Bird alert!

3rd Steppe Grey Shrike Lanius lahtora pallidirostris for The Netherlands


On 29th May a first-year Steppe Grey Shrike Lanius lahtora pallidirostris for The Netherlands was spotted at the Maasvlakte (near Rotterdam). The 1st year shrike was present till 3rd may. Look for location and more photographs at

This was the third record, after two first-year birds at Texel; the 1st from 4th-23rd September 1994 at Cocksdorp and the 2nd from 27th October-9th November at Hoorn

Other recent sightings from a Steppe Grey Shrike in Europe was on 1st December 2013 at Fano, Italy

Is a Steppe Grey Shrike family of the Great Grey Shrike?

It should be noted that the Dutch Committee for Avian Systematics  separated Steppe Grey Shrike L. pallidirostris as a third species (Sangster et al 1997, 1999) based on qualitative differences between pallidirostris and L. excubitor and L. meridionalis. More recently, Dutch Birding (2009) follow Gonzalez et al (2008) in regarding Iberian Grey Shrike as monotopic and the North African taxa were provisionally as Desert Grey Shrike L. elegans, while other Great Grey Shrike taxa were left undetermined for the time beeing. The purpose of this short paper is to present an update on geographic variation in the great grey shrike complex on recent genetic studies. Olsson et al (2010) sampled by far the most extensively and agree with Gonzales et al (2008) and Klassert et al (2008) on the basic structure of the phylogeny.

I will try to present an update on geographic variation in the Great Grey Shrike based at the genetic studie (Olsson et al 2010). More info about the grey shrike complex

The Great Grey Shrike complex may include six or more species.

Published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, the study of Olsson et al looked at 18 taxa in the Great Grey and Southern Grey Shrike complex, as well as related species Chinese Grey and Loggerhead Shrikes, and Somali Fiscal, to establish what relationships there were between them, based onmitochondrial DNA. When comparing the mitochondrial gene tree from their investigations to the existing accepted taxonomy, the study found manydiscrepancies. Several subspecies of Great Grey and Southern were in factshown to be more closely related to the other species.

The recovered mitochondrial DNA tree shows a deep split between two large clades, representing up to several million years of differentiation. In this tree, the 18 taxa of great grey shrike complex are non-monophyletic, with some subspecies being more closely related to three universally recognized species: Somali Fiscal L.somalicus, Loggerhead Shrike L. ludovicianus and Chinese Grey Shrike L. spenocercus. The latter clade furthermore includes not only one Neartic (borealis) and four North-eastern Paleartic subspecies (mollis, sibiricus, funereus and bianchii,but remarkably, also meridionalis!

The second large clade contains, among others, nominate Great Grey Shrike excubitor, North African taxa (eg. algeriensis, elegans and koenigi), and South-western Asian taxa (eg. pallidirostris).

Th striking outcome is the placement of excubitor and meridionalis which is in conflict with usual taxonomy and surprising when considering both geography and plumage variation: excubitor is morphologically similar to neighbour sibiricus while meridionalis is similar to nearby North African taxa.

CSNA schema

Olsson et al (2010) considered several taxonomical options as valid, including treating the great grey shrike complex as six species:

Great Grey Shrike (Europe and Siberia) Lanius excubitor with taxa: excubitor, homeyeri and leucopteros

Northern Grey Shrike (North America) Lanius borealis with taxa: borealis, mollis, sibiricus, funereus and bianchii

Desert Grey Shrike (parts of northern Africa) Lanius elegans with taxa: elegans, leucopygos, koenigi and algeriensis

Iberian Grey Shrike  (Europe and North Africa) Lanius meridionalis with taxa: meridionalis

Asian Grey Shrike (India and Pakistan) Lanius lahtora with taxa: lahtora, pallidirostrisburyi and aucheri

Socotra Grey Shrikes (Socotra) Lanius uncinatus with taxa: uncinatus

Is Steppe Grey Shrike a valid name?

