibby, C. J., Clement, P., Elliott, G. D. and Porter, R.F. (1990) Red Data Birds in Britain. T & A.D. Poyser, London.
  4. UK Biodiversity (November 2001)
  5. Greenoak, F. (1997) British birds, their folklore, names and literature. Christopher Helm A&C Black, London.