Thinking about the birds of the air at Christmas
Father Andrew has told me that he often hears a blackbird singing away from the top of a tree as he walks to and from the church. The blackbird is one of our more tuneful birds and has a strong liquid voice.
The male is very smart with a glossy black plumage and distinctive yellow beak and a yellow orbit around the eye. The female is more muted in colour being a soft brown on top and a mottled breast. This is quite the norm for birds as it is the female that normally broods the eggs and so her plumage needs to be camouflaged so that predators do not spot her or the nest. There are a few exceptions to this rule but none that we are likely to see around here. The Latin name is Turdus merula and that can be translated to Thrush blackbird and the second part of its Latin name is commonly used in Scotland in the form of Merl or blackbird. The blackbird is a member of a large family of true thrushes that are spread round the world. If you watch blackbirds in your garden you soon realise they are very territorial and will see off intruding birds of their own species.
In the English Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas", the line commonly sung today as "four calling birds" is believed to have originally been written in the 18th century as "four colly birds", an archaism meaning "black as coal" that was a popular English nickname for the common blackbird.
In our neighbourhood we sometimes see song thrushes, but alas much more infrequently than in days gone by. These delicate thrushes eat snails and are sometimes seen hammering the snail against a rock to break off the shell.
Their bigger resident cousin is the mistle thrush and again this is now quite a rare sight in our gardens. The mistle thrush is sometimes called the storm cock and can sing even in wet stormy weather from the tops of trees. It is also a very aggressive bird and will defend a particularly choice tree full of berries from other blackbirds or thrushes. I have noted this behaviour on a number of occasions and it is interesting to watch.
At this time of year these thrushes are joined by two more species from northern Europe. The first of these is the redwing and this looks somewhat like the song thrush but has a prominent red patch under its wings and from this feature it takes its name. Redwings travel in big flocks and may descend on your garden and start to eat the cotoneaster berries which they consume most eagerly.
The biggest winter visitor is the fieldfare, which is sometimes locally called the feld. These birds are quite grey on the neck and rump and again travel in flocks and also raid gardens for the cotoneaster berries. Both the redwing and fieldfare do breed in the UK but in very, very small numbers.
The final thrush species we sometimes see in these parts is the ring ouzel also known as the mountain blackbird. This is distinguished by a white collar patch across the breast although the female, which is similar to the female blackbird, has a very pale patch that is barely visible. We are only likely to see these on migration as they fly back from the northern parts towards the Mediterranean, where it winters. The name ouzel used to be applied to the blackbird in olden times .
I have seen ring ouzels as near as Burbage Common and a few years ago Vicky and I went to see a couple that spent a few days in a horse pasture feeding up before continuing their journey south.
Well, happily, on my long walk around Stanford Reservoir this week I saw all these thrushes except the ring ouzel, which is now happily settled in warmer climes down south.
Even the peoples of the Old Testament knew that the birds migrated at different times of the year and we can note this in Jeremiah. Jeremiah 8:7
“Even the stork in the sky
Knows her seasons;
And the turtledove and the swift and the thrush
Observe the time of their migration;
But My people do not know
The ordinance of the Lord.
As Father Andrew has often observed the thrushes can have a very sweet song and their music lifts our spirits. As we near Christmas let us think of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness and rejoicing in the coming of the Messiah . How sweet was his voice and the message it proclaimed and let us ponder on that the next time we stand and listen to the sweet liquid song of the blackbird or the song thrush.
To be continued,