By Charlotte Owen
The mistle thrush or Turdus viscivorus, ‘devourer of mistletoe’, certainly has a fondness for festive berries but here in Sussex it’s more often seen feasting on holly, yew and hawthorn.
Larger and leaner than a song thrush, the mistle thrush is a greyer shade of brown with a heavy spattering of distinctive speckles on the pale breast and belly, a more upright posture and much bolder behaviour, confidently bouncing along in the open rather than hiding in the undergrowth.
Winter is a good time to look for them, while the trees are bare, as males tend to perch up on the highest branches to sing – an unusual activity during the coldest season, when most songbirds other than the robin are silent. This does make it easier to identify the mid-winter minstrels by ear, and the mistle thrush male has a voice similar to a blackbird but with a much more repetitive song. This earned him the folk name thrice-thrush, and since he will even sing from his treetop perch through high winds and pelting rain, he is also known as the storm cock.
Listen, too, for the machine gun rattle of the mistle thrush alarm call, particularly if there is a commotion around a berry bush. These birds feed in flocks until the berries mature, when they set off alone or in pairs to find a tree bursting with fruit to claim it as their own personal larder. They will defend it vigorously from any and all intruders, just in case other food sources become so scarce that they need to rely on their berries as a backup. They may not actually eat any of the berries but they will make sure that nobody else eats them either, so if you see a holly tree still draped in red when most others are bare, you’re probably under the watchful gaze of its mistle thrush guardian. This behaviour grants them a valuable head start in the breeding season, with berry hoarders generally producing bigger clutches and often laying eggs as early as the end of February, going on to have two or even three broods in a single season.