When you do a search on internet you will find several english names for the pallidirostris. Molecular results (see above) so far suggest interesting groupings of taxa at present attributed to Great Grey/Southern Grey shrikes; other aspects of molecular research are generally agreed to confirm or rearrange the preliminary findings. However, it would seem that one grouping would be of pallidirostris and lahtora: if confirmed, the species name would be Lanius lahtora due to naming priority. Lars Svensson prefers Saxaul Grey Shrike (saxaulvarfagel in swedish) for the pallidirostris, ‘Steppe’ is to be avoided in the name in any languages. The use of ‘Steppe Grey Shrike’ is of comparatively recent date, and there seems to be little justification for preserving a tottaly misleading name of young age. The English name Steppe Grey shrike is mayby a misnomer – because it doesn’t breed on steppes. It breeds often in saxaul, but saxaul distribution aligns poorly overall to. Within OSME, and applicable geographic name would be Mauryan Grey Shrike, reflecting the existence of that early empire that at its maximum extent, covered the breeding grounds of the putative Lanius lahtora quite well!

Texts on the OSME Region list:

Mauryan Grey Shrike . Lanius (lahtora) pallidirotris (informal@OSME) (Extent of Mahajanapada federation ≡ lahtora & pallidirostris distribution). {Steppe Grey Shrike} (Asian Grey Shrike). NB1 name ‘Desert Grey Shrike’ has been applied to another taxon; ‘Saxaul Grey Shrike’ inadequate. NB2 ‘Steppe Grey Shrike’ for ssp pallidirostris is usage customary to UK birders, who may remain unpersuaded of change.

(Lanius [excubitor] lahtora) NB name lahtora has priority. Taxon pallidirostris formerly treated as ssp of Southern Grey Shrike L. meridionalis or as monotypic sp ‘Steppe Grey Shrike’ L. pallidirostris. Clade A1 in Olsson et al 2010 comprises lahtora (Sykes 1832), mostly sedentary + junior ssp migrant pallidirostris (Cassin 1852) Panov & Bannikova 2010; Ayé et al 2012, R&A 2012 support; pallidirostris breeds Iran, CA, L&W 1997, (rare across mid- & S Kazakhstan W&O 2007, breeds SE Afghanistan, R&A 2005), resident W Uzbekistan, W Turkmenistan Ayé et al 2012. Winters Egypt; Arabia Jennings 2010, Ethiopia Ash & Atkins 2009, rare Oman, may wander to Turkey Kirwan et al 2008. English name informal@OSME; possible alternatives ‘Mughal’ or ‘Timur’ Grey Shrike. Taxon lahtora resident largely Indian subcontinent, but W as far as SE Iran Evgeniy Panov in litt ; pallidirostris characteristically occupies desert (Panov & Bannikova 2010), saxaul desert or dry rough ground, & not steppe-like grassland; moreover, name ‘Steppe Grey Shrike’ earlier applied to L.(e.) homeyeri Dement’ev & Gladkov 1968. Dutch Birding apply ‘Desert Grey Shrike’ to African elegans. NB1 Russian molecular data suggest RT sensu novo group valid Evgeniy Panov in litt. NB2 Olsson et al 2010 note Clades A1 & A2 may be sisters but ‘with poor support’: others suggest links are close enough for amalgamation. NB3 DB 2011 call only lahtora ‘Asian Grey Shrike’. NB4 Vaurie had considered lahtora for ‘southern group’ name.


The Lanius excubitor (Aves, Passeriformes) conundrum . taxonomic dilemma when molecular and non- molecular data tell different stories . Olssen, U.; Alström, P.; Svensson, L.; Aliabadian, M.; Sundberg, P., Elsevier, Molecular phylogenetics and evolution, 55:2: 347-357, 2010

Speciation in shades of grey: the great grey shrike complex (Trends in systematics) . Poelstra, J., Dutch Birding Volume 32:4: 258-264, 2010

The OSME Region List of Bird Taxa – Version 2.4

The image on the thumbnail is from Jaco Walhout. The image in this post is from Pim Julsing.