The Southern Grey Shrike – The Butcher Bird

The Southern Grey Shrike – The Butcher Bird

The behavior of the southern grey shrike makes it one of the most striking birds; in fact, its biology leaves no one indifferent as the southern grey shrike (Lanius meridionalis) is one of the most particular birds that can be found in the Iberian Peninsula, in France and in the westernmost regions of Italy. Unjustly little known, the behavior of this bird is unique.

Everything You Need To Know About The Southern Grey Shrike:

All the species of shrikes it have the same characteristic: although they are small birds with thin ends, they have a beak that resembles that of birds of prey, as if they were using it for hunting animals.

And this feature has its own reason: the southern grey shrike it is a small bird that hunts insects, but is known above all for the way it hunts small vertebrates. Rodents, lizards and other birds can prey on these birds, which are also known as executioners (lanius, in fact, derives from the Latin and means “butcher, executioner”). But how do they do it?

Southern grey shrike closeup

The southern grey shrike belong to the Laniidae family and live in Africa, Asia and Europe, although there are some species that reproduce in North America, Australia and the south of the American continent.

The southern grey shrike has recently been separated from the excubitor (of which it was considered a subspecies) as well as for the above-mentioned characters especially for the ecological differences and for the well-separated and defined distribution areas. The meridionalis is in fact a typically Mediterranean species, occupying (with various subspecies) large portions of North Africa, the Middle East, the Iberian Peninsula and, more limitedly, of France, a country that hosts stable populations a few kilometers from the Piedmontese borders (Lake of Serre Poncon) and Ligurian (hills of Nice).

Quick Facts:

  • Scientific name – Lanius meridionalis.
  • Weight – 55 – 80 g.
  • Length – 22 – 26 cm.
  • Wingspan – 30 – 34 cm.
  • Age – Up to 8 years, 2 months.
  • Diet – Insects, small mammals, reptiles, other birds and amphibians.
  • Habitat – Agricultural areas, hedges, swamps and wetlands.
  • Threats – Like other species, the southern grey shrike has suffered from the reduction and progressive disappearance of open environments due to changes in the management of soils by man.

1. Aspect

The largest southern shrike species is found on the Iberian Peninsula. It is a sedentary bird, frequent in dry areas and in open environments such as the Canary Islands or throughout the Mediterranean side. Recognizing this bird is very easy, which is why if you enjoy watching birds it is a good bird to start with. It is a small, stout, long-tailed bird. In addition to its beak, it is characterized by a black mask on the eyes. The wings of this passerine are black, with a large white spot. Much of its body, however, is grey in color, so it is easily recognizable.

Southern grey shrike aspects

It measures just 25 centimeters, but its wingspan far exceeds 30 centimeters. Its song is metallic and powerful, as well as very varied, in fact this animal manages to imitate other birds.

2. Distribution

The southern grey shrike has several subspecies and is a little widespread bird: in Europe, it is found only in the south of France, in Portugal, in very few areas of Italy and in Spain. It’s also present in North Africa and the Canary Islands and as far as some parts of Asia.

Southern grey shrike distribution

The southern grey shrike it lives in open areas, it is common to observe it perched on cables and other structures. It is also possible to spot it in areas of scrub, holm oak woods and crops such as fields of almond or olive trees.

As for its habitat in Italy, it is present only in the westernmost areas. It is estimated that in the south-west of Europe there are more than 500,000 specimens, although they seem to be disappearing.

3. Diet

The most curious aspect of the southern grey shrike is its behavior: this animal, after hunting its prey, it impales it in thorny plants or even in barbed wire. Following this, it then proceed to tear it to pieces by pulling it with his beak, from this habit derives his nickname of “butcher”.

Southern grey shrike diet

The intelligence of birds is well demonstrated by the southern grey shrike, which it usually hunts in ambush, while observing from above perched on electric wires or branches. After this first observation phase, it catches its prey and impales it in pointed branches of blackthorn, hawthorn and other plants.

4. Breeding

As for its reproduction, in Southern Europe it usually begins in March, while in Africa and the Canaries it occurs earlier. These birds build their nests in thorny trees, where they lay up to seven white eggs with black spots, from which the chicks will emerge after two weeks.

5. Conservation

Currently, the southern grey shrike is classified as in decline throughout the European Union, with an unfavorable conservation status even at the continental level. In fact, there was a large decline in the breeding population in the territories of “community” Europe in the period 1970-1990, followed by a further but more moderate decrease in the following decade.

The breeding population in the European Union is estimated at 240,000-360,000 pairs. 90-96% of the continental population and a fraction between 5% and 24% of the global population nest within the Europe of 27.

Southern grey shrike conservation

In general, some of the environments frequented by the species are in decline, in particular those most suitable for wintering, such as meadows in the plains, patches of grassland areas, canals, rows, small wetlands. But also the moors, which appear to be in further contraction.

To improve the prospects of the species it would therefore be necessary to favor the maintenance of suitable conditions, preserving meadows and other open environments with an abundance of perches and thus favoring the presence of marginal vegetation, arboreal-shrubby vegetation patches. In these areas, anthropogenic disturbance should also be limited, especially in the sites where the regular presence of the species has been ascertained during the winter season.