Bird of the Month John Mcewen

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - by john mcewen il­lus­trated by carry akroyd

Spring brings the song of the black­bird ( Tur­dus merula), ap­pro­pri­ately de­liv­ered through a cro­cus-or­ange bill; an or­ange which also rings its eye. It is the ter­ri­tory-de­fend­ing male that sings. In his di­ary Alan Clark wrote of a 4am singer (15th June 1988): ‘So clear and beau­ti­ful, as he went through his whole reper­toire, he passed to me a lovely mes­sage of Na­ture’s strength. Her pow­ers of con­ti­nu­ity and re­newal.’ The song fea­tures most fa­mously in Paul Mccart­ney’s ‘Black­bird’. Denys Watkins-pitch­ford (B B) wanted a record­ing of a black­bird singing played at his fu­neral.

The black­bird’s song grows in elab­o­ra­tion (see ‘Prof­itable Won­ders’, March 2016 is­sue). One vir­tu­oso per­formed from the top­most twig (as is black­birds’ pref­er­ence) of a lime tree op­po­site my Lon­don house. The street mar­velled at his in­ven­tive reper­toire – al­beit tar­nished by the in­clu­sion of a townie wolf whis­tle. One day there was a ter­ri­fied screech. On the lawn of the next-door gar­den stood a mantling spar­rowhawk. Shooed away, the hawk flapped off car­ry­ing a male black­bird. Son­g­less days con­firmed the vir­tu­oso as the vic­tim.

The black­bird’s ur­gent ‘pink-pinkpink­ing’ when mob­bing preda­tors or set­tling in win­ter roosts is an­other mem­ory-stir­ring call; as is the liq­uid

sotto voce ‘pock’ which punc­tu­ates the si­lence af­ter a snow­fall.

That dark sound echoes the colly (coal) black male’s plumage, hence the orig­i­nal ‘four colly [not call­ing] birds’ in the carol. The plumage was praised by BB: ‘The black of his plumage is… blacker than a mole’s coat. It is the most beau­ti­ful black I know. Just one re­lief – and what a touch of ge­nius it is – that bright golden bill… No won­der Will Shake­speare no­ticed the beauty of the black­bird’ ( B B’s Birds). Bot­tom sings of the ousel-cock in A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream:

The ousel-cock, so black of hue, With or­ange-tawny bill…

‘Ousel’ vari­ants were the con­ven­tion un­til ‘black­bird’ took prece­dence from the 17th cen­tury on­ward. In the French it is merle and in Scot­tish merl, the auld al­liance lin­ger­ing in these names.

Af­ter a late-20th-cen­tury de­cline Bri­tish black­birds have in­creased by over a quar­ter to come fourth in the 2016 UK gar­den-bird count. It is na­tive to Europe, Asia and North Africa and has been in­tro­duced to North and South Amer­ica, Aus­tralia, Tas­ma­nia, New Zealand, even the Falk­land Is­lands.

They can eat fish, rel­ish tad­poles and are ver­sa­tile nesters: in 1997 one chose Nor­wich’s civic Christ­mas tree; an­other raised a spring brood in a work­ing fork-lift truck in Colch­ester.

The av­er­age life­span is three to four years; 21 is the record in the wild. Nest­ing time reg­is­ters the heav­i­est death toll (50 per cent). Ov all the birds upon the wing Be­tween the zunny show’rs o’ spring… The black­bird, whisslen in among The boughs, do zing the gayest zong.

(Wil­liam Barnes, from ‘The Black­bird’)

As Ten­nyson wrote in ‘Early Spring’: The black­birds have their wills, The po­ets too.

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