The Storm Cock

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Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

Dear Readers, I popped out for a walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery yesterday morning, grabbing a window between the bouts of stormy weather that we’re having at the moment. The cemetery was much quieter than usual, and I took a different route – I was trying to spy out where the worst patches of Japanese Knotweed are, because they are coming through the fence and on to the edge of the playing fields next door. The great thing about a new route is that you spot things that you wouldn’t normally see, like this grave marker, for example. There are several sites in the cemetery where the remains from graveyards that no longer exist have been re-interred, but this was a new one to me.

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We saw several foxes (and indeed I nearly tripped over one) but none of them stayed long enough for me to get a photograph. However, autumn has come early to the horse chestnuts, who are shedding their leaves due to various leaf-miner and fungal attacks, making the paths decidedly fox-coloured.

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The diseased leaves have a kind of beauty, too.

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We tramp through the mud and find some very impressive patches of knotweed, and a veritable forest of horseradish too.

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Horseradish

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We circle back through the more modern part of the cemetery, and a flock of four birds catches my eye. They fly fast, with a contact call that sounds like an old-fashioned football rattle. And then one perches on the top of a tree, and I see that this is a family of mistle thrushes, commonly known as ‘storm cocks’ from their habit of sitting at the top of tall trees and singing right from the beginning of the year, whatever the weather.

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I have seen these in East Finchley in Cherry Tree Wood, where a family breed, but these seem wilder, some how – I’m glad for the x50 optical zoom on my camera, because they certainly weren’t letting me get any closer. They have a habit of perching on the top of tall trees to sing in the spring, and in the winter they may commandeer a heavily-laden holly or hawthorn tree and defend it from all comers. In Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey have tales of the bird defending its nest against all comers, ‘driving away sparrowhawk and buzzard, knocking a barn owl off its perch and attacking and killing a jackdaw’. I must say I’m impressed, and I loved seeing this family today. Whether they will stay around is another matter, but it’s an indication of how much open spaces like the cemetery matter for wildlife. At the moment it is absolutely full of rose hips and berries, and I imagine it will be a magnet for birds over the next few months.

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The ever-present crows are keeping their eyes open for an opportunity too. Have a look at this one at its funereal best.

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On the way back, I stumble upon one of the many graves commemorating those who died in the First World War. The Artist’s Rifles, with their badge of the Roman gods Mars and Minerva, were founded as a volunteer unit in 1859, when there was a great fear of a French invasion after an attack on Napoleon III had been linked to the UK. Originally it comprised painters, architects, writers and others involved in creative endeavours. This was gradually widened to include other ‘professionals’, and soon lawyers, doctors and civil engineers were making up a sizeable proportion of the unit. In the 1901 census, Percy Hamlen, the soldier commemorated on the headstone,  was living in Lincoln Road (just a few roads away from me) and was 2 years old, sharing a house with his mother and father, four other children and a servant. IMG_1773

Ten years later, in the 1911 census, he had moved to Clifton Road, his mother is no longer on the census, and the youngest child, just two months old in 1901, is also absent. By 1914, when Private Percy Hamlen was just 16 years old, he died. From the death register, it appears that he died at home, so at least he isn’t one of the many who disappeared. A cemetery contains as many stories as there are graves, and more besides, and I find myself deeply moved by the death of such a young man, whose grave lies peacefully under the horse chestnuts. It is hard to remember that the statistics of any tragedy, be it a war or a pandemic, hide so many unique individuals, each one with their history, their quirks, their kindnesses, but remember we must, if we believe, as I do, that every life has value.

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5 thoughts on “The Storm Cock

  1. Anne

    Both an interesting and poignant visit. Here too, many of the earliest gravestones are no longer readable due to weathering, lichen damage or the erosion of the stone used at the time. The autumnal colours look pretty.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Some stones seem to be absolutely pristine and easy to read, but others are now illegible – I guess, as with most things, you get what you pay for with a headstone!

      Reply
  2. Charlie Bowman

    A Mistle Thrush is now something of a rarity, although they have never been particularly abundant. Its more eloquent cousin is my favourite UK bird: when in full flow, there is no better songster.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Agreed, Charlie. In one of my books it describes the song thrush’s song as ‘joyful’ and the mistle thrush’s as ‘melancholy’. I know which one we need most at the moment!

      Reply

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