Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.
Image by aaandreasss, CC BY-ND 2.0
Latin name: Turdus merula
It has very few local names, but I have located blackjack (male) (Surrey), black thrush (Yorkshire), garden ousel (Cheshire) and colly (Somerset).
We all grew up with the nursery rhyme “Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”, and just about every species from sparrows to herons and cranes were eaten. This familiar rhyme may have been based on fact and may have formed the main course on Christmas Day for those families who could not afford the traditional roast goose.
In 2020, the BTO published that the UK breeding pairs of blackbirds were no fewer than 5.05 million, making it the 5th most numerous wild bird species after the robin, wren, house sparrow and wood pigeon. This year (2021), the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch participants gave the blackbird as the fourth most recorded species.
The blackbird is an excellent example of the bird which has successfully gone from a species of dense forests and woodland to a woodland edge garden bird familiar to most people who have any kind of garden. This has happened in quite a short time, for in 1804, Thomas Bewick, the famous wildlife artist, stated “The blackbird is a solitary bird, usually only found in dense woodland and thickets.” However, by the end of the 19th century, it had become a well-known garden neighbour, even breeding in urban parks in central London.
Today, our resident birds are easily tamed and will enter our homes in response to our willingness to feed them! They breed freely in our gardens and will sometimes raise three broods in a season.
Each autumn, our blackbird population may double to maybe 14 million, with continental birds joining redwings and fieldfares flying over the North Sea to seek milder wintering areas in the UK.
At Spurn Point in Yorkshire, there are vivid accounts of blackbirds and other migrants being forced on to the sea by scavenging gulls. Yes, migration is a very dangerous occupation for wild birds of all species.
The blackbird is a widespread and successful species, being found on the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands to the west, throughout Europe and northwest Africa to Russia, the mountains of Central Asia and the northwest Himalayas. Isolated by many hundreds of miles, they occur again in the lowlands of China.
Blackbirds were introduced into Australia and New Zealand by man over one hundred years ago. They have thrived and are now one of New Zealand’s most common birds. They have even colonised Norfolk Island, some 450 miles northwest of New Zealand, which seems quite amazing…
Finally, back to the UK. We do have another very closely related species in the ring ouzel, which breeds in upland Britain and can be encountered in small numbers on migration in our area. Have you ever seen one?
One last thought. Female blackbirds are brown and not a lot of people know this – even people who have them breeding in their garden! Amazing! Or is it?