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.
The Woodchat Shrike is an attractively marked bird, unlikely to be confused with other species in the UK. Males and females can be distinguished by the markings on their faces.
Woodchat Shrikes are small birds with stout, hooked bills. They are predominantly black above, although they have a prominent white wing bar and rump. The crown and nape are a rich red-brown shade, and the underparts are cream-white.
These birds are sexually dimorphic. Females differ in having duller plumage and a white face that may include a white eyering and a streak extending behind the eye.
Juveniles are distinctly paler than adults. They have grey-brown upperparts with a scaled appearance and off-white bellies with fine grey barring.
Woodchat shrike standing on a rock
The Woodchat Shrike is a medium-sized Lanius shrike, intermediate between the Red-backed and Great Grey Shrikes.
The Woodchat Shrike has a total body length of 18 to 19 centimetres.
They are fairly stocky birds with body weights between 21 and 59 grams.
These birds have a wingspan of approximately 27 centimetres.
Woodchat Shrike perching on a small branch
Woodchat Shrikes produce a wide range of sounds, from grating notes to musical warbling.
Both male and female Woodchat Shrikes sing, possibly to advertise their territory. Their song includes mimicry of other local bird species, warbling notes, and various harsh sounds. They also produce a variety of sharp contact and alarm calls.
Woodchat Shrike perching in a thorny bush
The Woodchat Shrike’s sturdy hooked bill reveals its predatory nature.
Woodchat Shrikes hunt a variety of invertebrates, both on the ground and in the air. They occasionally take larger prey like small reptiles, although insects are their primary target. These birds hunt from a perch, looking for the movement of their prey before dashing out to catch it.
Common Woodchat Shrike prey items:
Baby Woodchat Shrikes eat insects provided by both parents. The young spend up to 18 days in the nest and are fed for up to six weeks after fledging.
Woodchat Shrike with a worm in its beak
Woodchat Shrikes require a specific habitat structure for their hunting technique. Continue reading to learn where these migratory birds live in the breeding and non-breeding seasons.
Woodchat Shrikes prefer open woodlands, savanna, and desert edge habitats. They require large shrubs or trees for perching and open areas for hunting.
Woodchat Shrikes occur in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They have a patchy breeding range from North Africa and Portugal, east to Iran. Their non-breeding range includes a wide belt of Central Africa to the south of the Sahara desert.
There are three recognised subspecies of the Woodchat Shrike, each with different breeding and overwintering ranges.
Woodchat Shrike on the lookout for food
Woodchat Shrikes spend most of their lives in trees and large shrubs. They are sit-and-wait predators that choose a perch with a good view over open areas where insects abound. Although territorial in the breeding season, these birds migrate long distances, selecting habitats with the same general characteristics throughout the year.
Woodchat Shrikes are very rare in the UK, although they remain common in much of their breeding and overwintering range.
Woodchat Shrikes are rare vagrants to the United Kingdom, although they have been seen in many locations. Recent sightings have been made on the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, and Somerset. The closest reliable venues where UK birders can spot this species are in France.
Woodchat Shrike in its natural habitat
Woodchat Shrikes can live for over five years, although the average specimen has a life expectancy closer to three years.
Woodchat Shrike predators have yet to be studied in detail, although these small birds could fall prey to various birds of prey, mammals, and reptiles.
Woodchat Shrikes are legally protected in most of their breeding range.
Woodchat Shrikes are in decline due to farming and forestry, habitat destruction, climate change, and even hunting. They are assessed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List but are considered endangered in some countries.
Juvenile Woodchat Shrike perched on a branch
Woodchat Shrikes breed in the Northern Hemisphere’s spring and summer. Egg laying begins as early as March in the south of their breeding range and May in Central Europe.
Woodchat Shrikes nest in Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Both sexes build the nest, which is usually placed one to twenty meters high on a tree branch. The nest is a small cup of twigs and other plant matter lined with softer materials like wool and spider webs.
Woodchat Shrikes lay four to eight eggs per clutch. Their colour varies from green/olive to grey/yellow, and each measures approximately 23 millimetres long and 17 millimetres wide.
Woodchat Shrikes are monogamous in the breeding season, although they are unlikely to reunite in consecutive years.
Woodchat Shrike chick in natural habitat
Woodchat Shrikes are patient hunters, most often seen scanning their surroundings for their next meal. They are solitary birds outside of the breeding season.
Woodchat Shrikes are highly territorial when breeding and will behave aggressively towards intruders. However, they are not aggressive towards others when on migration.
Woodchat Shrikes roost in trees and shrubs. They will enter dense vegetation to shelter for the night rather than remain on their exposed hunting perches.
Woodchat Shrike on alert
Woodchat Shrikes are highly migratory, with slight differences in timing depending on subspecies and location. These birds breed in Europe, Asia, and North Africa in the spring and summer and depart for Central Africa in August/September, arriving in September/October. They begin their return migration between February and April, and most have reached their breeding grounds by May.
Woodchat Shrikes are vagrants to the United Kingdom. They were not introduced but rather arrive as over-eager migrants that continue further north of their regular breeding grounds in Southern Europe.
18cm to 19cm
21g to 59g
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.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.