Dear Readers, after the relatively exotic delights of last week’s corn crake, this week I wanted to feature a bird that we think of as common, but which has seen a breeding decline of almost 50 percent since the 1960s. The mistle thrush is a big, strong, territorial bird – it’s larger than a song thrush, with round spots rather than ‘arrowheads’, but I think one of its most distinctive features is what my Crossley ID guide describes as a ‘beer gut’. The ‘mistle’ part of the name comes from the bird’s liking for berries, particularly those of mistletoe, but I rather like another name, ‘storm-cock’ – the bird can often be seen in wild and woolly weather, singing with what is described as ‘a far-off, melancholy air’. It also has a distinctive rattling flight call.
It rather sounds as if this bird, recorded in Saxony, Germany by David Kuster, was singing in the middle of a downpour.
And here’s that call – it sounds rather like a very small football rattle (if you’re old enough to remember such things). This one was recorded in Galicia by Jacobo Ramil Millarengo.
Unlike song thrushes, you are unlikely to see a mistle thrush in your garden, but they are often found in parks. There are a pair that nest in East Finchley’s Cherry Tree Wood, where they defend their territory against all comers. The ones in the photos today were spotted in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, and very fine they were too, an unexpected delight. At the time, I wrote how Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey recorded how diligently one pair of mistle thrushes defended their nest ‘ ‘driving away sparrowhawk and buzzard, knocking a barn owl off its perch and attacking and killing a jackdaw’. You don’t mess with these guys, for sure.
This is a bird that it’s worth looking out for now – it starts to nest as early as mid February, so if you see any barn owls being beaten up or jackdaws wrestled to the ground, it might be worth checking to see who the aggressors are. The females build big, messy nests in the fork of a tree.
Why mistle thrushes are in decline seems to be at least in part due to the usual suspects – farmland degradation (especially the grubbing-up of hedgerows which provide food in the winter), a decrease in the number of earthworms, drought and other climatic changes, pesticides, herbicides etc etc etc. It makes the sites that we do have all the more valuable – close to me we have two patches of ancient woodland (Cherry Tree Wood and Coldfall Wood) and a huge cemetery with lots of ancient trees. Let’s hope that these patches of wildness continue to punch above their weight in terms of biodiversity. Suburban areas are fast becoming the last refuge of many animals and plants, strange as it seems, and so it’s even more important to protect them than it has been in the past.
And here, just in case you’re still confused, is an illustration from the Crossley ID guide. The little bird second from the left is a song thrush – see how much more compact it is. No beer belly on a song thrush! Two such similar birds, but so different in character.
And finally, a poem. I love this work by Paul Farley from the wonderful ‘Caught by the River‘ website – that evocation of a time long ago, combined with the sense of menace, and of defiance. The feeling of childhood, and of how things change in a moment. Did I say that I loved this? I really do.
‘Mistle Thrush’ by Paul Farley
3rd November 2019
The first park is always the fastest park,
parked under a cloudless
sky and fastened in memory
with stakes and ropes. The word picnic
is a tablecloth thrown onto the grass
attached to the word green.
The word idyll waits out of earshot.
A faun in the fountain burbles.
There is Sunblest. There is Golden Wonder.
And then, thunder.
Now the park begins bristling under that sky
which has darkened. This is the future.
This is counting towards the sound.
These are the particles rising
like the bead in your cream soda.
This is the mizzy beginning its song
from the top of the highest tree.
This is a drone shot of a thunder god.
This is a dangerous place to be
an I, sings the mizzy—I, a copper crozier.
I, a silver vaulting pole.
I, a suit of platinum armour.
I, a boom of gold.
The mizzy, with its restraining order
on humans, the wariest thrush.
The mizzy, that’s working the park pretty loose.
The day is all coming unstuck.
Where a moment ago you were in a safe place
now there’s distance everywhere you look.
The mizzy will only allow you so close.
The thunder follows the flash.
The words that you’re learning all carry a charge
and attract or repel. Bring it on,
the mizzy sings, holding its nerve,
flying in the face of us.
I haven’t seen a mistle thrush for as far back as I can recall. We used to get both in our family garden when I was a teenager I recall. I see fieldfares and redwings in the winter and that is the closest we seem to get now.
Extraordinary poem. Shall look up his work. Thank you!
You probably knew this already, but that Crossley Guide image back-drop is taken in Bamburgh, as that’s the Castle in the background. (I can’t tell who’s playing though!)
No, I had no idea Mike! I love Bamburgh, it’s been ages since I’ve been…