My shriek of delight over arrival of shrike
I’VE been looking for an example of hyperbole which would best describe my latest sighting in my Padfield garden but, before I come up with one, let me set the scene.
It’s mid-morning Saturday, just before the seed-swoppers from Padfield Allotment Society arrive, when I walk to the kitchen window to fill the kettle.
The feeders are swinging with a flurry of blue tits, gold finches, a redpoll and one annoying jackdaw, and then in a flash my well-honed peripheral vision kicked in to the unmistakable shape of the ‘butcher bird’, aka the great grey shrike, perched on the very top of my tallest plumb tree.
It was definitely a famous first for me, and although I’ve seen these beauties before at Rhodeswood, Crowden and Glossop, a shrike in my back garden – awesome, just awesome!
They are called the ‘butcher bird’, or ‘larder bird’, because of their habit of ‘storing’ their prey, including lizards, beetles, mice and small birds on large thorns, and even sometimes on the spikes of barbed wire.
It’s a case of catching the food, even if not hungry, and then returning to the larder when the need arises.
The great grey shrike is the largest of the European shrikes.
Small numbers come to the UK in autumn and spend the winter here. They are very territorial so you’re unlikely to see more than one at once.
Shrikes are often mobbed by other birds which recognise them as dangerous predators.
Keep an eye out for a medium-sized, longtailed bird sitting at the top of a tree. The black mask and grey plumage are distinctive.
A great grey will pursue small birds in flight over considerable distances, usually seizing them in its feet, but at times striking them down with its beak.
The prey is carried off in the shrike’s feet, an ability which shrikes share with very few other passerines.
I was fortunate a number of years ago to spot a great grey quartering a meadow, no more than 15 feet above the ground, when a couple of times it dropped to the ground before lifting back into the air.
The bird had spotted a mouse and missed twice. Unfortunately for the small mammal, no escape hole became available fast enough, and it was third time lucky for the hunter, with victim soon impaled on a large thorn.
It would appear that some individuals will return to the same place every winter, allowing local birdwatchers to await the arrival, narrowing down their sightings to a favourite perch.
An examination of casts and remains taken under the favourite perches of a great grey has revealed an amazingly varied and balanced diet – or in other words, shrike are just not fussy.
Diet items have included, for example, most of the aforementioned birds on my feeders, and also linnets, meadow pippits, earwigs, spiders, redwing, chaffinch, brambling, pied wagtail, lizards, frogs, mice and even a young stoat.
The Laughing Badger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Padfield, Glossop
●● The great grey shrike, also known as the ‘butcher bird’