Ian Parsons reveals how watching a Fieldfare implement a risky survival strategy in his garden was one of the joys of this year’s severe weather conditions
Could Fieldfares visit your garden this year?
Ilove this time of year. Trees, laden with berries and fruits and with leaves beginning to turn, adorn the countryside with their autumnal palette of colours. Fungi pop up everywhere and the night air begins to chill. It is at this time of year that I hope to see one of my favourite birds, back to winter among us again – the Fieldfare. It is, of course, one of our winter thrushes (the other being the Redwing), a visitor from the north and east of the continent that comes here to escape the harder winters of its breeding areas and to exploit our abundance of fruit and berries. It is a herald of shorter days and winter weather – and it is also a beautiful bird! It has a conspicuous plumage, consisting of a slate grey head and nape, separated from a lighter grey rump by a rich brown back, the rump itself ending in a relatively long black tail. The throat and upper breast are a yellowy orange, patterned with bold dark spots and streaks diffusing down to a pale belly. A white supercilium (‘eyebrow’) highlights the bold face of the bird that is tipped off with a strong-looking bill that is orange along its length before finishing with dark brown at its tip. Size-wise they are in between our resident Song and Mistle Thrushes, but with their long tail, upright stance and overall stocky appearance, they can look bigger, especially when seen alongside their fellow travelling thrush, the Redwing.
Fieldfares begin to arrive on our shores in October. Some of these, though, are passing through, heading to south-west Europe to see out the winter. But the majority stay. Numbers fluctuate year on year, but there are usually well over 650,000 of these colourful thrushes with us throughout the winter months. They can be found right across the vast majority of Britain, only avoiding large urban areas and the very high ground of Scotland. Come March and the birds begin to head back to their breeding grounds, disappearing from the west of Britain first, with the last of the birds from eastern Britain leaving during the first half of April. Most of our wintering birds return to Scandinavia to breed, but some also head back to Russia, a distance of more than 2,000km. From ringing studies it can be seen that some birds return the following year to the areas that they had previously wintered in. The Fieldfare that you see this winter on your local patch may be the same Fieldfare that was there last year, but, then again, they might not. Ringing studies have shown that some Fieldfares tend to wander more than others, probably as a result of following food sources which can vary year on year. A bird ringed in Britain one winter turned up in Turkey the next, so the birds you see this winter may have been somewhere completely different last year! Wherever their journeys have taken them, I always take great delight on seeing or hearing my first Fieldfares of the winter. Their call is a particular favourite, a real chuckling sound, a loud and clear ‘chack, chack, chack’ that instantly catches the attention. The name Fieldfare is an old one and is believed to mean one who travels through fields. It is a fitting name, as you tend to find these travelling thrushes in areas of farmland and open country, particularly in areas with decent hedgerows full of berry-laden trees and shrubs. They are also fond of orchards as apples are a favourite food. Windfalls can draw large numbers of them in, with flocks of several hundred possible. The only ‘problem’ with Fieldfares is that they tend to be a bit shy and will readily avoid people. Trying to get really good views of them can be frustrating at times, as they fly to the next field or high up into a tree. Fieldfares are birds of open country generally and it’s a species that doesn’t often visit our gardens. But, in harsh winter weather, when snow blankets the ground, this aversion to our gardens is forgotten and Fieldfares could be found right outside your window. Earlier this year, when the ‘Beast from the East’ met ‘Storm Emma’, large areas of the country found themselves well and truly snowed in. This was certainly the case for me in Devon and it was with great delight that I looked out of the kitchen window to see a Fieldfare, greedily snaffling the berries on the Pyracantha hedge just a few yards from where I was stood. During those few days of white wonder, I was constantly out in the garden, topping up the feeders and scattering meal worms aplenty, doing my
In harsh weather, when snow blankets the ground, Fieldfares could be found right outside your window
bit to help the birds survive the freezing temperatures. After seeing the Fieldfare, I raided the fruit bowl and placed a couple of apples in plain view of the window, in the hope that the bird would return. And return it did – and in doing so, gave me the perfect opportunity to really get to know the bird and observe its behaviour. At first, the Fieldfare pecked fiercely at one of the apples, opening it up and feeding voraciously, occasionally pausing when other Fieldfares flew overhead or landed in the nearby Hawthorn. Its response to these birds was a flick of its tail and a loud ‘chack’, clearly stating that this apple wasn’t for sharing. Once it had finished eating, instead of moving on as I had expected it to do, it puffed out its feathers against the cold and crouched by the apples. It stayed there motionless for several hours, only moving to either feed on the apple for a short while or to flick its tail aggressively whenever another bird, particularly other Fieldfares, Blackbirds or Starlings, came too close.
Survival in action
It was basically guarding its food supply. The surrounding countryside was buried under inches of snow, it was freezing cold and feeding opportunities were severely limited. In my garden it had found itself a couple of apples and even though it had eaten its fill, it wasn’t prepared to leave them. I was witnessing a survival strategy in operation. By staying right next to the fruit, it prevented other birds from feeding on it, meaning that when its own hunger returned, it could just start feeding again without expending any vital energy in searching for food. As the light started to fade, the Fieldfare had one last feed before hopping up into the Hawthorn. The next morning it was back there again, guarding its larder of apples. The bird was so successful at keeping other birds away that when I went to replenish the feeders, I found that all the mealworms that I had scattered across the frozen surface of the snow had completely disappeared, other than an area of them that hadn’t been touched about 40cm in diameter around the apples! It stayed there, right by its food for the whole of the next day. Occasionally it would have a peck at the mealworms, but this seemed to be merely out of curiosity rather than hunger. It was so keen to hang on to its food that it wasn’t over bothered by me going out to top the feeders up, merely hopping under some cover until I had gone back in again before returning to its vigil by the fruit. It was brilliant and at times amusing to watch, especially when the bemused
Starlings tried to sneak some mealworms from where the apples were! But it was also an insight into the life of these travelling thrushes, uncertain of where its next meal would come from and having to build up its strength before its coming migration. This Fieldfare had decided to risk predation by staying alone and on the ground to ensure a food supply. The strategy worked, and as the thaw commenced, it became less attached to the apples, before it stopped returning altogether, probably reuniting with the flock of Fieldfares in the surrounding countryside before beginning its journey back east to its breeding grounds. Winter is coming and with it so are the Fieldfares. And I can’t wait! Will you be lucky enough to see one in your garden?
Fieldfares are large, striking thrushes
In flight the black tail and contrast between greyish rump and head and the brown back are obvious
The ochre breast is a good ID clue even if you can’t see the upperparts well