Roman Coin for a “Butcher Bird”
Eurasian Red-Backed Shrike
I must have been aged 14 at the time, looking down near the blade of the spade I was using, when I spotted a large round object in the soil. It was dirty black, except for a distinctive blue-green patina caused by its copper composition. It was heavy and I could see the vague outline of an official-looking head. I was asked to show it to a curator employed at the York Castle Museum who lived nearby, and who told me it was a Roman artifact.
He was enthusiastic. He wanted my discovery as an exhibit for the Museum and was willing to exchange it for a stuffed red-backed shrike displayed inside a glass cabinet (a species belonging to a genus known as “butcher birds” for their grisly habit of impaling their prey – such as insects, small birds, voles and lizards – onto thorn bushes prior to eating from their “larder”). There was a date on the back of the case; I recall it was 1908. Despite its age, the bird still possessed its bright russet-brown upper parts, dove-grey head, black bandit mask, white throat and underparts tinged pink. Its hooked beak looked threatening and its long tail feathers were fanned for display. I had not seen one before, only its larger cousin, the great grey shrike, and therefore I was easily persuaded.
Eurasian Great Grey Shrike
During the late 1950s , these small birds-of-prey (slightly larger but slimmer than a house sparrow) were relatively widespread though not common, but by 1989 the species had ceased breeding in Britain altogether. A 1958 York report says “this bird has declined considerably but at no time during the past 80 years can it be said to be common”. Today they are on Britain’s “red list” of endangered bird species. An estimated 250 are estimated to migrate along Britain’s east and south coasts, during May and June, traveling north, and in August to October, moving south from Scandinavia to winter in South Africa. Habitat destruction (scrub clearance), wet weather affecting the birds’ supply of large flying insects, egg collecting (its eggs have attractive markings) and even the continuing catching and caging of red-backed shrikes are believed to have contributed to the species decline over recent decades.
US Northern Shrike
Suffice to say, I am still waiting to see a living red-backed shrike. Here in North America we have two varieties although they can easily be confused with one another – the most widespread species is the northern shrike, once considered to be a subspecies of the great grey shrike, which breeds in the remote north of Canada/Alaska but winters in the northern US; the Loggerhead shrike is similar-looking but smaller, and more typically seen in the southern states but migrates north and breeds in southern Canada and just south of the border. There are, however, a few vagrant shrikes from central Asia that show up along the west coast of the United States that can add to the confusion. For example, in 2015, a hybrid red-backed shrike turned up along the Mendocino coast, California, and attracted substantial attention.
US Loggerhead Shrike
It seems a shame that red-backed shrikes have suffered a series of persecutions, mainly from humans because of their appearance and that of their eggs. Both have been collected, with adult birds ending up stuffed in glass cages, but fortunately these practices are now illegal in both Britain and North America. As far as I can determine, the bird was spared from the “plume trade” when birds were caught and killed so that their feathers could end up in the millinery trade. Magpies, ospreys, great crested grebes, cedar waxwings, and snowy and white egrets are just a few examples of species taken by the trade. In the late 1800’s as many as 5 million birds a year were killed for their feathers.