The Blackbird – Sweden, A Nursery-Rhyme and A Saint

Blackbird

With its status as Britain’s favourite bird secure, the Robin cannot possibly be challenged for top spot (rather like Winston Churchill as the Greatest Briton) but coming second I would suggest is the sociable and friendly Blackbird.

Although the Robin is our favourite bird it has always been denied official National Bird status. Not so the Blackbird which, after a newspaper poll of readers in 1962 is honoured as the national bird of Sweden.  Although many World countries have national birds this is the only one that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden.

Many countries, especially in the tropics prefer colourful specimens like parrots, the French have the Cockerel, Australia has the Emu, New Zealand the Kiwi and the USA has the Bald Eagle and others too like to choose something spectacular and powerful.  The most common national bird is the Golden Eagle which is claimed by Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.

Sweden Blackbird Postage Stamp

In the Middle Ages the blackbird was known by the distinctive old English name of the Ousel and it is a pity that this has become obsolete, though it may still be referred to as such in Scotland.  The first recorded usage of blackbird was in 1486 and even though there are bigger black birds in Medieval England such as the Crow, Raven, Rook or Jackdaw, these were previously regarded as fowl so the Ouzel was simply the largest black bird at that time.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the bird as ‘The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill’.

In Scotland where linguistic relics of the old alliance with France still remain, the blackbird is sometimes known by its French name of le Merle.  A Blackbird is el Mirlo in Spanish and il Merlo in Italian, all of which are from the Latin Merula by the way.

Merle is a traditional French name although not so popular now it seems and it certainly doesn’t feature in a current list of top one hundred (the most common French names are Marie for a girl and Thomas for a boy).  Famous Merles have been the actress Merle Oberon and the US country singer Merle Haggard.  One interesting piece of trivia is that there was a character in the film Godfather Part II, a lover of Connie Corleone, called Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue played the part).

Merle Johnson

On the Fourth Day of Christmas My Truelove sent to me… “Four Colly Birds etc. etc.”

Yes, you read it correctly. Colly birds, not calling birds.  So maybe we have been singing the song all wrong!  It would seem that nobody knows for sure how we got from colly bird to calling bird, but some people think it is likely to be an Americanisation of the traditional verse; Colly is an Old English term for ‘black’ from the word ‘colliery’ meaning coal mine and colly birds refer to the common blackbird.

A common view is that ‘colly bird’ was a term specific to England and that England’s former colonies dropped the word in favour of ‘blackbirds.’ In fact, ‘colly birds’ have pretty much dropped out of the English language altogether today and, in this Christmas song, it has been completely replaced by the ‘calling bird’ in the US Australia, Canada and many other former English colonies.

Postage Stamp designers seem to know about this…

Four Colly Birds

Which leaves the obvious question – why would someone send their lover four blackbirds?  Perhaps this is the answer…

“Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie.”

800px-SingSong6dcaldecott

An interesting nursery ryme based on fact as it happens.  From the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century blackbirds were sometimes used as a substitute meat to make a poor man’s pie. Rich people liked blackbird pie as well but with a bit of a twist. For amusement, after a pie was baked the live birds were placed under the pie crust and served at the table and when the pie was ‘opened’ the birds would escape and fly about the room for the entertainment of the guests.

To be honest I can’t help thinking that four and twenty blackbirds swooping about the room might become a bit of a distraction at a dinner party!

blackbirdpie

The concept of a Blackbird in a pie remains with us even now and I can remember my Mum having one of these pie funnels when I was a boy living at home…

Berry_Pie-535x356

These days all wild birds in the UK are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 so catching them to eat is against the law. It is however permissible to eat them if they have died and fallen into the back garden but as you are likely to need a lot of Blackbirds to make a reasonably sized pie it might take a very long time to collect enough of them unless there were to be a catastrophic incident that you could get enough in one go but then I would advise caution in considering eating them if ever such a grisly event happened!

I have saved my favourite and most unlikely blackbird story until the end.

St Kevin

St Kevin of Glendalough (Ireland) is the Patron Saint of the Blackbird and according to legend this came about because one day he was praying with outstretched arms and a Blackbird landed in his hand, built a nest, laid eggs and St Glendalough sat there all the time in the same position until the eggs hatched and the birds were fledged and flew safely away.

