Bird of the Month John Mcewen
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.