Friday 22 November 2019

'Stormcocks' guard larders

BRIGHTNESS falls earlier and the rising sun claims the fields in long bold swathes to soften frosty ground tree-hardened in the night. March-of-many-weathers should please and birds make the best of it.

In parkland, two mistle thrushes (turdus viscivorus) boldly stride, one more timid than the other, intent on finding breakfast in the softening ground between trees.

The in-charge bird was big and grey-brown. A pair? The more timid one went to high branches and when it dropped again was hustled away by the worm-hunter, guarding its food territory, looking tall when standing upright with powerful bill and sturdy legs well away from cover.

Mistle thrushes are fearless and belligerent and care not for man or magpie, as well as their fellows, when it comes to protecting, with loud rattling calls, a berry-bearing bush.

The birds nest-build early, high in the fork of a tree, and could have eggs laid in the month gone by, but weather may have delayed this pair, if paired they were.

It would not have stopped them singing their far-carrying song, like a blackbird's only louder and wilder, each brief phrase of three to six fluting notes sung from the topmost branches of tall trees in all weathers -- hence its old name of 'stormcock'.

Mistle thrushes are resident, though there is some migration from Scotland, and although not commonly sighted it is a surprise to learn (from the naturalist David Cabot's excellent Irish Birds) that there is a breeding population here of 90,000 pairs.

Dr Cabot's also informs that the bird was not found in Ireland until 1800 (Co Antrim), but rapid colonisation followed and within 50 years it was widespread, much like the magpie but more welcome!

Where the thrushes were seeking food, a solitary magpie was also hopping about beneath the trees intent, not on food for once, but on gathering nesting material. It was picking and choosing, discarding lesser dried twigs for sturdier ones, eventually taking off with a body-length piece.

Magpie nests are amazing constructions of varied building materials cemented together with mud and even dog turds! The domed dwellings develop a hard shell and are almost impenetrable to the best efforts at destruction by anybody on a culling mission.

It is suggested that breaking the eggs is a more humane method of controlling numbers. I have taken part in such activity and it is not an easy task. Long poles are required (I once counted 18 nests on roadside trees), and patient labour as the domes are of cannonball density. Once, using an iron flagstaff, it took two people to complete the task, much more difficult but cheaper than discharging a shotgun cartridge!

Such actions may upset some people, but having observed a watching and waiting magpie plundering a blackbird's nest at the moment a parent bird had left it and tearing chicks from limb to limb it is not easy to be universally patient. Raw nature can be a cruel spectacle.

Sunday Independent

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