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great grey shrike

Lanius excubitor

What do they look like?

Great grey shrikes are medium-sized, about the same size as thrushes and mockingbirds. Their upper parts are pearl grey. Their cheeks, chin and the stripe above their eyes are white. They have a dark mask from their beak to their cheeks. The space above their beak is grey. Their shoulder feathers are white and their wings are black with white tufts. Their tail is black and pointed at the tip. Their underbelly is white or grayish. Their legs and feet are black. Males and females are about the same size and color, females tend to be browner, but have the same overall color patterns. Fledglings resemble females, as they are greyish-brown all over. Fledgling also have yellow markings on their upper parts. Young shrikes get their adult plumage during their first spring. (Brady, et al., 2009; Brzezinski, et al., 2010; Harris and Franklin, 2000)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    48 to 81 g
    1.69 to 2.85 oz
  • Average mass
    60-70 g
  • Range length
    22 to 26 cm
    8.66 to 10.24 in
  • Range wingspan
    30 to 36 cm
    11.81 to 14.17 in

Where do they live?

Great grey shrikes (Lanius excubitor) are found in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. During their breeding season, they can be found in the northern United States, Canada, Norway, Spain, France, Poland, Sweden, Russia, China and other Eurasian countries. These birds spend the winter in the southern parts of the same countries and the northern continental United States. (Atkinson and Cade, 1993; Brady, et al., 2009; Cramp and Perrins, 1993; Hernandez, 1995; Peer, et al., 2011)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Great grey shrikes live in farmlands, field hedges, meadows and pastures as well as coniferous and mixed forests. Shrikes prefer lowlands and tend to avoid higher elevations. (Antczak, Marcin, 2010; Degen, et al., 1992; Kuczynski, et al., 2010; Olborska and Kosicki, 2004; Tryjanowski, et al., 2007)

  • Range elevation
    1400 (high) m
    4593.18 (high) ft

How do they reproduce?

Great grey shrikes are territorial, socially monogamous birds; however, because mating outside of their pairs happens sometimes, they are considered semi-polygynandrous. They begin courting each other in March and continue until April or May. Males attempt to attract females by performing several behaviors. Males face females and shiver and flutter their wings while calling or quietly singing, they may also offer a gift of food. Males also cache their food and impale their prey to entice females. Females usually reject males at first, but eventually females participate in the displays and their songs become duets. Before mating, males bob their body left and right, then give a food item to the female. Males closely guard their mate and perch high up to watch for threats. Clutches are usually produced within 10 to 15 days. Other adults may also assist by feeding the offspring; these "helpers" may be offspring from the previous year. (Antczak, et al., 2005; Antczak, et al., 2012; Lorek, 1995; Tryjanowski, et al., 2007)

Great grey shrikes breed during the summer, generally once per year, but if a replacement clutch is need they may breed twice in a year. During the breeding season, the monogamous pair bond is very strong, however, during the wintering season a new mate may be chosen. These birds nest in April and May. Mating pairs make the nests together in about one to two weeks, although nests from previous years are often reused with minor alterations. Generally nests are built 2 to 16 m above ground. Their nests are made of twigs, moss, pieces of fabric and sometimes pieces of trash; the nest is lined with twigs, roots, lichens, hairs and feathers. Eggs are usually layed in May, with an average of 7 eggs per clutch. Second clutches, if produced, are smaller than the first. Eggs are grey or blue and have yellow, red-brown and purple-grey blotches. Eggs are incubated by females for 16 to 21 days, during that time, males feed their mate. Hatchlings are naked, blind and pink-skinned. Offspring fledge after 2 to 3 weeks, usually in June or July, and become independent 3 to 6 weeks later, they become sexually mature during their first spring. (Harris and Franklin, 2000; Hernandez, 1995; Olborska and Kosicki, 2004; Tryjanowski, et al., 2007)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Great grey shrikes breed in the summer months, once yearly and in rare cases, twice in a year.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs between April and May; nests are built during both months, laying taking place in May.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 9
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    21 (high) days
  • Average time to hatching
    16 days
  • Range fledging age
    2 to 3 weeks
  • Range time to independence
    3 to 6 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 (low) years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 (low) years

While females incubate the eggs, males provide food, this way females never have to leave the eggs. After the eggs hatch, females brood the offspring, as they age, females assist males in food provisioning. Weak fledglings receive extra care and feeding from either, or both parents. (Harris and Franklin, 2000)

How long do they live?

Great grey shrikes usually live about four years, the oldest known individual lived twelve years. They are often hunted by birds and mammals; their greatest threat is from raptorial birds during their fledgling period. (Harris and Franklin, 2000)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    12 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    4 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    4 years

How do they behave?

