Farm Ireland
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Wednesday 17 October 2018

Country Matters: Defiant thrush sings in the snow

Sing, sing, sing: The thrush
Sing, sing, sing: The thrush

Joe Kennedy

A song thrush suddenly appeared, busily food-searching about a metre away. It seemed to be unaware of my presence behind an old iron railing. I stopped moving, hoping for a closer look. I was rewarded.

The bird appeared drab - what wouldn't in this weather? - and was poking irregular thrusts into a bleak corner of mud and half-dead grass.

Suddenly, an earthworm was grasped, and pulled carefully, emerging long and dangling. The bird examined it, pulled it about. I had expected to witness a bout of al fresco butchering, as I had last seen with a blackbird which had spent an age cutting up its bounty. The thrush had no time for such finesse. It began swallowing the worm immediately, Down it went, every millimetre!. Then it took off, hunger sated.

How many wrens or robins died, how many moths or insects, in this one-step-forward-two-steps-back dance between winter and spring?

Paul Evans, an English naturalist, posed this question the other day. Such cold snaps have sealed the fate of millions of Romeos and Juliets. But one snipe found succour in a cow-house in West Cork!

When the farm manager came to see to his cares in the dark, hard cold of dawn the bird was there before him on the ground - and not inclined to move, he told me, though light switches were thrown and milking machinery began to hum.

However, as gates and doors opened it took off. There is a wetland area on this farm, a home for snipe and mallard and other water birds.

Snipe are scarce in the countryside now mainly because of habitat reclamation. They are usually visible at this time of year. In my shooting days long ago I regularly shot at snipe in bogland near where I lived in Co Meath as they zig-zagged ahead of me and dog - but never downed one. This was a challenge rather than a shot for the pot. The birds sit tight relying on superb camouflage to escape danger.

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There is not much eating on them! I ordered snipe once in a posh restaurant and the waiter asked if I wished to have the bird "drawn". My late dear wife tapped me under the table for a 'yes'.

"Unless," she whispered, "you want the gut as well"!

The vagaries of weather are pondered in a letter from reader S O Faolain, of Laois, who wonders about global warming. He is a septuagenarian and tells of when his active retirement group visited Tramore last summer they had to don "jumpers and overcoats" while walking on the strand!

Mr O Faolain, who was born on a Slieve Bloom Mountain farm, remembers when there were snipe, curlew, grouse and "a few woodcock" on the mountains and when he heard the corncrake calling. All have now gone, along with about 25 homesteads the owners having passed on the land which has now been planted with forest. He last saw a grouse there in 1986.

Paul Evans was luckier than I to have heard a thrush repeat a phrase of its song "in defiance" of the snow.

It was just a fragment of a melody "but it knew that if it could keep going the whole song would eventually flood out and the world would change", he wrote in The Guardian newspaper.

Sunday Independent