In January 2016 I did a short blog post on a pied male blackbird (Turdus merula) we’d been seeing around a lot. We’ve seen a pied blackbird intermittently since then, and yesterday it put in appearance after quite a period of absence. I snapped some photos on my crappy camera, so the quality isn’t the best, but it gives an idea of its markings. Click on all photos to enlarge.
We had thought it was the same bird, but from comparing the photos of the two, it seems that they are different birds. Our newcomer seems to have a ‘Z’ of white on the top of his tail by his body, whereas the 2016 one didn’t. I wonder if the newer one is perhaps the son of our other one.
Last night was very cold, and we woke to a heavy frost, the fiercest yet this winter. In the secret garden next door we were treated to the lovely sight of our first fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) of the winter, a new arrival from Scandinavia or points further east. He was flying between the tall beeches that surround the garden and the central, old apple tree, with its spread of windfall apples on the ground beneath, chasing off any blackbirds (Turdus merula) that got too close to his stash.
The secret garden, surrounded by tall beech trees and with its old apple tree in the centre. The fieldfare was in one the beeches when I took this, not that you’ll be able to spot it.
Our visitor two years ago finally left us when our neighbours on the other side of the secret garden started having lots of treework done, involving noisy chainsaws. The day that started, he left. We didn’t see him last year. It’s lovely to have him (or one like him) back.
And as a double bonus, this morning I heard the first song thrush (Turdus philomelos) singing. They sing through the spring and early summer, and then stop, starting up again in winter. It’s wonderful to hear.
Update: 24 January 2017: We have had several days of very hard frosts and sub-zero temperatures at night. Two days ago our lone fieldfare was joined by four others, and the blackbirds were down feeding on the apples too. It seems the greater number meant that the original fieldfare gave up on chasing everyone else off. Yesterday we counted ten fieldfare. We have been supplementing the apples with oatmeal, suet, sultanas, sunflower seeds, chopped up dates and figs: I think the birds eat better than we do!
Update 27 January 2017: The apples are now gone, and so too are the fieldfare: we started putting out extra apples just too late to keep them around (they didn’t eat any of the other offerings). Oh well. It was lovely having our loner and latterly his friends for as long as we did.
Blackbirds (Turdus merula) are one of my favourite birds. So any time they are celebrated, I’m happy. Here’s a brief look at three very different groups of musicians from the UK who have been inspired by one of our loveliest native songbirds.
A male blackbird, Turdus merula. Photo by Sannse.
In early May this year Radiohead released ‘Burn the Witch‘, the much-anticipated first single off their first album in five years, A Moon Shaped Pool. The song was teased by the band with a short, enigmatic snippet of footage, of a stop-motion bird singing to the sound of a blackbird’s song.
When ‘Burn the Witch’ was released, we could hear that the blackbird’s song was the introduction and the coda to the song, and that the lyrics ‘Sing a song on the jukebox that goes / Burn the witch’ and ‘Sing the song of sixpence that goes / Burn the witch’ referenced the traditional British children’s rhyme, ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence‘, a rhyme that refers to four and twenty blackbirds being baked in a pie, and later to a blackbird pecking off a maid’s nose. Jolly stuff, these traditional rhymes, but aptly fitting with the grim subject matter of Radiohead’s song.
Just the other day I discovered that what I had long-thought to be an image of a range of evening sunlit limestone peaks reflected in still waters of the Thai coast on the cover of Kate Bush‘s double album Aerial is in fact a waveform of a blackbird’s song. (Observation was never my strong point).
The cover of Aerial by Kate bush, featuring the waveform of a blackbird’s song.
And birdsong, predominantly blackbird song, is featured throughout the album. ‘Prelude’, the first track of A Sky of Honey, the second disc of the album, starts with a male blackbird singing, followed by a wood pigeon‘s call which Bush then mimics; the track ‘Sunset’ refers to blackbirds singing at dusk, and features the song of a blackbird at the very end of the track and merging into the next track, ‘Aerial Tal’, where Bush mimics the call of one in the style of an Indian taal; and the final track, ‘Aerial’ features more blackbird song (and a blackbird alarm call) while Bush laughs.
And of course the most famous use of a blackbird’s song in modern music is in ‘Blackbird‘ by the Beatles: in the latter part of the song a male blackbird can be heard singing.
Here they are, without accompaniment. In all cases, this is the spring song of the blackbird. They do sing later on in the year, but the spring song is the best.
By coincidence, my last couple of posts have been about Scandinavia, snow and ice, and ovicaprids. I’m not going to manage to shake free of all of those in this post either …
Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Photo by Arnstein Rønning.
We woke this morning to a terrific hard frost. The countryside is white; the trees are white; it is gorgeous. It’s not quite so gorgeous inside our bedroom, where there was ice on the inside of the windows—one of the joys of living in a 300 year old cottage with all its draughts and dampness and ill-fitting doors and windows.
We call one of the gardens next to ours ‘the secret garden’. Not so much because it is hidden, but because no-one uses it. The cottage to which it belongs is rented, and none of the tenants in the last few years has shown any interest in it. Contract gardeners come and cut the grass about four times a year, and that’s it. We can see into the garden from our bedroom dormer window. There is an alder tree which has grown from a small sapling when we arrived in 1992 to a large, two-trunked tree; there is an old ruined cottage or barn or outbuilding, the stone walls of which survive to about a metre or so high and are gradually being covered by brambles; and there is a venerable old apple tree. The apple tree always fruits prodigiously, and because no-one uses the garden, the apples stay where they fall. They provide welcome food for wildlife in the winter months.
This morning the apples were providing a frosty feast for about nine or ten blackbirds (Turdus merula), a grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), and a single fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Fieldfare are a palaearctic species, living in more northerly latitudes in the summer and heading south in the winter—our fieldfare come from Scandinavia. Normally they travel in flocks, so it is always surprising to see a lone one. This one was vigorously defending its food, spending more time chasing all the blackbirds away than it was eating. Watching them, I could almost hear the Benny Hill Showtheme tune in my head as the fieldfare scooted round and round the apple tree in hot pursuit of a blackbird.
Play nicely, children. (This is a small fieldfare as an adult fieldfare is quite a bit larger than an adult blackbird). Photo by Dave Jackson.
Update 4 January 2015: A week on and the fieldfare is still with us. He sits in one of the higher beech trees that surrounds the secret garden, and swoops down to chase off larger interlopers who are getting too close to his precious stash of slowly-rotting apples. He tolerates the smaller birds such as chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs) and dunnocks (Prunella modularis) and blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla), but is aggressive in his pursuit of the blackbirds. Even larger birds like jackdaws (Corvus monedula) get the ‘get orf moi laaaand’ treatment from him (or should that be written in a Scandinavian rather than a West Country accent?)
Update 29 November 2016: The fieldfare stayed for about a month, leaving the day our neighbours on the other side of the secret garden started having some very noisy chainsaw work done on their trees. We didn’t see him in winter 2015, but this morning we woke to a hard frost and a lone fieldfare guarding the apple tree in the secret garden. Is it the same bird? I’d like to think so ….