Great grey shrikes are diurnal birds. They fly across large ranges and migrate seasonally to breeding and wintering grounds. They are territorial, but live in groups of about six or more pairs and become more solitary during the breeding season. After the breeding season, groups of breeding birds gather together and interact through flight displays, chattering and calling to one another. Great grey shrikes fly in a heavy, undulating pattern, but when attacking, they fly in a straight, determined direction. When encountering another member of their species, they show aggression by shifting to a horizontal position and fluffing their feathers, forming crests along their head. To show submission, they turn their head away or display a crouching, fluttering position while imitating a fledgling call. To prevent an attack, they point their beak vertically upward. (Antczak, et al., 2005; Harris and Franklin, 2000)

  • Range territory size
    0.2 to 3.5 km^2
  • Average territory size
    0.4 km^2

Home Range

Groups of great grey shrikes tend to be about 5 km away from one another. They can have territories as small as 20 hectares, but 40 hectares are more common, territories as large as 350 hectares have also been reported. (Antczak, Marcin, 2010; Atkinson, 1997; Harris and Franklin, 2000; Olborska and Kosicki, 2004)

How do they communicate with each other?

Great grey shrikes use vocalizations, body positions and food caches to communicate. Both male and female shrikes sing year round and use a variety of calls including alarm calls, courtship calls, submission calls, prey-attracting calls and nestling calls. Warning songs may consist of warbling strophes, whistles, long shrills and sharp whistles. Softer whistles are often used by males communicating with females and in duets between mates. To attract songbird prey, they also mimic calls, which may quite successful. When great grey shrikes encounter predators, or when they are preparing to attack prey, they perform aggressive body movements including bobbing, twisting and rapidly flipping their tail up and down. Quivering, fluttering and flashing movements are often responses to hunting preparation as well as reactions toward predators. Wing communication is also used during courtship-feeding. Males often quiver and flutter their wings before presenting females with food, when accepting food; females may quiver and flutter their wings in return. (Antczak, et al., 2012; Atkinson, 1997; Cade, 1962; Harris and Franklin, 2000; Probst, et al., 2002)

What do they eat?

Great grey shrikes are carnivorous generalists. They search for prey by scanning the area and perching in an upright, alert posture and changing perches frequently. Once a prey item has been seen, they leave their perch and chase the animal. Once the prey is captured, great grey shrikes impale large prey items on stumps, thorns or barbed-wire, after which, the prey become easier to consume. Great grey shrikes cache prey items in thorny bushes to indicate claimed territory, attract females and hide it from competitors. They usually consume all of their prey within nine days. What they eat depends on where they live and the food sources available. In southern Europe, they eat mostly insects, whereas in northern and central Europe, mammals and birds are a larger portion of their diet. Their most frequent food items are beetles including ground beetles, dung beetles, rove beetles and darkling beetles. Other insects in their diet include bumblebees. They also eat many small mammals such as common voles, field voles, deer mice, harvest mice and wild house mice. Their avian prey includes dark-eyed juncos, white-crowned sparrows, black-capped chickadees, pine siskins, European starlings and house sparrows. Lizards and frogs are caught on occasion, but are frequently left in caches and not eaten. (Atkinson and Cade, 1993; Atkinson, 1997; Brzezinski, et al., 2010; Hernandez, 1995)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Predators of great grey shrikes include mammals and other birds. Members of family Corvidae have been known to prey upon their eggs and nestlings. Fledgling shrikes may be at risk from raptorial birds. Likewise, little owls are known predators of great grey shrikes. When predators approach, great grey shrikes vocalize and ruffle their feathers. These birds make various warning calls depending on the size and proximity of the predator. (Cade, 1962; Harris and Franklin, 2000)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

In the past, nests of great grey shrikes were invaded by eggs from common cuckoos; however, these brood parasites are likely now extinct. There has also been one recorded case of interspecific helping, where yellowhammers were found feeding a great grey shrike fledgling, although great grey shrikes are larger. Some of the birds preyed upon by great grey shrikes avoid particular breeding grounds due to their presence. Since great grey shrikes are one of the first birds to occupy their territory in the spring, they may affect the other bird populations near their nests. (Drozdz, et al., 2004; Harris and Franklin, 2000; Hromada, et al., 2003; Hromada, et al., 2002; Peer, et al., 2011)

Do they cause problems?

Great grey shrikes have no known negative impacts.

How do they interact with us?

Great grey shrikes have no known positive impacts.

Are they endangered?

Great grey shrikes have an extensive range and are a species of Least Concern according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They have gone extinct in Switzerland and the Czech Republic, but their range is large enough to keep their overall population stable. They are impacted by changes in landscape and loss of habitat. There are often hundreds to thousands of great grey shrikes within each country they inhabit, with particularly large populations in Sweden. Only a few hundred birds or less are found in the following countries: Estonia, Belgium, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands and Denmark. (Harris and Franklin, 2000)


Theresa McHugh (author), Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Mark Jordan (editor), Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Leila Siciliano Martina (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.


