The little boy was lifted up to a bewildering height. Slightly scared, but equally excited, he was able then to peer over the rim of the carefully woven collection of grasses and small twigs into the smooth cup of the nest. There shining back at him
were four orbs of the most brilliant blue he had ever seen. Eggs; radiant and iridescent, the colour pierced his eyes and bore into his nine year old mind. He wanted to reach out and touch them, to feel these heaven sent jewels that until this moment had never entered his consciousness. But before he could it was over, lowered to the ground and whisked away to trudge in the adult’s footsteps to other parts of the wooded heathland, the details of which never impressed upon his memory and were lost almost as they were formed. The only thing that mattered was those dazzling, sky blue eggs, spotted lightly with deepest black, out of sight and out of reach and all the more tantalising for it.
So began my infatuation with the natural world. A chance introduction to the wonders of a song thrush’s nest and the world changed for me. That encounter occurred in the mid-1960s when song thrushes were abundant in our countryside and towns, even outnumbering blackbirds. They are still a familiar and much loved bird, but the sight of one probing about on your lawn for worms, or delighting in the discovery of a thrush’s anvil littered with the smashed shells of multi-coloured snails, is becoming far less common than it once was.
Such a well-known bird as the song thrush hardly needs to be described, but can be sometimes confused with female blackbirds or the larger, more robust mistle thrush. The song thrush is a neat bird with a uniform brown back and wings. Their buff breasts and white belly are liberally adorned with rows of black spots. In flight they show a buff coloured underwing. Female blackbirds are always much darker in overall tone and mistle thrushes larger, more robust, paler in
That’s the wise thrush
He sings each song twice over
Lest you should think
He never could recapture
The first fine careless raptureThomas Browning
appearance with bolder spotting and a white underwing. Northern populations of song thrushes are migratory and spend the winter in southern Europe, some passing through the British Isles during autumn as they go. Our local birds tend to move in a westerly or southerly direction after breeding with some even wintering in such places as France or Portugal.
Song thrushes are essentially birds of woodland, but have adapted to take advantage of well-established gardens and parks. Their needs are simple; good cover to provide nesting sites, soft soil with an adequate supply of earthworms and song posts from which to deliver their fluting territorial claim. It is very important that feeding areas have not been treated with pesticides and it is perhaps this problem that has contributed to their diminishing numbers in our wider countryside. Tidying up of hedgerows and wilder areas has also limited available nesting sites. Happily common land, with its wealth of unpolluted and unsprayed open spaces, tangles of scrub and bramble, and thick
hedges provide an essential refuge for these spotted songsters. You can help monitor the species’ fortunes by listening for their strident song on your local common and recording what you hear and see.
In some folklore it was believed that should a thrush fly into your window, it was portending a death in the house (quite possibly the thrush if it hit the window hard enough I should imagine!) To balance this superstition, thrushes have also been regarded as sacred birds, having special status in ancient European mythology.
In a much more positive vein, it seems song thrushes have always had the power to move and inspire poets, writers and musicians alike. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Hardy and others made regular reference to them, using the colloquial term ‘Mavis’ or ‘Throstle’, but for me the most poignant celebration was captured by George Orwell in his classic 1984:
‘But by degrees the flood of music drove all speculations out of his mind. It was as though it were a kind of liquid stuff that poured all over him and got mixed up with the sunlight that filtered through the leaves. He stopped thinking and merely felt’.
What better accolade could there be to one of our most exuberant songsters? And it is the song that perhaps lifts this bird above others; loud, strident, piercing and simply beautiful. A melody of short phrases each repeated twice or sometimes thrice, poured forth from the highest bough to welcome spring.