A bit far-fetched do you think? I should say so. It takes a pair of Blackbirds about a week to build a nest, then they have to do the mating stuff, the eggs take on average fourteen days to hatch and it is then another fourteen days or so before the chicks are ready to leave. Call me a sceptic if you like but I find the story hard to believe because surely poor old St. Glendalogh would have had to have wriggled about a little bit and after six weeks or so that arm is going to be completely dead and useless. I can only hold a glass of wine for a few minutes before having to put it down!

I told you before about my Dad’s scrapbook of birds.  This was his blackbird page…

Dads Blackbird page

38 responses to “The Blackbird – Sweden, A Nursery-Rhyme and A Saint

  1. Oh wow, thanks for setting me straight on ‘four colly birds’. A bit of trivia—our schnauzer came from a property called Glendalough.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oregon’s state bird is the Western Meadowlark. There’s been a movement to change it to the Osprey, but I don’t think it’ll be adopted.

    “four and twenty blackbirds swooping about the room might become a bit of a distraction at a dinner party” … not to mention what the birds may have added to the pie! 😦

    Like

  3. I thought you could only hold a glass of wine for a few minutes because after a few minutes it’s just a glass.

    Nice article, by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Quite a write up …… days of research? My favourite bird is the Raven, symbol of Cumbria and a movie memory with Vincent Price from university days!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice bit of researching, Andrew!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your depth of knowledge knows no bounds! I have always had a soft spot for the wagtail.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What an absolutely lovely post. I do enjoy learning something as well as reading interesting facts and this fulfilled both needs. Thank you for this, I have copied it on to some friends who I know will love the information it contains.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Let’s stir the confusion a bit more! The American robin actually is a cousin to the European blackbird. Turdus migratorius, the American robin, is a cheery songster that is a familiar and welcome visitor to the backyard, and its various songs can be heard when you scroll down in the link. I hope to find your blackbird’s sons after I finish this comment.

    Speaking of your blackbird, that was fascinating background on earlier names, the colly bird business, and the four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. The latter always bothered me, since I am of a different culture in a different century where songbirds may be edible but aren’t eaten! That they were put in a pie after it was baked so they could fly free is a bit abusive, but they were freed once the crust was opened. Presumably, they weren’t recaptured and returned to the next pie as baked birds. Were they?

    https://www.google.com/search?q=american+robin+song&oq=american+robin&aqs=chrome.3.69i59j69i57j69i60j0l3.8454j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

    It took no time to find the blackbird song in YouTube. Now you can compare the cousins’ songs for what it’s worth!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A really interesting/fun blog – learned a lot here about blackbirds and the evolution of language. The bigger birds were classified a fowl – makes sense!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. National bird of Germany? The stork, although I can see why the eagle lost the job.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Another fine and very interesting writing! I so love the blackbird, love its song, on a summer’s evening in the country side, it is a heavenly music.

    Like

  12. You must be awfully good at Trivial Pursuit, Andrew! 🙂 🙂 I remember a plain metal pie funnel but nothing so fancy as that.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Very informative! The thought of your catastrophic incident made me chuckle (for which read snort).

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This is so interesting. Canada doesn’t have an official national bird. I would have thought it was the Canada goose but as it migrates to California in the winter, like so many of Canada’s celebrities, it lost out on a recent vote by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society to the Gray Jay as the unofficial national bird.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great post, Andrew! And many thoughts. Not to be sacrilegious, but the four and twenty blackbirds that flew away from the pie would have probably left a lot of poop behind, just saying. 🙂
    Second, the ousel has morphed into what we call a dipper in America, known for its dipping motions, but, even more interesting to me, its ability to walk under water in search of insects! I have often watched these birds disappear under water briefly in western US mountain streams.
    The black bird is certainly one of my favorite songbirds. I think I mentioned this in relationship to the pond I played on, around and in as a kid. They nested in the cattails. Their red winged cousins were even more melodic. The pond or Pond, as I knew it, is the subject of my MisAdventures tale a week from this coming Friday. Thanks for providing such an interesting and amusing tale. –Curt

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I’d want to be damned sure that the four and twenty blackbirds jumping out of the pie were properly house trained before I’d shove them into one of my pies.
    I like the name colly makes more sense than calling

    Liked by 1 person

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