Dear Readers, when I was growing up I loved my ‘Ladybird Book of British Birds’. In my mind’s eye, I see a painting of ploughed and snowy fields, with fieldfares circling gently down like smuts from a fire. Although we most commonly see these autumn migrants in hawthorn bushes and rowan trees, they are happier pulling up earthworms and digging for beetle larvae, and much prefer fields and hedgerows to our gardens.
Sometimes, though, when the earth is too frozen to get a beak into, a fieldfare will deign to see what we have to offer. About ten years ago, during a particularly harsh winter, and a fieldfare lost track of his flock and spent a few days in the garden. What a fierce bird he was! I put out a dish of grated apple, and he defended it against all comers, so I had to put out two and then he tried to defend them both. Then, one day, a flock of birds went over and he must have recognised them as his kind, because he flew up and away, leaving the blackbirds to feed unmolested.
This vigour in defence has been noted by many observers. They have been seen to ‘ram’ magpies and crows in flight, and in the British Trust for Ornithology piece on the species there is a report that some birdwatchers believe there are ‘guard’ fieldfares in a colony, who will ‘escort’ predators away. The usual defence, however, is apparently well-aimed defecation in the direction of the intruder. I can’t help thinking that the blackbirds got away lightly.
In Scandinavia, fieldfares are known as ‘birch thrushes’ and they feel quintessentially northern to me, birds of the pale wintery birch forests that I remember from Norway. ‘Fieldfare’ comes from the Old English ‘feld’ (field) and ‘fara’ (to go). In her piece on the bird in the British Trust for Ornithology book ‘Into the Red’, Brigit Strawbridge mentions that this name is sometimes interpreted as ‘the traveller of the fields’. In winter, the fieldfares, along with the smaller redwings, leave the taiga and head south to the UK.
The journey south by the fieldfares is largely determined by the availability of food – the BTO reports that some birds make regular visits to UK orchards, while other Scandinavian birds have been recovered from as far south as Ukraine. The Red List designation refers not to the migrant population, but to the tiny breeding population, which was largely limited to the far north of Scotland. The breeding population has gotten even tinier, but in truth, as the climate warms, it might be easier for the birds to breed further north rather than make a hazardous trip across the water to Scotland. Our breeding population was probably always an outlier, and I suspect that fieldfares will never become a reliable breeding bird in the UK. Let’s just be glad that they visit us at all.
I loved this description of fieldfares by Nick Acheson from the BTO’s previous book about Red-listed birds, ‘Red Sixty Seven’. See what you think.
‘…Fieldfares are birds of the lead and iron late October sky, which bears them from the north. As they come – these fierce-faced Valkyries – they drop their welly-squelch calls to the earth. Next they themselves materialise from the cloud, stroking the wing with their too-large wings, stalling and guiding their fall with their black square tails. Like that the Nordic summer, the Green Sandpiper’s song, the shrill whine of midges and the Crane’s yell fall to the sad mud and the autumn-tousled grass of Britain. In the being of a bird. (pp 102).
I am not 100% convinced about ‘welly-squelch calls’, but maybe I have the wrong kind of wellies. Recording by Stein Ã. Nilsen, from Norway.
So, if it’s a harsh winter, maybe we’ll be graced by one of these elegant visitors, but even if not, it’s well worth surveying the rowan trees and hawthorn bushes to see who has turned up. You never know who you might see.