Girton Birdwatch - April 2006
I doubt whether I am alone in taking delight at the return of the Blackbird's song. Many people believe that the bird's mellow fluting is one of the most beautiful bird-songs heard in Britain - rated by some even more highly than that of the Nightingale (and certainly heard more frequently by most). To me it's the first sign that spring and summer are just around the corner and that warmer days and balmy evenings will soon be with us. It has taken over the main singing role in the dawn chorus from the Song Thrush and may be heard singing its head off with increasing intensity, morning and evening, from late February to early July. Blackbirds, which were originally birds of woodland and the high tops, are now one of our most familiar garden visitors, and suburban birds now live at densities up to ten times higher than their relatives on farmland, while the number of fledged young produced per nest is also higher than in other habitats.
However, it is doubtful whether anyone in the village has entertained in their garden the large number of Blackbirds reported by Judith Croasdell at the end of January. After about four months of their absence Judith was surprised to find fourteen, seven males and seven females, congregating in her garden every morning at about 7.30 am, and apparently co-existing quite happily - they are normally notoriously territorial - while searching for food. They did not appear to be paired up (apart from two to three pairs which stayed behind when the others disappeared during the course of the morning and which seemed to engage in the more 'normal' chasing and territory-defending behaviour) and were not observed to be gathering nesting material. They concentrated on searching the ground for food - but not just the limited grain and nuts put out by Judith - within a few feet of each other, for a couple of hours each morning, before leaving the garden to the 'residents'. I didn't know what was going on and neither did Judith, who e-mailed the RSPB for an opinion. Richard James, the Wildlife Advisor at RSPB HQ at Sandy, responded with the following interpretation which I reproduce virtually intact:
"As you mention, most of these blackbirds are probably migrants from mainland Europe. Because they are not defending a territory here, large numbers of them can be seen feeding in one place. I imagine the three pairs of blackbirds chasing the others away are resident birds who have established territories. They would normally chase the others away as soon as they come into their territory so it is unusual that they all feed together for that length of time.
Your garden is probably the first stop on the feeding circuit for the migratory birds and that is why they appear at 7.30. The resident birds will be in the area all day. They will mainly be eating worms and leatherjackets, which are crane fly (Daddy Longlegs) larvae. You could supply them with chopped apple or pear to supplement their invertebrate diet. ...
I am not sure whether the migratory blackbirds would pair up here or whether they would wait until they are back in their breeding territories. They may wait until they are back and that is why you have not seen any courtship behaviour. The resident birds are unlikely to start nesting until March so would not be gathering nesting material yet".
Although the Blackbird's melodic outpourings are justifiably welcomed by many, it is capable of much harsher, and perhaps more irritating, sounds. In response to a real, or imagined, threat it needs no excuse to descend into a nervous, scolding chatter (usually when its main enemy, the domestic cat, is on the prowl). At other times mild anxiety reveals itself in its tail-flicking 'chook-chook', while at dusk its more pleasant song is often replaced or supplemented with a persistent 'pink-pink'. Mind you, the Blackbird, historically, had good reason to be nervous as it was often hunted for the table - all the Thrush family were widely eaten. They were being killed for this purpose as late as the 1940's and commonly ended up in pies with carrots and bacon. The most famous (infamous?) of all Blackbird pies is the one described in the well-known (is it still, in the age of the 'Baa baa rainbow sheep'?) nursery rhyme:
Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye;
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing;
Was not that a dainty dish to put before a king.
Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, in their marvellous recent publication: Birds Britannica, have suggested that school children throughout the ages have been puzzled by how the birds survived the oven! The answer lies in the timing apparently. Blackbirds - sometimes even mice and snakes - were added live just before the 'surprise pie', an invention of the Tudor kitchen, was served and cut. The escaping birds provided 'entertainment' and no doubt a great deal of consternation, for the guests. Such an historical perspective might help temper the shock/horror undoubtedly felt by many on learning that former French President, Francois Mitterrand, dying of cancer, indulged in an illicit banquet which included a dish of Ortolan Buntings - a widespread but very scarce (but safer) spring and autumn migrant to these shores.
Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com