A steppe in the wrong direction?

The Long Buckby Lanius and its capricious taxonomic history

On 3rd November 1997, Nick Roberts was driving between Long Buckby and West Haddon when he came across a shrike on a roadside fence post. The bird quickly dropped to the ground, where it remained for a short period. It was still there a few minutes later when Nick returned with Peter Spokes and together they watched it, subsequently identifying it as a Steppe Grey Shrike.

First-winter Steppe Grey Shrike, Long Buckby, November 1997 (Graham Soden). This bird spent a considerable amount of its time feeding on the ground, ‘hopping around’ like a wheatear. As a consequence, its bill, legs and underparts frequently became stained with soil.

Local birders were duly notified and many arrived the same day to see it. It remained in the vicinity the following day, by which time it had attracted a growing number of observers, many of whom had travelled from different parts of the UK.

The record was submitted to, and accepted by, the British Birds Rarities Committee as the 12th for Britain. There have been fourteen subsequent accepted British records.

First-winter Steppe Grey Shrike, Long Buckby, November 1997 (Graham Soden).

Back in the day, Steppe Grey Shrike was almost whatever you wanted it to be, depending on your choice of taxonomic authority – floating around between being races of Great Grey Shrike, the more recently split (from Great Grey Shrike) Southern Grey Shrike complex, and a full species in its own right. At the time of record acceptance in Northamptonshire it had already been lumped with Southern Grey Shrike (e.g. *Clements 2017) and so constituted a ‘first’ for the county.

However, it was generally recognised as a full species by several authorities (King 1997, Hernández et al. 2004, Panov 2011 – cited by the International Ornithological Congress (IOC)) and has remained as such until this year, being on the IOC World List, which is now followed by the UK in defining what is on (or off) the British list. Unfortunately, because there has never been a true consensus on the definitive taxonomy of this species, last month, the IOC decided to (re)lump Steppe Grey Shrike with Great Grey (see here) ‘pending’, as they say ‘full resolution of this complex.’

It would seem to make better sense to leave it in full species status until the evidence to lump it with Great Grey Shrike is available and undisputed – and in this respect, surely this is a step in the wrong direction.

The above move by the IOC will no doubt prove unpopular – not only with us in Northants but also across the UK as a species is effectively dropped from the British list.

*Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2017. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2017, with updates to August 2017.
References cited above by the IOC
Hernández, MA, F Campos, F Gutiérrez-Corchero & A Amezcua. 2004.  Identification  of Lanius species and subspecies using tandem repeats in the mitochondrial DNA  control region. Ibis 146:227-230
King BF. 1997. Checklist of the Birds of Eurasia Ibis Publishing Company. Vista, CA.
Panov E. 2011. The true shrikes (Laniidae) of the world. Ecology, Behavior and Evolution. Pensoft Publ.
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