On the biology of the Chinese Grey Shrike in Primor'ie.
[K biologii klinokhvostogo sorokoputa v Primor'ie] Ornitologiya [Ornithology].
Moscow, Moscow Univ. Press. No12. Pp.118-124. Nechaev, V.A. 1976.

Translated from the original Russian by Jevgeni Shergalin 2004.
(Email: zoolit@hotmail.com; website: http://my.tele2.ee/birds

Edited by Charlie Moores, November 2004.

"The Chinese Grey Shrike (Lanius sphenocercus sphenocercus Cabanis) belongs to a number of Palearctic birds whose distribution and biology has been insufficiently studied till recently. The breeding range of this species in the USSR covers mainly the southern plain regions of Primorskiy Krai (Territory) to north of Lower stream of Bolshaya Ussurka River (Vorob'yov,1954; Spangenberg,1965). In the last few years it was discovered breeding in southern parts of Zeya-Bureya Plain of Amur Region (Yudakov, Nikolaev,1968), and was also observed 24 June 1963 in the south of the Jewish Autonomous Region (sic), where, obviously, it breeds (Smogorzhevskiy, 1965).

We found Chinese Grey Shrike broods in the second half of June 1957 near Khabarovsk town (Petropavlovsk Lake surroundings). An extension of the breeding range has happened, in all probability, during the last10-15 years as a result of intensive agricultural development of the plain territories of Sredniy [Middle] and Verkhniy [Upper] Amur. Birds have penetrated there from the south along valleys of the Ussuri and Gur Rivers.

Our investigations were carried out 1968-1970 and1972, mainly in western areas of Khanka Lake Plain: on the Khanka Lake bank (Turiy Rog village); and in Komissarovka River valley (surroundings of villages Barabash-Levada and Reshetnikovo). We also observed breeding birds in the extreme south of Khasan region (Doriceni Lake bank), in the valley of the middle stream of Razdol'naya River (Novo-Georgievka village) and on its tributary Borisovka (Krounovka settlement).

In our study area the species was a common breeding bird, whose distribution is totally connected with open spaces in agricultural lands: fields, meadows and pastures. Individual plots of breeding pairs are quite extensive: in the valley of the middle stream of Komissarovka River (surroundings of Barabash-Levada vilage) one pair inhabited 1-1,5 sq km, and on Turginskaya Plain (Turiy Rog) 2-2,5 sq km.

Chinese Grey Shrikes reach their breeding sites, after winter nomadic movements, in the second half of March. The mating/territorial song of the male is often heard at this time of year – a loud and piercing, but rather melodic thrill ”tsviit, tsviit”, consisting of mainly prolonged sibilant sound. Birds singg from the top of a tree or telegraph pole, and the song can be heard up to a distance of 1 km.


Chinese Grey Shrikes begin nest building at the beginning of April. Previously only two nests of this species were known from Primor'ie: one with 6 fresh eggs was found 06 May 1947 near Sakpau Lake, Khasan district (Vorob'yov,1954); the other nest with 9 strongly incubated eggs12 May 1954 was in Lower Bolshaya Ussurka River (Spangenberg, 1965).We found a total of 16 nests.

Chinese Grey Shrikes build nests in small, separately standing trees, which grow on boundary paths, on edges of fields or amid meadows and pastures. They clearly prefer elms (11 cases of 16) with their dense branches. Three nests were situated in oak-trees, one nest in both Daurian (Black) birch and willow. Nests are situated in the base of branches near trunks of young trees, more seldom in the forks of lateral branches in the side from the tree-trunk. Height of nest location – 2-5m.

The nest of the Chinese Grey Shrike is massive but at the same time has a compact construction. Its outer layer is built with dry twigs of elm, birch, aspen and hazel, stems of wormwoods, inflorescences of Setaria sp., Artemisia sp., Cirsium sp. and grass roots.

In one nest (of 16) the nest consisted almost exclusively of parts of grassy plants - stems and inflorescences of pappuses of Setaria sp.

Mean layer is formed by stems of wormwood (Artemisia), grains of elm, roots of grasses, oakum from cords and strings and feathers. Cup consists of thick layer of feathers, mainly of Pheasant, more seldom other birds, and also of fell, inflorescences of Setaria sp, pappuses of Cirsium, dry leaves, soft parts from stems and grassroots. Sometimes scraps of newspapers, pieces from wasp nests and oakum from cords (strings) were sighted. Sizes of nests (12): outer diameter 15,5-26,5, diameter of cup 9,0-12,0, height of construction 10,5-16,0 cm, depth of cup 10,0, more often 8,0 cm.

During nest construction and egg-laying Chinese Grey Shrikes are very wary and when humans approach immediately silently try to hide.

