Back from the near-dead – the charismatic butcher bird

Stephen Moss
Male red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio) with spider prey in its beak. Photograph: FLPA/Rex/Shutterstock

The first sign of autumn appeared the moment we arrived. A spotted redshank, resplendent in its dusky breeding plumage, stopping off on my Somerset coastal patch as it headed south from its Arctic nesting grounds.

But the start of July is far too early for any songbird migrants. So along with my companion Daniel, whom I met on our very first day at grammar school, almost half a century ago, I simply enjoyed the fine weather, and its associated marbled white and meadow brown butterflies.

As we reached the River Parrett, a flock of linnets flew up into a bramble bush. I like linnets, especially when the males show off their splendid pink breeding plumage, so I lifted my binoculars to take a closer look.

And then I saw it. A larger bird, with a russet back and grey head, facing away from me on the same bush. As it turned to reveal a black bandit mask, I heard myself yelling “red-backed shrike!”

Amazingly, it was – a splendid male, perched sentinel-like in the July sunshine. Moments later, it flew down and disappeared. Fortunately we relocated it further along the path, and watched in delight as it sallied forth to grab large, juicy flies from a convenient cowpat, before returning to perch amongst the pink and white bramble blooms.

If you awarded a prize for the most striking British songbird, a male red-backed shrike would surely be a clear contender. With its dove-grey head, black mask, white throat, russet back and delicate, peachy breast, it is undoubtedly beautiful. But like all shrikes, it is also astonishingly charismatic and graceful. They may be small – somewhere between the size of a sparrow and a starling – but with that hooked beak they look rather like a miniature raptor. Indeed, given their carnivorous diet I have always wondered why we don’t categorise shrikes as birds of prey.

Once – just about within living memory – the red-backed shrike was widely found in southern Britain, where people called it the “butcher bird”, from its grisly habit of impaling its victims onto thorn bushes. But during the twentieth century the species began to decline, until by the time I began birding in the 1970s it had virtually disappeared.

I remember seeing what was then the last British breeding pair, in a car park in the Suffolk Brecks, almost thirty years ago. Since then, in a Lazarus-like resurrection, a few pairs have bred on Dartmoor and in the north of Scotland, though their status remains precarious.

Every autumn, red-backed shrikes regularly turn up along the east coast, mostly youngsters on their first migratory journey heading south from Scandinavia to winter in Africa. But what was this splendid male doing in Somerset at the start of July? Was he a failed breeder from further north, or might he even have nested nearby – maybe somewhere on Dartmoor or Exmoor?

Either way, discovering the shrike was one of the highlights of my birding life. Yet I would swap all the excitement of the find to see the red-backed shrike return to its former glory as a common and widespread British bird.


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