With only three pairs nesting in Britain each year, red-back shrikes are among the rarest birds to breed in the UK each year, with changing land use and loss of habitat to blame for the rapid decline of the species.
Male and female red-backed shrikes have different colouring, with males being far more distinctive and easy to identify. Male red-backed shrikes have a bluish-grey head, a wide black mask around their eyes, a white chin and throat and a bright chestnut back. Their tail is black and they have creamy underparts. Their black bill is thick and sharply hooked.
Females have similar markings, but their colours are not as vibrant or remarkable, with more muted tones of brownish-grey replacing the bold black and chestnut plumage of the male. Females have a pale eye stripe above a brownish band across their cheek. Their flanks have a pinkish-buff wash and are lightly flecked with black. Their bill is similar in shape to the male’s but lighter in colour.
Juvenile red-backed shrikes are similar in colouring to females, but are overall more brown and mottled in appearance, with less clear markings and more speckled barring visible across their entire bodies.
Male Red-backed shrike
Female Red-backed Shrike
Red-backed shrikes are larger than house sparrows but are more slender. Males and females are the same size, falling into the range below:
Male (left) and Female (right) Red-backed shrikes perching on a branch
Male red-backed shrikes can be heard making a hoarse ‘tschack’ call to mark their territory and to attract females early in the breeding season.
Female Red-backed Shrike sitting on a branch singing
Red-backed shrikes have a rather brutal approach to handling their prey, catching anything from insects to small mammals (particularly voles), birds, and reptiles, and skillfully dismembering it before eating.
They hunt from perches, swooping to catch their prey and killing it by either beating it on the ground and decapitating it. It is then carried to a sharp ‘butchering’ thorn or twig, where it is impaled and cached ahead of being picked apart and eaten.
Some berries and fruit may also be eaten later in the autumn, during migration.
Baby red-backed shrikes are fed small and soft prey by their parents, caught and prepared in their trademark style of impaling and ‘butchering’ into manageable chunks.
Red-backed Shrike eating a grasshopper
Red-backed shrikes thrive in sunny habitats, with open terrain for hunting interspersed with higher lookout perches and thorny trees.
Bare earth and short grassy landscapes are optimal for seeking rodent and reptile prey. Mountain slopes are favoured environments, as well as heathland and neglected swathes of agricultural land.
The widest breeding range of red-backed shrikes extends from the British Isles in the west, across Europe and into Asia as far as Siberia to the east, south as far as Italy, Sicily and the Balkan States, and across Turkey into north-west Iran.
Red-backed shrikes leave their breeding grounds by October each year, heading to winter territories in south and east Africa, from Somalia and south-east Kenya to South Africa.
With an estimated global population of 6.3 million breeding pairs across Europe, the outlook is not as bleak for red-backed shrikes elsewhere as it is in the UK. The species range has contracted in other parts of Europe too, notably Spain, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, but numbers are increasing in Norway.
Red-backed Shrike in natural habitat
In the UK, red-backed shrikes now rank as one of the rarest breeding birds, with a maximum of three pairs nesting each year.
Across their wider range, they are more widespread and common, however in the UK sightings are almost unheard of, apart from during migration passage, when numbers may temporarily increase to up to 250 individuals.
Red-backed shrikes are now extremely rare as breeding birds in the UK with a maximum of three pairs raising their young there each season. Isolated reports of breeding have been recorded in the Shetland Isles, Wales and in south-west England in recent years.
Chances of a sighting improve during spring and autumn migration, with reports along the eastern and southern coast of Scotland and England, particularly during May to June and August to October.
Red-backed Shrike in natural habitat
Little data is available about how long red-backed shrikes live, but their average life expectancy is thought to be between three and five years. The oldest ringed individual lived to 10.1 years. Breeding occurs for the first time at one year of age.
Red-backed shrikes are listed as Schedule 1 birds under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which offers additional protection to their eggs, young and nests from being disturbed or destroyed, as well as safeguarding the birds themselves against being killed, injured or taken into captivity.
Due to the species’ numbers falling to a dangerous level in the UK, red-backed shrikes are classified with Red status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list, and are close to extinction levels.
Numbers of breeding red-backed shrikes in Britain fell dramatically, by 88.3 percent between 1968 and 2011. Habitat loss due to changes in agricultural practice and increased use of pesticides which impacts the availability of suitable prey, are thought to be a major factor in this steep decline.
Red-backed Shrike collecting nesting materials
Typical nesting sites chosen by red-backed shrikes are found low down in dense thorny shrubs and trees, such as hawthorn, bramble and blackthorn.
A loose platform nest is crafted from grasses, stems, roots and lichen, lined with softer grasses, hair, fur and reeds.
Nesting takes place from mid-May until July, when red-backed shrikes usually lay one clutch of between 4 and 6 eggs. Second clutches are less common, and if they are attempted, typically contain fewer eggs.
Red-backed shrike eggs vary in colour, from pale pink to light green, marked heavily with olive green, brown or reddish-purple speckles.
Eggs measure 22 mm by 17 mm (0.9 in by 0.7 in), and are incubated mostly by the female with occasional assistance from the male, for 12 to 16 days.
Red-backed shrike pairs form on breeding grounds in late spring, although occasionally may form during spring migration. Pairs remain together for the duration of a single breeding season, raising a maximum of two broods.
Nest of a Red-backed Shrike with seven eggs
Red-backed Shrike feeding young in the nest
Aggressive behaviour is common ahead of the nesting period, with males becoming physically threatening towards other males that approach their territory or their mate.
Aggressive displays may also be shown towards potential nest predators, however this seems to vary between different species, with research showing that red-backed shrikes attacked intruding jays but remained passive when magpies approached.
Red-backed Shrike Female (left) feeding young (right)
Red-backed shrikes are a fully migratory species, breeding across Europe and Central Asia, and spending winters in southern and eastern Africa.
Migration takes place from May to June and August to October, with all red-backed shrikes on their wintering grounds between November and April.
Red-backed shrikes do occasionally breed in the UK, but occurrences are becoming increasingly rare. As migratory birds, no red-backed shrikes remain in the UK beyond the end of the breeding season, with migration passage to their wintering grounds in southern and eastern Africa underway from August to October.
Red-backed Shrike in-flight
Red-backed shrikes are not birds of prey, in the same sense as kestrels, hawks or eagles but they are active predators who hunt and kill prey to eat, including small mammals, reptiles and other birds. They belong to a family of passerine birds called shrikes.
17cm to 19cm
24cm to 27cm
25g to 35g
With boldly marked plumage and a habit of perching in prominent positions, the Woodchat Shrike is not difficult to spot. However, the species occurs only as an occasional vagrant in the UK, breeding regularly in mainland Europe to the south.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.