My blogging pal Derrick has a robin that visits his garden, I don’t have a Robin but I do have a Wren. I like the Wren, it is not so obligingly photogenic as the Robin but is possibly my favourite British bird…
Tag Archives: Ornithology
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.
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).
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…
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.”
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!
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…
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 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…
With so many birds stopping by the garden now on account of the Arctic weather buying food from the garden centre or the supermarket can start to get rather expensive so I have been looking for alternatives so here are some tips to prepare your own bird gourmet meal.
I have been experimenting with making my own fat balls and so far I am really quite pleased with the results.
Bottom left in the picture is a beef fat preparation that I made by rendering down the fat from some sirloin steak and then adding to it some seed, fruit and oats. Unfortunately this wasn’t a completely brilliant success first time round and it started to melt down a bit in the warm October sunshine but it works perfectly now that temperatures struggle to get above zero. This is hugely successful mainly with the Starlings who squabbled over it until it was gone.
Bottom right is a similar preparation but this time using pork fat and this seems to be much more successful. It has an altogether thicker consistency and it seems to bind together so much better. This time I added the seeds and the fruit but also some broken up bread crusts that seemed to soak up and hold the fat together well. It looks good enough to eat yourself don’t you think? A bit like a luxury Belgian Florentine!
Again this is a big favourite with the Starlings and the Great Tit showed a great deal of interest as well.
One other little tip is that you might want to keep the kitchen window open while you are preparing the fat mixture!
Top left there is some pork fat that was left over after preparing the fat ball and this is always a big favourite with the birds and top right is the ever popular bacon fat. Don’t throw it away, just grill it slowly for a while and the blackbirds will love it.
Don’t throw gone over fruit away either, because the birds will really enjoy chopped up grapes and oranges and as for an old pear, they will go crazy!
There are a number of places to go on the web to find out more about making your own bird food and I recommend this helpful site and http://www.cottagesmallholder.com/?p=357
Be careful however when you search on ‘fat balls’ because you might not always find exactly what you were expecting! I once worked with a woman who was restoring some old furniture and in her lunch break searched for knobs and knockers on Google and had a lot of explaining to do to the IT department the next day!
Happy Christmas to everyone who is kind enough to read, like or comment on my posts…
In 1960 the Times Newspaper conducted a poll to identify Britain’s favourite bird. Not surprisingly, the Robin had a landslide victory and as a result there was a campaign to have it adopted as Britain’s national bird.
The Government however did not respond to the concept (the Tories were in power at the time and this had no benefit for the rich people in the country) and Britain remains therefore without an official avian representative! As a sort of consolation the Robin was used as a symbol of a Bird Protection Society but only for a few years before this was discontinued.
Unlike other woodland and garden birds the robin rarely migrates away and is probably for this reason that we associate them with Christmas, taking a starring role as they do every year on thousands of Christmas cards. Everyone gets a least one Christmas card with a Robin on it, go on take a look, you will see that I am right!
The Robin has also appeared on a complete set of Christmas postage stamps in 1995 and before that in 1966 in a ‘Birds of Britain’ set.
An old English folk tale seeks to explain the Robin’s distinctive red breast and legend has it that when Jesus was dying on the cross, the Robin, then simply brown in colour, flew to his side and sang into his ear in order to comfort him in his pain. The blood from his wounds stained the Robin’s breast and after that all Robins got the mark of Christ’s blood upon them.
Because their home colours are red at least eight English football clubs are nicknamed ‘The Robins’. Only one other bird is the nickname of more than one club and that is the Magpie, so the Robin is rather over-represented in this respect. Here is my list, but there are probably some more…
West Bromwich Albion Throstles (Song Thrush)
Norwich City Canaries
Newcastle United Magpies
Notts County Magpies
Leeds United Peacocks
Sheffield Wednesday Owls
Crystal Palace Eagles
Cardiff City Bluebirds
Swansea City Swans
Torquay United Gulls
Brighton & Hove Seagulls
Kidderminster Town Harriers
… and the Robins are: Cheltenham Town, Swindon Town, Bristol City, Wrexham, Altincham, Ilkeston Town, Bracknell Town and Selby Town!
None of these nicknames though are as interesting as my favourite. Hartlepool United are known as the Monkeyhangers because during the Napoleonic wars the residents of the town allegedly mistook a monkey for a Frenchman and strung it up from the town gallows.
According to local folklore a French ship was wrecked off the coast and the only survivor was the monkey, the ship’s mascot wearing a French uniform. On discovering the monkey, some locals decided to hold an impromptu trial on the beach and since the unfortunate animal was unable to answer their questions (and many locals were unaware of what a Frenchman may look like) they concluded that the monkey was in fact a French spy and had it put to death.
This is H’angus the Hartlepool United club mascot…
Other famous Christmas Robins are the Boy Wonder in the Batman films because there is always a Batman movie on TV and the Robin Reliant car because there is always an episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’. Also of course our most famous hero of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood, there is always a Robin Hood film at Christmas.
When my dad was a boy he kept a notebook about wild birds, this is his page about Robins…
Earlier Today In The Garden
Having mowed the lawn and cut the edges (a job I hate) I was admiring my work when this magnificent creature flew into the garden.
The Sparrowhawk as well as being a handsome bird is a ruthless killer and designed to hunt expertly from the air. It tracks at great speed, darting out of cover with extreme dexterity combined with deadly accuracy to kill its prey. It doesn’t hover, like the Kestrel or the Hawk, but relies on pace, momentum and surprise to catch its food and for this it is well designed with long slim legs, large sharp talons and a very efficient hooked beak that it uses for piercing and tearing up its prey.
The male Sparrowhawk was formerly called a musket, and the gun was named after the bird which perhaps gives a clue as to just how deadly they can be. They are expert hunters and very fast fliers, and often make quick dashes over hedgerows or along the ground when chasing prey, which is often spectacularly captured using a downward plummet from the sky with closed wings. The pairs work well together as a team and to avoid competition between the two sexes, males concentrate on smaller birds, such as sparrows and tits, and females hunt larger birds including collared doves, thrushes and starlings. The bird in my garden was a female.
Each adult Sparrowhawk will kill and consume a couple of small birds a day for themselves and when they are breeding a pair needs to catch another ten or so just to feed the chicks. According to the RSPB there are forty thousand breeding pairs in the United Kingdom so by my calculation that is twenty thousand nests with an average of three chicks each so to feed themselves and their offspring this means three hundred thousand murders a day.
Later in the afternoon I found the remains of an unfortunate collared dove.
As Thomas Hobbes said in his philosophical treatise, Leviathan: ‘Life (in the state of nature) is nasty, brutish and short”.
I have spent a lot of time with the binoculars at the kitchen window and apart from the unfortunate incident with the neighbour who I think misinterpreted my bird-spotting hobby for peeping tom activities it has been a very satisfying week.
Just taking into account the sixteen bird species that visit my garden, the RSPB estimates that across the United Kingdom there are about thirty-three million nesting pairs. I have been doing some calculations and based on the number of broods and the average number of eggs that means potentially two hundred and ninety-five million extra mouths to feed each summer.
Across the entire World scientists estimate that there are three hundred billion and that is roughly fifty birds to every human being or a hundred million for every Giant Panda!
Kissing Collared Doves:
The spread of Collared Doves across the United Kingdom has been very rapid. From the first breeding report in 1955 the species was subsequently reported breeding in Kent and Lincolnshire in 1957, with birds also seen as far north as Scotland. Two years later Ireland was colonised and by 1970 there may have been as many as twenty-five thousand pairs in Britain and Ireland and between 1972 and 1976 the population increased five fold.