A Tale of Two Birds

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Dear Readers, it is not often that you find Bugwoman bounding out of bed before it’s even light, but a few mornings ago I was roused from my slumber by a strangely familiar sound. The dawn chorus has already started here in East Finchley, but most mornings it’s the sweet song of the robin, and the ‘teacher, teacher’ call of the great tit, and that’s it. However, on Thursday there was another, very loud song. I lay there trying to work out what it was. Not blackbird for sure. And gradually, I remembered the words of Robert Browning, from his poem ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’:

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!’

And indeed, it finally clicked that what we had in the garden was a song thrush. It took me a few days of listening to finally get some shots, but here, for your delectation, is this fine bird, announcing his presence to the County Roads.

Once upon a time, every suburban London lawn would have had some song and mistle thrushes among the blackbirds, scouting for earthworms, but no longer – the song thrush is now on the RSPB’s Red List. It is estimated that song thrush numbers in the countryside were down by two-thirds between 1950 and 1995, largely due to intensive farming, the removal of hedgerows and the degradation of soil, leading to a reduction in the number of earthworms (this last, incidentally, is bad news for all of us, not just song thrushes). However I was heartened to see this bird so close at hand today. There is often one singing his head off in Coldfall Wood, but I have never had one come to visit the garden before.

For those of you who haven’t heard a song thrush sing (and my attempts to capture this myself have been outwitted by squealing starlings and the rumble from the North Circular Road), here is a link.

It appears that ‘my’ bird is attempting to establish a breeding territory, and is singing both to attract females, and to warn other males off. I hope he has more luck than the Coldfall Wood song thrush, who continued to sing all through the summer a few years ago, a sign that he hadn’t yet found a mate.

One song thrush habit that has always intrigued me is their habit of creating a ‘snail anvil’ – a spot that is used for hammering the shells of snails, so that they can extract the unfortunate mollusc. Along with hedgehogs, frogs and toads, song thrushes used to be important agents in the control of snails and slugs, but apart from frogs, all of these creatures appear to be in decline (and slug pellets are thought to be part of the problem). All I can say is, come back! My frogs have no chance of keeping up with all the slimy critters in my garden. I am hoping that the song thrush is a promising sign.

The beginnings of a possible snail anvil?

Now, when I was in Tony’s Continental this week, I got into a conversation about the pied wagtail. S/he was first spotted when we had some snow a few weeks ago, marching about in typical perky fashion outside Kentucky Fried Chicken , but s/he has since been spotted in various locations, largely involving the food outlets of the High Road. I am delighted to say that s/he has moved away from the fast food (and potential cannibalism) of KFC and is now munching on discarded gozleme outside the Turkish cafe Yasar Halim, and picking up chips outside the Paradise Fish Restaurant. Lots of people seem to have noticed the bird, who is always alone. I feel as if we are all rooting for a future mate for the little loner.


Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba)

Like many wagtails, pied wagtails are partial to wet environments, and can often be found hanging around sewage farms and river banks. In Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, it’s suggested that many of their vernacular names, such as ‘nanny washtail’ and ‘Polly dishwasher’ may have arisen because, in the days when women washed their clothes out of doors, these birds may well have been constant companions, and maybe the rhythmic motion of their tails reminded the women of what they were doing themselves.

These birds have a long history of interrelationship with humans. In Birds Britannica, one man reported that

‘I work for the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson, Fareham, in Hampshire, and we had a family of pied wagtails nesting in the barrel of an 1894 battle cruiser gun’.

Another person related this incident:

‘When waiting at my local car wash, I noticed a pair of pied wagtails flitting in and out. They were eating the dead insects washed from the front of each car. Most surprisingly, they wouldn’t touch any insect from a car that had received the full wax treatment’.

Wise birds indeed.

Although wagtails are often seen as solitary birds, this is not the case when it comes to roosting, and an enormous roost of over 3000 pied wagtails has been long established on O’Connell Street in Dublin.The warmth of inner-city areas seems to attract these small, vulnerable birds, and I hope that the East Finchley bird has either found a warm place to spend the night, or is flying off to roost with lots of friends elsewhere.

Photo One by Redgannet at http://redgannet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/where-did-all-these-wagtails-come-from.html

Pied Wagtail roost at Heathrow Terminal Five (Photo One by Redgannet – see below for link)

And to round off this story of two birds, here is a poem by Thomas Hardy that seems to capture the very nature of the wagtail.

Wagtail And Baby
by Thomas Hardy

A baby watched a ford, whereto
A wagtail came for drinking;
A blaring bull went wading through,
The wagtail showed no shrinking.
A stallion splashed his way across,
The birdie nearly sinking;
He gave his plumes a twitch and toss,
And held his own unblinking.
Next saw the baby round the spot
A mongrel slowly slinking;
The wagtail gazed, but faltered not
In dip and sip and prinking.
A perfect gentleman then neared;
The wagtail, in a winking,
With terror rose and disappeared;
The baby fell a-thinking.


Much like the baby, I too  ‘fell a-thinking’. The East Finchley wagtail seems delightfully unconcerned by people, waiting until the very last moment to fly, but I’ve noticed that in Dorset, the second I raise my camera to take a picture everyone flaps off in a panic. I suspect that in the hunting/shooting/fishing West Country, animals have learned that a human raising a metallic object is not at all a good thing, and behave accordingly. In ‘The Peregrine’ by J.A. Baker, a strange masterpiece but a masterpiece nonetheless, he talks of how humans ‘stink of death’. I fear that, for most animals, this is absolutely true.

Photo Credit

Photo One by Redgannet at http://redgannet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/where-did-all-these-wagtails-come-from.html







9 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Birds

  1. Fran and Bobby Freelove

    Don’t you just love Song Thrushes, there is always one or two of them singing when we enter the woods, they have such a repertoire of sounds, and just to think that a century ago they were one of our most common birds. We think the part in Robert Browning’s poem, Home-Thoughts, from Abroad captures the Song Thrush.

    1. Bug Woman

      I love them too, Fran and Bobby – they sound so full of energy! I love wrens for the same reason. It’s lovely to hear the song thrush here filling half the road with song….

  2. tonytomeo

    That last picture looks like something from ‘the Birds’ by Alfred Hitchcock. I happen to live in his neighborhood, and an old friend still drives his old Ranchero.

      1. tonytomeo

        Oh, it is not that bad if you watch it as an adult. Back then, it was one of the scariest movies out there. I think it takes more to scare kids now.

  3. Andrea Stephenson

    I remember seeing thrushes in the garden when I was a child bashing the snails to get at them, but I rarely see a thrush now – there was one that came to the park every spring for a few years that I suspected was the same one, but sadly didn’t appear last year. I do however regularly see pied wagtails, and I love to see them.

  4. Toffeeapple

    Well, that took me back to my childhood and I think it was that long ago that I last heard a Song Thrush.
    I think I am right in saying that a female Pied Wagtail has a slightly paler head than the male which is black.

    1. Bug Woman

      You’re right, Toffeeapple – trouble is all the pied wagtails are in their non-breeding plumage at the moment so it’s tricky to tell them apart. Soon, all will be revealed!

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