Predation of a Northern Wheatear - the hunting technique of an Isabelline Shrike

Ornithologically speaking the event that has stirred up most interest on my twitter feed these last few weeks was my photographic capture of the attempted predation of a Northern Wheatear by a Isabelline Shrike. An attempted ‘kill’ that only failed when the Shrike was momentarily distracted by the passage of a Marsh Harrier overhead and the Wheatear managed to escape, to wriggle free from the Shrikes clutches.

I was zeroing in on the Northern Wheatear when the attack happened, I should point out I was still in my car as the bird was on my side of a track in a field of okra. It was, as is usual in these encounters, staying just ahead of me, moving from bush to bush as I edged forward; distance wise, always the wrong side of too far for that classic close up photograph. Persistence and patience is as always the key, the Wheatear finally dropped to the ground to feed on some bug so I angled the car across the track to get a decent shot. Camera already out the window luckily for me, just as I had focused the Shrike struck. I had at that point not noticed the presence of the Isabelline Shrike myself; on reflection I don’t think the Wheatear had either.

Element of surprise: the shrike striking the wheatear from behind (© Howard King -

The attack was incredibly fast; it came as if from nowhere. The Shrike struck from the rear landing on the Wheatears back. I just watched clicked away trying to keep the scuffling birds in focus, the car still in gear slowly angling closer by the microsecond. By the time the Wheatear had escaped and disappeared into the depths of the okra and the Shrike had moved to a distant fence line, I was left thinking ‘what the…’ not too certain what I had just witnessed however I did have a good number of usable frames on my camera in a time frame of only 14 seconds. Which on review turned out to be excluding the also-rans, 17 clear, reasonably focused images, which were much better than I dared hoped for, given the circumstance.

A frim hold: Here you can see the shrike holding both legs of the wheatear (© Howard King -

I only casually glanced through the images in the field too many other birds a calling to spend too long pondering what was, or what might have been. It was only when I got home and uploaded them to my big apple that the wealth of information and detail of the manner of the attempted ‘Kill” clearly visible on the images became apparent.

So how does a Shrike “Kill” or should we ask how does such a small predatory species take down another bird virtually its own size. On this occasion the key to the Shrikes’ strike was the use of its feet combined with its natural speed, stealth and strength.

Going for the kill: With the wheateat pinned to the ground the shrike goes in for the kill (© Howard King -

To summarize – an extremely fast attack from the rear onto the victims back enabling the Shrike to grab the victim high up on both legs all in the same movement. Clamped onto the femur, the Shrike is then able to spread-eagle the legs causing the victim to collapse to the ground in an instant. With the victim pinned to the floor the Shrike is perfected placed then to attack the neck and throat as they became openly exposed as the victim instinctively turns its head to face and fend of the attacker.

The getaway: With the shrike having to watch it's own back to make sure it doesn't become Marsh Harrier prey, it gives the wheatear the moment it needed to escape (© Howard King -

Had the Marsh Harrier not passed over I am certain the outcome would have been in favour of the Shrike and my series of snaps would have run to a few but bloody dozen more.


Howard King
20 March 2017

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