Sunday, 2 November 2008

Bird Watch, October

The frosts of the last few nights have made a bit of a mess of the garden in the last week in October and everywhere is looking in a bit of a state, all of the summer bedding has been cut down and decimated and there is a feeling of death and decay in the borders.

The bird activity is quieter than it has been all year and this may be due to the fact that there are no young to feed anymore or perhaps it is because the female Sparrowhawk keeps popping by and picking off a bird now and then for evening meal. I have even found a black moggy strutting about the garden and although I would always describe myself as a cat person I really don’t want one wandering about and upsetting the birds. I have scared him off a couple of times but it keeps coming back.

Today was busier than normal and I saw the Starlings and the Sparrows, the Finches and the Tits and there was an appearance by the Robin as well. A lot of Dunnocks passed by and I wondered where they might have been all summer?

There are a lot of Blackbirds in the garden at the moment which is very noticable because they haven’t been dropping by for the last few weeks. This week I have counted at least ten and they are all very sociable, even the one with the white collar that I call the vicar has been passing by. One Blackbird is especially friendly and will sit at the door and look through the glass in anticipation of a handful of raisons and when the door is open he will even pop inside to see if any have been spilled on the floor.

Apparently, with Blackbirds, the appearance of the bill is important in the interactions of the species. The territory-holding male responds more aggressively towards others with orange bills than to those with yellow bills, and it reacts least to the brown bill colour typical of the first-year male. The female is, however, relatively indifferent to bill colour, but responds instead to males with shinier specimens. So although size isn’t important, a polished end is!

I have some shrubs in the garden, I don’t know what they are, but at this time of the year they are full of bright orange berries and this is what the blackbirds have been after. I haven’t tasted one myself but I imagine them to be quite bitter and the birds have been dropping by regularly to see if they are ripe. Well, it must have been this weekend because in a matter of a couple of days the shrub has been practically stripped bare and I wonder if that means the last of the blackbird visits this year.

An interesting fact about the Blackbird is that it is the national bird of Sweden and although many World countries have national birds this is the only one, apart from the English Robin, that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden. Many countries, especially in the tropics, prefer for their national bird, colourful specimens like parrots, the French have the Cockerel 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 both Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.

In the Middle Ages and right up to Shakespeare’s time the blackbird was known by the distinctive old English name of the Ouzel, Ousel or Wosle 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’.

Also, north of the border, 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.

My dad knew all about birds and when he was young he kept a journal of British species in an
exercise book. This is his blackbird page…

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