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Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2010. "Northern Shrike" (On-line). All About Birds. Accessed March 07, 2013 at

Antczak, Marcin, 2010. Winter nocturnal roost selection by a solitary passerine bird, the Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor. Ornis Fennica, 87: 99-105.

Antczak, M., M. Hromada, P. Tryjanowski. 2005. Frogs and toads in the food of the Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor): larders and skinning as two ways to consume dangerous prey. Animal Biology, 55 (3): 227-233.

Antczak, M., M. Hromada, P. Tryjanowski. 2012. Sex differences in impaling behavior of Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor: Do males have better impaling skills than females. Behavioural Processes, 91: 50-53.

Atkinson, E. 1997. Singing for your supper: acoustical luring of avian prey by Northern Shrikes. The Condor, 99 (1): 203-206.

Atkinson, E., T. Cade. 1993. Winter foraging and diet composition of Northern Shrikes in Idaho. The Condor, 95 (3): 528-535.

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Brady, R., J. Paruk, A. Kern. 2009. Sexing adult Northern Shrikes using DNA, morphometrics, and plumage. Journal of Field Ornithology, 80 (2): 198-205.

Brzezinski, M., A. Zalewski, P. Szalanski, R. Kowalczyk. 2010. Feeding habits of the Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor wintering in north-eastern Poland: does prey abundance affect selection of prey size. Ornis Fennica, 87: 1-14.

Cade, T. 1962. Wing movements, hunting, and displays of the Northern Shrike. Wilson Bulletin, 74: 386-408.

Cramp, S., C. Perrins. 1993. Handbook of birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Degen, A., B. Pinshow, R. Yosef, M. Kam, K. Nagy. 1992. Energetics and growth rate of Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor) nestlings. Ecology, 73 (6): 2273-2283.

Drozdz, R., M. Hromada, P. Tryjanowski. 2004. Interspecific feeding of a Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) fledgling by adult Yellowhammers (Emberiza citrinella). Biological Letters, 41(2): 185-187.

Harris, T., K. Franklin. 2000. Shrikes & bush-shrikes: including wood-shrikes, helmet-shrikes, flycatcher-shrikes, philentomas, batises and wattle-eyes. London: Christopher Helm.

Hernandez, A. 1995. Spatial patterns of food caching in two sympatric shrike species. The Condor, 97 (4): 1002-1010.

Hromada, M., M. Antczak, T. Valone, P. Tryjanowski. 2008. Settling decisions and heterospecific social information use in shrikes. PLoS ONE, 3(12): e3930.

Hromada, M., L. Kuczynski, A. Kristin, P. Tryjanowski. 2003. Animals of different phenotype differentially utilize dietary niche—the case of the Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor. Ornis Fennica, 80: 1-8.

Hromada, M., P. Tryjanowski, M. Antczak. 2002. Presence of the great grey shrike Lanius excubitor affects breeding passerine assemblage. Annales Zoologici Fennici, 39: 125-130.

Kuczynski, L., M. Antczak, P. Czechowski, J. Grzybek, L. Jerzak, P. Zablocki, P. Tryjanowski. 2010. A large scale survey of the Great grey shrike Lanius excubitor in Poland: breeding densities, habitat use and population trends. Annales Zoologici Fennici, 47: 67-78.

Lorek, G. 1995. Copulation behavior, mixed reproductive strategy, and mate guarding in the Great Grey Shrike. Proceedings of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, 6: 218-227.

Olborska, P., J. Kosicki. 2004. Breeding biology of the Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor): an analysis of nest record cards. Biological Letters, 41 (2): 147-154.

Peer, B., C. McIntosh, M. Kuehn, S. Rothstein, R. Fleischer. 2011. Complex biogeographic history of Lanius shrikes and its implications for the evolution of defenses against avian brood parasitism. The Condor, 133 (2): 385-394.

Probst, R., M. Pavlicev, J. Viitala. 2002. UV reflecting vole scent marks attract a passerine, the great grey shrike Lanius excubitor. Journal of Avian Biology, 33: 437-440.

Tryjanowski, P., M. Antezak, M. Hromada. 2007. More secluded places for extra-pair copulations in the Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor. Behaviour, 144 (1): 23-31.

Yosef, R. 1992. From nestbuilding to fledging of young in Great Grey Shrikes (Lanius excubitor) at Sede Boqer, Israel. Journal fur Ornithologie, 133 (3): 279-285.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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McHugh, T. 2013. "Lanius excubitor" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 23, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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