Guardians of the Thorns: The Red-backed Shrike’s Fight for Survival

The Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) stands as a testament to resilience and adaptability in the face of daunting challenges. Among avian migrants, the Red-backed Shrike emerges as a noteworthy victor, navigating vast distances and overcoming formidable obstacles during its annual migrations. This introduction is crafted as part of BirdLife’s ongoing series of articles highlighting migratory birds.

Red-backed Shrike: Lanius collurio

Red-backed Shrike: Lanius collurio
Red-backed Shrike (male)

IUCN Status: Least Concern
Global Population: 24,000,000 – 48,000,000 individuals
European Breeding Population: 7,440,000 – 14,300,000 pairs (14,900,000 – 28,600,000 mature individuals)
Migration Route: African-Eurasian flyway

Description

The Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) is a bird of remarkable character and striking beauty, known for its distinctive features, including a reddish-brown back and a distinctive black mask, particularly prominent in males. With a wingspan ranging from 23 to 25 centimeters, it may appear as a diminutive predator at first glance, owing to its slightly hooked bill. This small passerine bird is also known for its impressive hunting skills and is often seen perched on exposed branches or wires, diligently scanning for prey. Its habit of impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire has earned it the moniker ‘butcher bird’. Despite its small stature, the Red-backed Shrike possesses remarkable strength and has a lifespan of up to 6-10 years.

Habitat and Breeding

The Red-backed Shrike breeds across nearly all of Europe and extends its range into Asia, reaching as far as Siberia. It can be observed in almost every habitat except closed forests. Preferring clearings punctuated with bushes, these areas provide ample food and nesting opportunities. Breeding occurs once a year, with the male presenting potential nesting sites for the female to select. The nest, typically built by the female on a bush, is constructed with the assistance of the male. Incubation duties fall almost exclusively to the female, who will hatch 5-7 eggs. Both parents contribute to feeding and caring for the chicks. During migration, the Red-backed Shrike traverses vast distances, wintering beyond the Sahara in Africa, showcasing its remarkable adaptability and endurance.

Flight for Survival

Despite the classification of “Least Concern” by the IUCN, Red-backed Shrikes face significant population declines attributed to habitat loss and fragmentation. These birds embark on arduous migrations along the African-Eurasian flyway, traveling vast distances to reach their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. Their successful migration hinges on favorable winds, weather conditions, and the availability of stopover sites for rest and refueling.

However, these crucial stopover sites are increasingly threatened by environmental degradation. Agricultural intensification transforms diverse habitats into monocultures, eradicating nesting and hunting grounds. The abandonment of low-intensity agricultural practices further diminishes suitable habitats. Moreover, the increased use of pesticides in farming reduces insect populations, their primary food source, and poses a risk of direct poisoning. Afforestation contributes to habitat loss by converting open landscapes into forests, restricting the availability of suitable environments.

Red-backed Shrikes Female
Red-backed Shrikes (female)

Adverse weather conditions such as prolonged droughts exacerbate the challenges faced by Red-backed Shrikes during migration. Additionally, illegal hunting in the Mediterranean region poses further threats to their survival.

BirdLife’s Conservation Efforts

BirdLife International and its partners are dedicated to protecting Red-backed Shrikes through conservation and habitat restoration efforts. They advocate for sustainable land management practices and conduct monitoring programs to track population trends. Additionally, they work tirelessly to combat illegal bird killing, particularly in the Mediterranean, where many birds are unlawfully shot, trapped, or poisoned.

Efforts are also underway to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union, advocating for policies that prioritize environmental stewardship and ensure a harmonious coexistence between nature and agriculture.

Interesting Facts

Unique Hunting Techniques:
Red-backed Shrikes exhibit impressive hunting skills, often perching on exposed branches or wires to scan for prey. They are known for impaling their catch on thorns or barbed wire, creating a pantry of food reserves for later consumption. This behavior also serves social functions, such as mate selection and territorial marking.

Fearless Defenders:
These birds are fearless defenders of their territory. They vigorously confront intruders, particularly the European Jay (Garrulus glandarius), while remaining passive towards the Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica). This behavior suggests their ability to assess threat levels and respond accordingly.

Cuckoo Conundrum:
Historically, Red-backed Shrikes were common hosts for the brood-parasitic Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). However, cuckoo chicks in shrike nests have become increasingly rare over the past few decades. This decline is likely due to the shrikes evolving the ability to identify and reject cuckoo eggs, effectively winning this evolutionary arms race.

Distribution Map

Distribution map of Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio according to IUCN version 2021.2 (Compiled by: BirdLife International and Handbook of the Birds of the World (2016) 2015.)
Extant, breeding (green), Extant, passage (light blue), Extant, non-breeding (blue)

References

  1. IUCN Red List: Lanius collurio
  2. BirdLife International (2017). Lanius collurio
  3. Němec, M., & Fuchs, R. (2013). Nest defense of the red-backed shrike Lanius collurio against five corvid species. Acta Ethologica, 17, 1-6. DOI: 10.1007/s10211-013-0175-z
  4. Lovászi, P., & Moskát, C. (2004). Break-down of arms race between the Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio and Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus. Behaviour, 141, 245-262. DOI: 10.1163/156853904322890843

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