During incubation the male regularly feeds the female, bringing her large insects and pieces of meat (probably "mouse-like" [sic] rodents). on seeing the male, the female will leave the nest and, with "peep" calls, pursue him, asking for food. Sometimes in the presence of the male she takes the pose of a fledgling, i.e. sits low down, spread her wings, and opens the bill wide. In the last days of incubation and after the nestlings hatch the behaviour changes remarkably. When a human approaches the nest, the male flys 30-50 m, whistles in a drawling manner, excitedly twitching his tail and flies from branch to branch. The female, as a rule, stays 10-15 m from the nest and whistles shrilly: sometimes she becomes aggressive and will even attack.

Female lay eggs each day in the early morning, and begin incubation after laying 4-5 eggs, therefore nestlings hatch over a 2-3 day period. Eggs incubate after 16-17 days. Only the female incubates. In warm springs the nestlings hatch in the first ten days of May, in a cold spring at the end of May. Around Barabash-Levada village in 1972 a nest with just-hatched nestlings was found 07 May. In 1970 two nests with nestlings 2-3-day old were found on 16 and 17 May. In the cold spring of 1969 nests with 5 nestlings of the same age, dead one-day nestling and an addled egg were discovered on 31 May. Thus, in the cold and rainy spring of 1969 nestlings appeared 13-14 days later than in the dry and warm spring of 1970.

Nestling Plumage

Since there is no description of nestling plumage, we'll give this description fully here.

In one-day nestling eyes and ear channels are closed. Colour of skins pale-rose. Character of down location (disposition) in the nestlings investigated by us was different. In 6 (of 12) downy nestlings the longest (up to 1 mm) down was situated on the sides of belly, and rudimentary –on back, forearm, manus and coccyx. In 2 nestlings from another nest the spinal and abdominal apterias were expressed clearly. In 4 nestlings from the third nest sparse and short grey down was distributed along the back, on shoulders, forearms, manuses, thighs, coccyx and sides of belly. Length of down on the back - 4mm, on forearms – 3mm, on manuses – 1,5 mm. The bill in the nestling is yellow with grey top of upper mandible. Folds in the corners of mouth are light-yellow, the “egg tooth” is white. Nostrils are round.

On the 4th day eyes and ear channels open, and under skin on the back, shoulders and forearms the dark sheaths becomeclearly visible. Weight of 2-3-day old nestling is 9.3g.

For the first 10 days of the nestlings life the female spend all her time on the nest, heating and warming the downy nestlings. Males bring food (3-4 times per 1 hour), take away the nestlings' foecal pellets and alerts the female about any danger. Later on the female searches for food as well but, as a rule, not far from the nest.

Nestlings gain weight rapidly and by Day 9 have increased almost 500 percent. By Day 8-9 the length of sheaths of future primaries was 7-8 mm and feather vanes were spread on the back, head and sides of body. By day 9-10 sheaths on the wing reached 13mm, and on 12-13th day- 23 mm (brushlets 3-5 mm).

By the time they were 20 days old nestlings sat on the edge of the nest and in the event of danger would fly over onto branches of neighbouring trees. Wing length in one of them reached 834 mm (brushlets of primaries – 40 mm), tail – 45 mm (brushlets -22 mm). Nestlings from two nests we studied in 1970, left them 02 and 03 July. Within 2 days they were found 20m and 50 m from the nesting trees.

The main enemies of Chinese Grey Shrikes are (Black-billed) Magpies Pica pica. In the cold spring of 1969, when a food shortage existed for birds, nests often suffered from Magpies attacks. So, of 5 nests found by us in May- beginning of June around Barabash-Levada settlement, in 3 nests Magpies extirpated eggs and in 1 nest – nestlings. One pair of Chinese Grey Shrikes, after loosing the first clutch at the end of May, started a new nest 200 m from the first one amid the dense branches of a young birch 7 m from the ground. In it a clutch of 5 eggs was discovered 21/June. In 1972 a second clutch of 7 eggs was found 100 m from an abandoned nest, whose clutch was extirpated by Magpies.

Besides that once on 31/May an unsuccessful attack by a Hobby on a flying Chinese Grey Shrike was observed.

In South-Western Primorie the first broods of Chinese Grey Shrikes were recorded at the end of May/first half of June. In Komissarovka River valley fledglings were observed 27-30/May 1972 and in the first half of June1970; in Turginsk Plain - 25 and 26/June 1967; in surroundings of Doriceni Lake in Khasan(skiy) district – 5/July 1967.

During the second half of July/beginning of August broods break up and young birds begin nomadic movements, leading a solitary mode of life.

In winter a major part of this species population probably migrates south, completely leaving Primorie. In winter Chinese Grey Shrikes were recorded in different regions of South Primorie, including Cis-Khanka Plain (Cherskiy, 1915; Vorob'yov, 1954). We observed them on Murav'yov-Amurskiy Peninsula (Lyanchikha River valley) and in the valleys of Rivers Razdol'naya and Smidtovka (Nadezhdinskaya Station).


