20051551911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 24 — ShrikeAlfred Newton

SHRIKE, a bird's name, so given by Turner (1544), but solely on the authority of Sir Francis Lovell, for Turner had seen the bird but twice in England, though in Germany often, and could not find anyone else who so called it. However, the word[1] was caught up by succeeding writers; and, though hardly used except in books—for butcher-bird is its vernacular synonym—it not only retains its first position in literary English, but has been largely extended so as to apply in general to all birds of the family Laniidae and others besides. The name Lanius, in this sense, originated with C. Gesner[2] (1555), who thought that the birds to which he gave it had not been mentioned by the ancients. C. J. Sundevall, however, considers that the Malacocraneus of Aristotle was one of them, as indeed Turner had before suggested, though repelling the latter's supposition that Aristotle's Tyrannus was another, as well as P. Belon's reference of Collyrion.

The species designated shrike by Turner is the Lanius excubitor of Linnaeus and nearly all succeeding authors, nowadays[3] commonly known as the greater butcher-bird, ash-coloured or great grey shrike—a bird which visits the British Islands pretty regularly, though not numerously, in autumn or winter, occasionally prolonging its stay into the next summer; but it has never been ascertained to breed there, though often asserted to have done so. This is the more remarkable since it breeds more or less commonly on the continent from the north of France to within the Arctic Circle. Exceeding a song-thrush in linear measurements, it is a much less bulky bird, of a pearly grey above with a well-defined black band passing from the forehead to the ear-coverts; beneath it is nearly white, or—and this is particularly observable in Eastern examples—barred with dusky markings. The quill-feathers of the wings, and of the elongated tail, are variegated with black and white, mostly the former, though what there is of the latter shows very conspicuously, especially at the base of the remiges, where it forms either a single or a double patch. Much smaller than this is the red-backed shrike, L. collurio, the best-known species in Great Britain, where it is a summer visitor, and, though its distribution is rather local, it may be seen in many parts of England and occasionally reaches Scotland. The cock is a sightly bird with his grey head and neck, black cheek-band, chestnut back and pale rosy breast, while the hen is ordinarily of a dull brown, barred on the lower plumage. A more highly coloured species is called the woodchat, L. auriculatus or rutilus, with a bright bay crown and nape, and the rest of its plumage black, grey and white. This is an accidental visitor to England, but breeds commonly throughout Europe. All these birds, with many others included in the genus Lanius, which there is no room here to specify, have, according to their respective power, the very remarkable habit (whence they have earned their opprobrious name) of catching insects, frogs, lizards or small birds and mammals, and of spitting them on a thorn or of fixing them in a forked branch, the more conveniently to tear them in pieces and eat them.

The shrikes belong to the Passerine family Laniidae, the limits of which are doubtful, but which is divided into five sub-families: Gymnorhininae, Malaconotinae, Pachycephalinae, Laniinae and Prionopinae. The Laniinae or true shrikes occur in the Old and New Worlds, the other sub-families are limited to the Old World. The shrikes and their immediate allies are active and powerful birds, with stout bills often strongly hooked. Their diet is chiefly insects and small frogs, lizards, birds and mammals, but they also take seeds and fruits. The “greenlets” of North and South America are active and fearless birds, similar in general habits to the Laniidae and formerly regarded as forming a sub-family of that group, but now placed in a separate family the Vireonidae.  (A. N.) 

  1. Few birds enjoy such a wealth of local names as the shrikes. M. Rolland (Faune pop. de la France, ii. 146–151) enumerates upwards of ninety applied to them in France and Savoy; but not one of they has any affinity to our word “shrike.”
  2. He does not seem, however, to have known that butcher-bird was an English name; indeed it may not have been so at the time, but subsequently introduced.
  3. According to Willughby, Rae and Charleton, it was in their day called in many parts of England “Wierangle” (Ger. Würgengel and Würger, the strangler); but it is hard to see how a bird which few people in England could know by sight should have a popular name, though Chaucer had used it in his Assemblye of Foules.