red-backed shrike

red-backed shrike defined in 1930 year

red-backed shrike - Red-backed Shrike;
red-backed shrike - Frontal band, lores, and ear-coverts black; crown and nape grey; mantle chestnut-brown; quills dark brown edged with rufous; tail-coverts grey; tail-feathers white at their bases, the other portion and the whole of the two central ones black; under parts rose-buff; bill and feet black. Length, seven inches.

The shrike is distinguished among perching birds by its sharply hooked, toothed, rapacious beak, and its hawk-like habit of preying on small birds, mice, shrews, frogs, and lizards. The extraordinary custom it has of impaling its victims on thorns has won for it the unpleasant name of butcher-bird, by which it is best known to country-people. Some naturalists have expressed the opinion that the shrike does not often attack small birds; and this would seem a reasonable view to take when we consider that the bird is no bigger than a skylark. But it is impossible to follow with the eye all the wanderings and the actions of all kinds that go to make the day of any wild bird; we really see only a very small part of the killing that goes on. The little feathered butcher is small in size, but his spirit is bold, and his taste for flesh not to be doubted. In a question of this kind I believe our slight intermittent observation is less to be depended on than the reputation - if such a word may be used in this connection - which the shrike bears among his feathered fellow-creatures. He is by them reputed dangerous, a bird of prey to be avoided, or at least regarded with extreme suspicion. We are accustomed to say that we do not know a man until we come to live with him; and the small birds live with the shrike, and therefore know him best.

The red-backed shrike is a summer visitor, arriving in this country early in April, and is not an uncommon species in England and Wales, being most numerous in the southern counties; but its range does not extend to Ireland, and in North Britain it is only known as a straggler. It inhabits the open borders of woods, rough commons, and high hedges, and has the habit of sitting conspicuously perched, often for an hour at a stretch, on the summit of an isolated bush or low tree, or on a fence or any other elevated stand, where it has a pretty appearance. From its perch it watches for its prey, but is by no means a motionless and depressed-looking watcher, like the flycatcher: its movements on its stand, as it turns its head from side to side and jerks and fans its tail, frequently uttering its low, percussive, chat-like chirp or call-note, give the impression of a creature keenly alive to everything passing around it. The shrike is, in fact, attentively watching air, earth, and the surrounding herbage and bushes for a victim, which he captures by a sudden dart, taking it by surprise. Besides small vertebrates, he preys on various large insects - beetles, grasshoppers, wasps, bees, &c. - seizing them in the air as they fly past, or dropping upon them on the ground. He often devours the insects captured on the spot, then returns to his stand; but he also has a favourite thorn-bush or tree to which he is accustomed to convey many of the creatures he takes, to impale them on thorns or fix them on forked twigs. He has the habit of plucking birds before devouring them; and it is doubtless easier for him to pluck a small bird and pull anything he catches to pieces when fixed on a thorn, for, being without crooked claws, he is incapable of grasping his victim and holding it steady while operating on it. This is one of those instincts which simulate reason very closely. The number of remains of victims sometimes found suspended to a butcher-bird's tree shows that he is occasionally very destructive to small birds. In a case recorded in the ' Zoologist' (1875,p. 4723), bodies of the great tit, blue tit, long-tailed tit, robin, hedge-sparrow, and young of blackbirds and thrushes, were found. The indigestible portions swallowed - bones, fur, and wing-cases of large beetles - are cast up in pellets.

In the pairing season the shrike utters at times a chirruping song, not unlike the attempted singing of a sparrow in sound. The nest is large, and placed in a thick bush or hedge, and is composed outwardly of stalks, and inside of fibrous roots and moss, lined with fine bents and a little horsehair. Four to six eggs are laid; these vary a good deal, the ground being pale green, pale buff, cream or pale salmon-colour, spotted and blotched, principally at the large end, with reddish brown and purplish grey.

After leaving the nest the young keep company with their parents until their departure in September and October.

There are four more species of Lanius in the list of British birds, all stragglers - the great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor), a breeder in Central Europe; Pallas's great grey shrike (Lanius major), from North Scandinavia and Siberia; the lesser grey shrike (Lanius minor), from Central and Southern Europe; the woodchat (Lanius pomer anus), also from Central and Southern Europe.

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