How are they recognised?
It is noted for its massive body, long tail, and powerful, curved beak. Moreover, it has an enormous head with a wide black eye patch that attracts the attention.
Its back and head are grey. Wings are black with a distinctive white patch. The tail is also black, although the outer feathers are white. Chest and underparts are pinkish grey.
Both sexes are practically the same, and once their down is lost, the young are similar to adults.
Average length: 24-25 cm
Average wingspan: 28-34 cm
Are there any similar species?
The Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis) and the Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) have been recently recognised as different species.
The underparts of the Great Grey Shrike are white, instead of pinkish grey. The back and head are lighter grey and it has two white patches on the wings. However, they not only differ in details of plumage, but also in the power of the voice, behaviour, and preferred habitat.
Lanius meridionalis is also similar to the Lesser Grey Shrike (Lanius minor), with the former being bigger. Also, Lanius minor has a distinctive black patch on the forehead.
Where are they found?
The Southern Grey Shrike is found on the Iberian Peninsula and South-eastern France. The subspecies koenigi is exclusive to the Canary Islands.
Lanius meridionalis is mainly a sedentary bird. However, some populations show occasional short distance movements. It is believed that a small number migrate regularly to North Africa via the Strait of Gibraltar. Only rarely is it to be seen in Central France or North-western Europe.
What is their habitat?
The Southern Grey Shrike favours various kinds of open country, below an altitude of 1,500 m, be it semi-desert or farmland, heath, bog or partly forested tundra, with scattered trees, bushes, or scrubs.
Lanius meridionalis often lives in isolated pairs, sharing a small territory with numerous perches from which to search for prey.
How do they mate?
Breeding season starts in March or April, with up to 2 broods per year being possible, although generally they lay only once.
The nest of the Southern Grey Shrike is usually found 3 to 5 m above the ground, but also as low as one meter from the ground, in bushes. It can be located in the same tree year after year, and is relatively large. Nests are built by both adults, although it is the male who carries most of the nesting materials. The base is made of dry twigs to which lots of moss is then added and a bulky structure with grass is built upon it. Finally, the nest is lined with small roots, wool, hair, and feathers.
The female typically lays some 5 to 7 eggs. Incubation lasts about 18 days, principally by the female, but the male also takes part in the process. The young fledge at 15-16 days with parents feeding them. They abandon the nest after approximately 3 weeks, although they still depend on parents for a further 4 weeks.
What is the global population?
There is little recent information regarding population trends. The worldwide population is estimated at 212,000-353,000 breeding pairs.
In Spain, the population was considered some years ago to be about 200,000-250,000 breeding pairs on the Iberian Peninsula and 1,000 to 1,500 on the Canary Islands.
In Portugal, the population is considered to be stable, at between 10,000 and 100,000 pairs, although accurate data is not available.
The French population consists of no more than 1,500 nesting pairs, and is in decline.
What do they eat?
The Southern Grey Shrike eats large insects, rodents, reptiles, and small birds. Most of its time is spent scanning the surrounding area from a perch in search of prey, with frequent changes of perch.
Once a prey has been located, Lanius meridionalis drop-pounces from its elevated perch, then hovers and chases the victim, killing it by using its beak to crack the skull or spinal cord.
Once a large prey has been captured, Southern Grey Shrike usually impales it upon stumps, thorns, or barbed wire, due to its inability to hold it with the claws for a long time. Once impaled, the dead animal becomes easier to tear apart and consume over several days. Thus, this system serves as a sort of ‘larder’.
Do they have predators?
Predators of the Southern Grey Shrike include mammals and other birds, such us raptors and owls. Nests can also be preyed on by corvids, such as the magpie.
What is their lifespan?
Lifespan in the wild: 3-5 years, occasionally longer.
Are they endangered?
The greatest threats to the Southern Grey Shrike concern habitat alterations:
- Excessive land consolidation and intensive agriculture not only eliminate trees and bushes, but also reduce insect populations (a primary food source for this bird) due to the use of biocides.
- Increasing urbanization, which reduces the available habitat.
- Abandonment of agricultural and livestock activities leading to the invasion of thick scrub, unusable for this species.
- The European afforestation policy may be harmful to Lanius meridionalis if it is done in an intensive way and with unsuitable species (such as coniferous trees).
Evaluated by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Least Concern (2016).
Did you know?
- The Southern Grey Shrike can spot its prey on the ground from a distance of 250 m. This feat is only matched by some raptors and other shrikes.
- They may attract small birds by imitating parts of their calls and songs.
- Lanius meridionalis is a member of the shrike family Laniidae. The genus name, Lanius, is derived from the Latin word for butcher. In fact, some shrikes are known as ‘butcher birds’ because of their feeding habits.