Moult of adult birds begins after the nesting period, at the end of June/beginning of July, and finishes at the beginning of September.

A male, shot 27/July 1969, was in heavy moult. Primaries: 1-7th old; 8th absent; 9th had appeared from sheath at 0,7; 10th - at 1,8 cm. Rectrices were old, excluding right feather of the central pair. A female, shot 22/August 1969, had finished molt. Primaries: 1st was appeared from sheath at 2,6; 2nd at 4,7; 3rd did not reach the end of the wing at 0,8 cm; 4-10th are new. Secondaries were being moulted. Rectrices: 1-2nd pairs of the right side are old, left side – in moult, the rest of the feathers new. Dirty-gray summer feathers were replaced with ash-gray autumn feathers with a slight rosy tint on the breast.

Moult of young birds from nesting feathers into first autumn plumage takes place in August – September. Only body feathers are replaced, while primaries ands secondaries remain old. Young Chinese Grey Shrike, captured 8/September 1946 (collection of Biology-Soil Institute of the Far-Eastern Scientific Center of Ac. of Sc. of the USSR) had fresh autumn feathers with rosy-white lower side and gray upper side with slight ochreous tint: primaries and rectrices were not replaced. Feathers of unidentified sex, shot 25/September 1970, and a female shot 7/November 1972 were in the same moult state.

Food and Hunting

Chinese Grey Shrikes as a rule catch their prey on the ground, watching from the tops of trees and tall shrubs, telegraph poles and hay stacks. The typical hunting behavior of this species is hovering, like a Eurasian Kestrel, at a height of 15-20m, sometimes up to 30 m. Chasing fast flying birds or running rodents was not observed.

Like many shrikes Chinese Greys "larder", storing food in advance for the future. On many occasions we found headless voles, pinned onto a twig or thorn or pressed into forks of branches on low trees and shrubs. Birds use these resources (stocks) in spring during a sudden fall of temperature or prolonged rains.

To study the food of nesting chicks we carried out an analysis of the contents of 42 food portions, extracted from the gullets of nestlings 4-10 days old (17-29/May 1970 and 3-9/June 1969, Barabash-Levada settlement), and 64 pellets, collected under 5 nests in vicinities of Barabash-Levada and Turiy Rog settlements. The main food of nesting chicks were - "mouse-looking" rodents (61,9% of records in portions and 87,5% in pellets), Gryllotalpidae (correspondingly 38,0 and 51,5% of records) and beetles, mainly ground beetles (65,6% of records in pellets).

In the first days of life of chicks get pieces of liver and meat of "mouse-looking" rodents, mainly voles, and Gryllotalpidae, mainly whole; later they get bumble-bees, beetles, pieces of meat with fell and bones of voles, and also frogs and other food.

In summer the main food of young and adult shrikes is insects, at other times of the year "mouse-looking" rodents and to a lesser extent small birds. Stomachs of 6 shrikes, shot in July-September, contained remains of Orthoptera, mainly grasshoppers (Gampsocleis sedakowi, G.ussuriensis) and wingless locusts (Primnoa primnoa), which in two stomachs occupied 90-95% of stomach volume. Besides that pieces of chitin from Silphidae (Silpha atrata), ground beetles (Dolichus halensis, Ophonus ussuriensis, Chlaenius pallipes, Prevostichus sp.), cockchafer (Holotrichia sp.), one bug species and other insects were discovered.

Near Barabash-Levada 11/June1970 on cattle pasture we observed Chinese Grey Shrikes successfully hunting gadflies (Hybomitra sp.).

In autumn, birds feed on Arthropoda and "mouse-looking" rodents. In the stomach of a Chinese Grey Shrike, shot 24/October, the remains of 2 Field Mice (Apodemus agrarius) were discovered, and in another bird shot 7/September1972 ground beetles (Carabus canaliculatus) and 2 spiders were found.

In winter birds feed mainly on "mouse-looking" rodents, more seldom on birds. In the stomach of a Chinese Grey Shrike, shot 27/December 1967 (Khasan station), the remains of Harvest Mouse (Micromys minutus) were found. Once, 2/February1947, an attack on a wounded Japanese Quail was observed (Vorob'yov, 1954). According to A.G.Yudakov and I.G.Nikolaev (1968), in the Amur Region the Chinese Grey Shrike feeds mainly on "mouse-looking" rodents and insects (and more seldomly on birds). Thus, the species is "useful": its food take dominated by such agricultural pests as "mouse-looking" rodents and Gryllotalpidae.

The mean weight of Chinese Grey Shrikes is as follows:

  • adult male -90,4g;

  • adult female - 95,7g;

  • young birds, shot in July - 81,5; 87,5 and 89,3 g; in September – 92,5 g; in November 79,0 g.


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