Roman Coin for a “Butcher Bird”
Eurasian Red-Backed Shrike
I must have been aged 10 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”). The preserved bird still possessed its bright russet-brown upperparts, dove-grey head, black bandit mask, white throat and underparts tinged pink. Its hooked beak was prominent and its long tail feathers were fanned for display. I was easily persuaded. I had not seen one before, only its larger cousin the previous winter, the great grey shrike.
Eurasian Great Grey Shrike
Back then, these small birds-of-prey (slightly larger but slimmer than a house sparrow) were relatively widespread in Britain, but have become virtually extinct today as a breeding species, and are on the Red List of protected birds. Red-backed shrikes can be seen mainly during May and June as they nocturnally migrate north, and in August to October as they pass south from Scandinavia to winter in South Africa. An estimated 250 birds are spotted along the British coast each migration season. Loss of habitat and reduction in food supplies due to agricultural pesticides are considered the main reason for this decline. The birds’ preferred habitat is open heathland, thorny scrub, orchards and olive groves and other places where it can watch for its prey.
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. They are hard to distinguish from each other; look for the stronger black mask that wraps across the top of the bill in the Loggerhead. 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