The ‘Butcher Bird’ or Red Backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) is normally classified as a ‘rare passage migrant’ on Dartmoor and according to the RSPB is listed in the red category, this means the species has the highest conservation priority thus needing urgent action. I must confess that I have never actually seen one on Dartmoor but one occasion saw the evidence of it being present (more of which later). Over recent years there has been a dramatic decline in their numbers, so much so that the Red Backed Shrike is considered extinct as a breeding bird in the UK. Experts suggest that the only chance of ever seeing the Butcher Bird are on high perches along the southern and eastern coasts of Britain with their northern limit being Scotland.
Ok, so the Red Backed Shrike is a rare bird which one would not expect to find on Dartmoor, so why bother with this page? Well, in the September of 2010 it was announced that a pair had actually nested and raised their young at a secret location somewhere on Dartmoor. Apparently this was the first time since 1990 that a pair had successfully nested and raised a brood anywhere in England. The last recorded breeding on Dartmoor was at a site near Meldon Reservoir in 1970 but it is thought that work on the reservoir disturbed the birds who never returned. The pair of birds was first spotted in May 2010 along with some previously convicted ‘egg collectors’ which immediately raised cause for concern. It has been suggested that the eggs of the Red Backed Shrike can fetch in the order of £5,000 if sold on the ‘black market’ thus making them a very valuable commodity. To ensure that the nest was not disturbed volunteers from the RSPB and the Devon Bird Watching and Protection Society mounted as 24 hour watch over the breeding site. This initative was also supported by the Forestry Commission, Natural England, the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary and the Dartmoor National Park Authority. In all it had been estimated that over 2,600 hours was spent watching over the birds, however despite these valiant efforts the first brood of chicks were lost to Magpies. Luckily the pair mated again and were rewarded by a second clutch of eggs which were successfully raised.
The Butcher Bird normally arrives in the UK around late Spring time after a long journey from its winter quarters in sub-Saharan Africa. The bird builds a small nest made from roots, grass and stems which is then insulated with moss, hair or wool, these nests tend to be sited in thick, prickly bushes such as gorse. The eggs are normally laid anytime between late May to the end of July and consist of a single clutch of 3 – 6 eggs, which as noted above was extraordinary in light of the Dartmoor pair losing there first brood.
The Red Backed Shrike is normally around 17 cm long and is marginally larger than the common sparrow. The males have a bluey-grey head with a very distinguishable black eye mask, the under-belly is of a salmon-pink colour and its back is of a light chestnut hue. They also sport a savage looking hooked black bill which is used to great effect when catching prey. The females and youngsters are nowhere near as resplendent and tend to be a dull brown colour although the juveniles do have bars on their backs. Their calls range from a shrill ‘chacking’ sound when alarmed to a prolonged warbling song made by the males which incidentally can sound like other species. It is the harsh ‘chacking’ or shrieking that is thought to have led to the term ‘shrike’, this being coming from the sound of its alarm call and can be found as far back as Anglo Saxon times in the word ‘scrĩc‘
The male Butcher Bird
It is the Red Backed Shrike’s hunting and feeding behaviour that is the most notable facet, they will sit upon high perches such as fence posts where they search for their prey. There is a whole range of species which they live on which includes ground dwelling invertebrates such as beetles, flying insects and even small birds, lizards and frogs. Depending the type of prey the bird has spotted it will either swoop down to the ground and snatch its meal or chase after aerial prey and take it on the wing. The method used to dispatch the prey is normally a vicious peck to the back of the head from its hooked beak. Depending on how hungry the bird is, the prey will either be eaten or taken back to the nest but as often as not it will be impaled on thorns in what is considered to be its ‘larder’.
It is this behaviour that has earned the bird the name of ‘Butcher Bird’, as mentioned above, I have never actually seen a Red Backed Shrike on Dartmoor but have once come across it’s gruesome larder of rotting creatures, in this instance it consisted of mostly insects. It is thought that the reason the ‘Butcher Bird’ keeps its larder is to ensure a constant source of food in times of bad weather and its resulting food shortages. I have also heard the Red Backed Shrike referred to as the ‘Larder Bird’ and the ‘Executioner Bird’, the latter was due to the striking black eye mask which gives it the appearance of the early ‘head choppers’ of old. Another name that sometimes crops up is the ‘Nine Killer’, this comes from the old superstition that the Red Backed Shrike only feeds once it has stored nine creatures in its larder – nine for you, one for me. There is one curious piece of folklore regarding the ‘Butcher Bird’ and that is whereby when setting out on a journey it is bad luck to see the bird to the left of your, this portends a forthcoming mishaps whilst on the road.
Hopefully this is not the last time we shall see the Red Backed Shrike ‘holidaying’ on Dartmoor and that next year another brood is successfully raised.
Stop Press September 2013
The RSPB have reported that two youngsters were fledged on Dartmoor and these were the only two in the whole of Great Britain