I am incredibly behind on my birdy posts, not because it’s been quiet around here during winter. Quite the opposite. It’s been extremely busy since autumn, losing one gang, gaining two, robin wars etc. I will try to update my bird log in the next post. But for this one, I did want to take some time to write about our activities with the Cambridge and Peterborough Environment Records Centre,** and especially a bird walk we went on in November 2012.
We had done an amphibian day (frogs, toads, newts) and a mushroom day. In November we went out specifically to survey birds and possibly catch sight of four kinds of birds: the mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus), song thrush (Turdus philomelos), redwing (Turdus iliacus), and fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Of course we were keeping our eyes peeled for any bird, but these four in particular because of their declining numbers in the UK.
In Latin, please
Of course, I am such a juvenile I can barely repress a smirk at ‘thrush’, never mind ‘turdus.’ You brave, you few readers of this blog will not be surprised at that as I cannot even bring myself to type ‘t>t’ when referring to the bird.
So let’s focus for a moment on the second words in their Latin names (or binomial nomenclature as developed by Linnaeus, the second term of which is called the ‘trivial name’) in an effort to learn a little more about them, shall we?
Viscivorus: According to our much-maligned, but ever faithful friend, Wikipedia, Linnaeus gave it its Latin name in 1758, and aside from the ‘turdus’ part, a jolly name it is, for it means ‘mistletoe eater.’ As you can see, November is a good time to look for them then. Of course, they like other kinds of berries as well as seeds etc. But they will claim whole berry-laden trees for themselves, fending off other birds. Must be the rather rattle-like alarm call they have. They are not red-listed as are the other birds, but they have been on the decline since the ’70s. However, we did catch a glimpse of them for our survey. [RSPB Amber status]
Philomelus: I for one have a hard time distinguishing ‘philomelus’ from ‘viscivorus.’ Mistle Thrushes are bigger than Song Thrushes and Blackbirds (a distant Thrush cousin), and I have read they can have somewhat the shape of a pigeon. And, Jane our faithful and patient guide did explain something about the difference in the chevrons on their breasts. Suffice it to say, they are closely related. But the meaning of the Song Thrush’s name in Latin is even more fascinating: it refers to Philomela, a character in Greek mythology who, although she had had her tongue cut out, was changed into a singing bird. ‘Philomelas’ in Ancient Greek is broken down as ‘philo’-loving and ‘melos’-song. It was described by a German scientist in 1831. It likes wormy things as well as those berries prized by its bigger cousin. It is much less prevalent than its cousin, its population almost halved. We did not see any on our survey walk. [RSPB Red Status]
Iliacus: I hope you are starting to see a theme in the photos/drawings regarding what might cause confusion for the untutored in distinguishing these birds one from the other. However, Iliacus makes it a bit easier, with its flash of red under the wing and its black/white stripes, almost resembling a mask, around its eyes. It is also the smallest thrush. Linnaeus is responsible for its description in 1758, but somebody must have been getting a little tired out with the naming in Latin, for it is a form of the word for ‘flank’ (identifying where its red markings are, perhaps?). If it helps, humans have an iliacus muscle. Loves them some berries as well. We did note redwings on our survey walk, although their breeding pairs in the UK are drastically low. [RSPB Red Status]
Pilaris: And it seems they really ran out of steam with the Latin naming of the Fieldfare: although Wikipedia claims that ‘pilaris’ is another word for ‘thrush’, other dictionaries define it as ‘of hair’. Either way, bad news in the naming stakes for the Fieldfare. However, things look up a bit when you consider the derivation of its English name: “The Anglo-Saxon word feldefare perhaps meant traveller through the fields. Alternatively, it may be derived from Old English fealu fearh, literally grey piglet.” [from Wikipedia] It stands out from the others in that its belly is more white, with the chevron-like markings more to the side. As a thrush, it has a thing for berries. Miraculouse really that we caught sight of some as there are only a few breeding pairs in the UK. [RSPB Red Status]
Why so shy?
As with most instances of declining birds, there are some who blame predation by other birds, particularly the magpie, everyone’s favorite culprit (NOT TRUE!). But, in the cases of these birds whose habitat is usually farmland and woodland, it would seem that changes to agricultural practices would be more to blame, most particularly the clearing of shrub and hedge.
No, it’s not because we are impressionable
I have to admit that I was pretty useless with identifying any of these birds when we were out walking about. I’m used to my crew at home, especially those that have become regular visitors (essentially those who have adjusted to the change in their original habitats by getting a new one: the garden or yard). So, it was a nice afternoon, but if these birds are so rare I figured it would hardly make a difference in our little ecosystem.
Imagine my surprise when just the following weekend we had a few song thrushes show up at the bird bath bowls! We saw at least one subsequently on two different occasions. Thing is, they seemed to be exploring the garden to see what was on offer, but at their last appearance were chased off by an assertive blackbird (more on our assertive blackbirds in a future post). Consequently, we’ve not seen any since December 2012.
However, we did see a redwing in one of our berry laden trees in early December, to be followed up by a mistle thrush sighting in early January, and the most recent three mistle thrushes landing right above us in our cherry tree in late February. The mistle thrushes are kind of easy to spot, because on both occasions we heard that distinctive rattling sound before they took flight. We do have quite a few berry trees on our border with a little wood, so that might be what’s attracting them.
Did we get photos with our nifty new digital camera? Yes. Am I going to show them to you? No! The combination of distance and rudimentary zoom mean the pictures leave something to be desired. We sent them on to Jane who seemed to be able to confirm our sightings from them. But, she’s a professional!
Oh, and we saw a number of other birds, mostly the usual suspects (crows, blackbirds, finches, tits etc). However, we were reliably informed by Jane that we saw yellowhammers, another red status bird.
To hear the songs and calls of any of these birds, check out http://www.xeno-canto.org/, which is basically a social networking site where people send in recordings of birds from all over the world.
**I imagine there are like agencies around the UK and I would encourage anyone to get involved in the recording. It’s a necessary activity, plus you have a good day’s outing learning about wildlife and locations of which you weren’t aware. There is a Links page on the website which would direct you to the nearest center.