The Butcher Bird of The Great Escape

“The butcherbird… Not a very lovable character… uniform black above, from head to tail”.

It was here, in front of the television on New Years Eve that I was first introduced to the so called ‘butcher bird.’ I would only have been around 9 or 10 years old and I was entirely enthralled by the magnificent film that is ‘The Great Escape.’ As far as I was concerned, it had everything. It was a true war story, with elements of fact and elements of fiction. It had the good guys, the bad guys, a cunning escape, a motorbike chase and, of course, Steve McQueen attempting to jump the German Switzerland border. What more could you want?! Yet, despite all of this evident excitement and the history that came with the film, there was one scene that caught my attention from a young age. What was it? The tunnel digging? The hunt for the escaped prisoners? No, in fact, it was a very small and to some insignificant scene where Colin Blythe, or ‘the forger’, taught a bird identification class. His subject of choice? You guessed it, the ‘butcher bird’. In ‘The Great Escape’, the species he was referring to was the masked shrike, but there is more than one species of so called butcher bird, and here in the UK, we have two species of shrike that pass over our shores during their migration. The great-grey shrike and the red-backed shrike. The butcher birds!

Images of huge, black and grey birds, dressed in bloodied white overalls in butcher shops now fill our minds. For me they for some reason have cockney accents, something that they have in common with half my family and of course, the Orcs in ‘The Lord of The Rings.’ A terrifying thought! But luckily, a totally ridiculous one, which is more than far from the truth. So, what are these butcher birds? Well, first things first, butcher?! Sounds a little over dramatic! Well perhaps, and humans being humans, we like to paint things in a rather gruesome light. But does the shrike deserve such a name? Perhaps. The fact is, the shrike has rather earned this name when it comes to his method of feeding. Feeding on insects, small birds and mammals, as a smaller bird itself, the shrike has developed a somewhat unique way of hunting. Once prey is caught, it is then taken to a sort of ‘larder’, where the prey is dropped from a height onto the spike of something such as a thorn bush. Ok, so maybe they deserve their rather gruesome reputation, after all, it sounds utterly unpleasant! However, we must remember that this is just a bird, which despite its arguably unpleasant method, is merely hunting in order to survive. Masked Shrike
Masked Shrike

Unfortunately for me, I have never spotted any species of shrike anywhere. Not in the UK, nor any other country I have visited. However, they are far from what would be considered a common sight in the UK. The great grey shrike, who has a distinctive black mask and grey plumage, is the largest of the European shrikes, and only visits the UK toward the end of the year, where they may spend their winter. However, only small numbers arrive here annually. The second species, the red-backed shrike, has a bluish grey head, black mask, chestnut back and a thick black bill, which is obviously hooked at the end. Unlike the great grey shrike, the red-backed shrike does indeed breed in the UK. However, our number of breeding pairs is so small that they are now virtually extinct as a breeding species in the UK. Subsequently, they are on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern.

If you are lucky enough to see a shrike of any kind, you may spot him sitting at the top of a tree, surveying the area for potential prey, his long tail protruding behind him. Due to their territorial nature however, they are usually seen alone, or being mobbed and bothered by other birds, who view them (rightly so) as a threat. Great Grey Shrike
Great Grey Shrike Red Backed Shrike
Red Backed Shrike

Now, they may have what we believe to be questionable feeding methods and we may have given them something of an unloveable nickname as the ‘butcher bird’, but that does not mean we should demonise this species. In fact, whether we like it or not, the fact that the shrike is so unique in this way makes us even more fascinated by them. Although we are not currently able to the see the great grey shrike on our shores, if you keep your eyes peeled and are very lucky indeed, you may catch a glimpse of a red-backed shrike this summer. If you want to see the shrike in action, you could hang around thorn bushes, waiting to see if a shrike shows up! Sure, we might look a little odd, but us bird watchers are used to that right?

Is the Butcher Bird coming to the countryside near you?…… I think I’ll go and watch ‘The Great Escape.’


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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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