Great Grey Shrikes aka Northern Shrikes

The Great Grey Shrike or Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor) is a member of the shrike family.

Distribution / Range

The Great Grey Shrike breeds in northern Europe, Asia and in North America in northern Canada and Alaska, where it known as Northern Shrike. It is migratory and winters further south in those continents, too, for example, Great Britain and the northern USA. Wintering birds usually arrive in October and November. As a rule they are then solitary, and when several arrive simultaneously they speedily spread out, each establishing its hunting territory and reducing competition with others.

The Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis), occurring from southern Europe (Iberian Peninsula and France) southwards and also in Central Asia, was formerly included in the Great Grey Shrike; it prefers different habitat (lightly wooded grassland in the Great Grey, more arid shrubland in the Southern Grey Shrike), and where the species’ ranges overlap, they do not hybridize (Sangster et al., 2002).


The Great Grey Shrike is 22-26 cm long. The general colour of its upper parts is pearl grey; a stripe above the eye and the cheeks and chin are white, and a deep black streak extends from the forehead, through the eye, to the ear coverts (feathers covering the ears). The scapulars (shoulder feathers) are white and the wings black and white, with one or two white bars. The under parts are white, slightly tinged with grey. The bill is nearly black, pale at the base of the lower beak; the legs are blackish.

In the female the under parts are greyer, and are faintly barred with greyish brown. Young birds are greyish brown, with more or less distinct bars on the upper, and conspicuous ones on the under parts.

The flight of the Great Grey Shrike is undulating but rather heavy, but its dash is straight and determined.

Northern Shrike with prey next to him
Northern Shrike - juvenile

Diet / Feeding

This bird has a characteristic upright attitude perched on the topmost branch of a tree or a telegraph pole. The keen eye of the watchful “sentinel” misses nothing that moves. It will swoop hawk-like on a bee or drop lightly to the grass for an insect.

Though it uses its feet to hold beetles or flies, it has other methods with larger prey such as lizards, mice, shrews and birds. These when captured are impaled upon a sharp point, such as a thorn or the barbs of barbed wire. (Please refer to photo above.) Thus secured they can be ripped with the strong hooked bill, but its feet are not suited for tearing. Typically, half the prey consists of small mammals.

Call / Vocalization

When disturbed its alarm note is a harsh jay-like skake, skake. The song consists of pleasant warbling. This species will lure birds closer by mimicking their calls.

Photo of author

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