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Great Grey Shrike - Lanius excubitor

"Sentinel Butcher"

Shrikes are Passerines (the “songbirds”, or perching birds), but are far from the pretty little finches and industrious sparrows most people associate with their order.

Their scientific name, Lanius excubitor, the “sentinel butcher”, comes from the “sentinel” (lookout) behaviors that this species is known for. Well, that’s where the “sentinel” part comes from. The “butcher” part…well, that’s another matter. These birds impale their prey on thorny bushes (and barbed-wire fences).

The vernacular names for these birds are just as colorful; the direct translations of “strangling angel”, "choking bird”, “greater butcher-bird”, and “murdering [mag]pie" show how well-known this little bird was for its shriek and butchery. 

While this method of butchery is quite effective for killing everything from large insects to lizards, mice, and young ermines, it also serves as a handy way to “age” some of their more toxic food sources. When exposed to the sun and heat for several days, the toxins in big, fat, nutritious beetles are neutralized. The habit of aging or storing uneaten prey gave the Great Grey Shrike its German vernacular name: Neuntöter - killer of nine”.

Curiously, this is one of the few passerines that currently does not have any cuckoo (Cuculus spp.) that’s able to parasitize their nest sites. Until the mid-1970s, there were several populations that were affected by brood parasites, but in the late 1970s, they appear to have out-evolved the cuckoos, at least for the time being.

Natural History of the Birds of Central Europe. Johann Frederich Naumann, 1905.

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