Sunday 25 February 2018

Watch out for killer blackbird

Country Matters

Joe Kennedy

COULD you visualise a blackbird (Turdus merula), piping its trilling note, tossing it to the clear air, as a flying preying (or praying) mantis, and tossing another bird, or bits of it, also into the clear air? Well no, not really. The mantis is an unusual insect (related to the cockroach) and the female usually makes a meal of her mate when mating has concluded.

The cannibalistic actions of a cock blackbird, killing and eating a hen bird, have been revealed by a correspondent to BBC Wildlife magazine. It is something unexpected.

Cock blackbirds are certainly aggressive. They brook no strangers in their territory. One favourite in my green patch used run the length of a garden path at any intruders. But I never saw him strike home with the yellow sword.

The BBC's blackbird attacked and killed a female bird, then ate her, reported one witness. This sounds more like magpie behaviour.

Quarrels among blackbirds usually arise over food, especially in times of scarcity, and the cock birds can behave aggressively to all others regardless of sex, excepting the cock's mate. As the breeding season approaches the females seem to get a break and all the hostility is directed towards other cock birds.

One expert, Mike Toms of the British Trust for Ornithology, says that although inter-sex skirmishes are not unusual only rarely do they result in death.

However, when blackbirds are hungry they will eat almost anything including carrion and small birds they have killed, as well as frogs, snails, slugs, insects and fruit – and even fish farm hatchlings. They can also hunt like skuas: one bird was observed chasing a kingfisher until it dropped its minnow catch, which the pursuer immediately grabbed.

The blackbird has replaced the song thrush as the most common garden visitor of its size, by about five to one: there are six million pairs in these islands.

This was not always so. Only in the past 200 years or so has the bird come in from the tree tops of the wild wood to become almost an intimate family member of households, its fluted notes delivered with a languid ease, the legendary W H Hudson considering this "nearer to human music than any other bird song".

The poet Edward Thomas famously remembered Adelstrop as a train drew up "unwontedly", "and for that minute a blackbird sang close by ... " and other birds far off took up the song.

Frank O'Connor, in The Backward Look translates from the Old Irish (11th Century) an absolute gem: "What little throat/Has formed that note?/What gold beak shot/ It far away?/A blackbird on/ A leafy throne/Tossed it alone/Across the bay."

In hard times in the past some country folk were known to trap blackbirds, along with starlings and pigeons, and use them as pie fillings. Four-and-twenty of them were famously baked in a nursery rhyme pie, but that was a trick of kitchen timing, according to the author of the Treasury of Bird Lore. Josephine Addison reveals that blackbirds – and often mice and snakes – were added just before a "surprise pie" was served up at a Tudor feast. The birds' fluttering escape was supposed to add to the entertainment of the dinner guests. "Wasn't that a tasty dish to set before the king." Indeed.

Sunday Independent

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