Dear Readers, when I get to day four of the Twelve Days of Christmas, I always feel a little confused. What the deuce is a ‘calling bird’? Well, in the 1780 version of the song it’s not ‘calling birds’ at all, it’s ‘colly birds’. The plot thickens. However! ‘Colly’ comes from the same root as ‘coal’, and means ‘black in colour’ – the sheep dog breed ‘collie’ probably has the same derivation. Does this mean that collies were originally all black, I wonder?
At this time, only small birds were called ‘birds’; anything larger, such as a crow, was known as a ‘fowle’. By the process of elimination, the only purely black bird that the song could be referring to us was a blackbird, and I am left wondering if they were being given on the fourth day of Christmas as cage birds, because of their melodious song, or as dinner, as in the nursery rhyme ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie’. Certainly thrushes are still eaten in various parts of Europe, so I fear the latter. However, for me, the blackbird is one of the main ways that I can hear what’s going on in the garden. If I hear this, for example, I know that something untoward is going on, probably some cat hidden in the lilac bush, so I need to go outside and wave my arms around for a bit.
However, on the wonderful Xeno-Canto website, I see that blackbirds have different alarm calls for different dangers. First up, a blackbird alerting the neighbourhood to the presence of a pygmy owl (which you can also here hooting).
But how about this one, which was given because a cat was in the garden? I have a suspicion that this one makes the giver of the call less obvious – I’ve certainly heard a blackbird giving small ‘anxiety calls’ from a nearby shrub and have found it really difficult to identify exactly where the sound was coming from.
But the real glory of the blackbird is its territorial song, usually given from the highest tree or TV aerial in the territory at the close of the day. There is a theory that if a blackbird doesn’t sing for more than a week, another male blackbird will consider the territory vacant and will move in.
There is a full eight minutes of fluty song on this recording. Just the thing to remind us of the glories of spring.
Incidentally, as we know, not all blackbirds are black – females and juveniles are brown and sometimes speckled.
First winter males are largely black, but often have brown primary feathers, and their beaks are not yet completely yellow.
Blackbirds also seem to have a disproportionate number of leucistic birds, i.e. birds with some white feathers. I spotted this one at Camley Street Natural Park in Kings Cross a few weeks ago, and had some trouble convincing the other observers that it was, in fact, a blackbird.
I would be remiss in leaving the subject of the ‘four calling birds’ without a song. So here is ‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles, sung by Paul McCartney. There is something about the simplicity of this song that gets me every time. Plus it includes a real blackbird.
And so, blackbirds are those ubiquitous garden birds that in my view we don’t appreciate quite enough. And it seems that everywhere in the world has a ‘blackbird’ that makes up for its dullness in colour with its strength of character or song. Which leads us on to today’s question….
Can you match the name of the ‘blackbird’ to the photo?
a) Common Raven
b) Ring Ouzel
c) Red-winged Blackbird
d) Great-tailed Grackle
Photo One by Stuutje1979, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two by Jacob Spinks from Northamptonshire, England, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by Frode Falkenberg from https://www.flickr.com/photos/cyberbirding/12037866546/
Photo Four by By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5941742
Photo Five by Sahid Martin Robles Bello, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Seven by By Paco Gómez – https://www.flickr.com/photos/saganta/24871078516/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83752807
Here are the links to the first three days of the quiz, in case you’ve missed them…