King of warblers in winter garden
THE pyracantha bush was like a shattered hedge through which hungry goats had crashed.
Advancing growth had been severely cut back and then snow, like a blanket of unyielding lead, had broken the main supporting limb. It had been stripped of berries, principally by wood pigeons.
On two consecutive days, glimpsed through a garden shed window, I had noticed a male blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) flitting on an adventure through this miniature felled rain-forest seeking whatever might be skulking there. It was a quick reconnaissance as the attraction of a beak-drilled apple beckoned on a blackbird's food trail below.
The blackbird had swooped and trotted through and then the blackcap had dropped to sample the leftovers. The bird was probably hungry and weary, puffing out its grey livery in small gestures.
I had never had such a close view of this vocal challenger to a garden warbler with its rich, mellow song that, in Britain, has given it the name of 'mock nightingale'.
The poet John Clare wrote: "While the blackcap doth his ears assail/With such a rich and such an early song/He stops his own and thinks the nightingale/Had of her monthly reckoning counted wrong."
The bird was back the following day but this time it was quickly spooked. From where did this caipin dubh emerge? (The female's cap is red-brown).
The naturalist David Cabot indicates that "increasing numbers of blackcaps, migrants from northern and eastern Europe, are wintering in suburban gardens in Antrim, Down, Dublin, Wicklow, Wexford and Cork".
The 'native' Irish birds spend the cold season "away in Africa".
These northern nightingales breed in open, broad-leaved woodland with ground cover of brambles and briars.
By the early 1960s, they were recorded in Wicklow, Wexford, Limerick, Cavan, Down and Antrim (Cabot again). About 40,000 are reckoned to breed here.
At the end of this month and the beginning of April, the 'natives' will make a welcome return in what is deemed to be one of the best indications of seasonal transition. Their rich and liquid notes contain a particular cheerfulness which transform winter into spring, one writer has noted. The legendary Gilbert White's description of their song is "a full, sweet, deep, loud and wild pipe" from this king of the warblers.
An observation now, reminiscent of a practice of the late President Mitterrand of France who liked to eat ortolan buntings ceremoniously with a napkin over his head.
In some Mediterranean areas such as Tuscany, Malta and Cyprus, the blackcaps are trapped in great numbers and eaten. The slaughter statistics are appalling: 2.3m spring and autumn migrants brought down. In Cyprus, one observer saw the tiny birds being served in a restaurant; they have a high fat and bone content with two patches of dark muscle "no bigger than a child's fingernail" on the breast, he reported.
But we eat wild birds here also, brought down by shotguns. Does size make a difference - or is it that pheasants and ducks are not singing birds?