By James Duncan
Learning and Engagement Officer
In this series of blogs I'm going to be exploring the wonderful world of bird song (with calls thrown in for good measure!) There's surely little more calming to human ears than the annual serenade of spring song. Each day, prior to the sun's appearance above the horizon, birds begin to advertise their presence, demonstrating their strength and ability in song. This serves not only to attract a mate but also to deter rivals. As you wake in the morning, during these times of increased isolation, take a moment to notice the birds who break the morning silence, the Robin, the Blackbird and perhaps the Song Thrush. Enjoy the chorus as it widens, as Wren, Starling, Chaffinch and Dunnock join in. The complexities of bird song may not be easy to get to grips with, but why not take the time to learn. The satisfaction to be gained from identifying birds by song (and calls) really can't be overemphasised - it's truly a window into another world.
7# Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)
Next up, the Song Thrush, the most familiar member of its family to have 'Thrush' in the name, though technically Britain's most numerous Thrush is undoubtedly the Blackbird. The Song Thrush is most certainly one of our best-loved songsters, found all across Britain and Ireland and indeed much of the Western Palearctic. Intriguingly it's probable it was once the most numerous Thrush (Turdidae) species across the UK, only usurped by the Blackbird in the last few hundred years. The Song Thrush actually comprises three main subspecies, and it's our mainland version (T.p.clarkei) that has perhaps the most obliging habits of them all. They'll happily reside in a range of habitats from dense woodland, to parks, hedgerows and well-vegetated gardens. Though they rarely stray far from cover they can prove surprisingly approachable, particularly when feeding or when singing from a prominent perch. The nominate subspecies (T.p.philomelos) covers the vast majority of their European range and is a much shyer, rarer bird of dense woodland. Interestingly, these 'shy' nominates tend to be wholly migratory, departing to South West Europe, whereas the British 'easy-going' birds are either resident or partial migrants, depending on both the location of their breeding grounds and the severity of winter weather.
Unfortunately the Song Thrush is now a Red-listed bird of the highest conservation concern in Great Britain, with data indicating a steep decline in numbers since 1970, though a slight recovery has been seen in the last decade. The loss and severe degradation of both feeding and nesting habitat has had a huge impact, though it's on intensively managed farmland where the biggest drops have been seen. These agricultural practices have forced changes in nesting behaviour, with fewer attempts, and a substantial reduction of food availability through pesticide use, forcing many to adopt a new life in close proximity to us. Sympathetic management of hedgerows, ditches, pasture and woodland is imperative, particularly as mortality amongst young Song Thrushes is high owing to both predation and starvation.
Though supremely recognisable, the Song Thrush has for countless generations caused confusion, particularly in literature, owing to its similarity to the Mistle Thrush. To solve this, its long been associated with the word 'throstle', perhaps for more than six hundred years, whereas 'Thrush' was typically reserved for the larger Mistle Thrush. In truth, their habits and characteristics are really quite different and with practice become easy to discern. The Song Thrush is a rather more skittish species, with a tendency for skulking, in comparison to the bolder, more upright and 'greyer' Mistle Thrush. When disturbed, Song Thrushes will take off erratically, flying low and diving into cover a short distance away. A key clue that a Song Thrush is nearby may relate to the sound from its tool use - a stone employed as an 'anvil' to smash its way in to snail shells. They are of course a top predator of molluscs and ideally should be the only 'molluscicide' permitted in our gardens.
Not unsurprisingly, for a bird with 'song' in the name, they're one of just a few species comprehensively defined by it. Their song is undoubtedly a familiar tune heard by many, though it's perhaps recognised by many fewer. Though peak song will occur between March and July, the Song Thrush may start to sing remarkably early, often in mild weather in late autumn when keen to establish (or defend) winter territories. In comparison, the Mistle Thrush tends to stop singing during spring, though may start at a similar time of year. Interestingly, Song Thrush song is not really comparable to that of the Mistle Thrush, which is far closer to Blackbird in its tone and delivery. Subjectively, its song very much splits public opinion - some think of its repertoire as rather wonderful, whereas others may feel it lacks musicality. It certainly isn't as melodic and 'flutey' as the Blackbird, lacking flow, and isn't as polished a performance. There is, however, one incredibly distinctive aspect to its song - repetition.
Listen to the song in this video below -
The Song Thrush is a measured but emphatic performer. It's penetrating depth, power and gusto somewhat give it the feel of proclamation as opposed to singing. There's real clarity to the phrases, which are delivered assertively and charismatically, though in a chatty, garrulous manner. It always feels as if a Song Thrush has an awful lot to tell you, and it sure won't stop until it does. In fact, even when it does tell you, it wants to tell you again and again, for the phrases are uttered and repeated, perhaps modified ever so slightly in the process. They may typically repeat these phrases between two and six times, and it's this reiteration that can leave some a little cold. However, don't confuse this with a lack of variety, for the Song Thrush has an extensive repertoire under its avian sleeves. Its far-carrying voice may contain more than a hundred phrases, seemingly plucked at random depending on the individual. What it is not, however, is a fluent melody, though it displays a distinctive pattern in many cases. It's rather fascinating to consider that a number of elements in their song have existed through many many generations, described perhaps a century ago but still uttered by birds today. With practice there are a variety of key phrases to listen for, which will stand out even when a bird sings far away in the distance. For example, in the video above, listen for the remarkably obvious "did he do it" at 13-14 seconds. In a song that contains only brief pauses, the phrases may be squeaky or scratchy, shrill or twittering, harsh or flutey, simple or complex, but there are often sections articulated in a surprisingly human tone, those such as "who are you" for example. They're also far from averse to mimicry, incorporating not just the calls of other birds, but occasionally man-made objects. As with other urban songsters, such as the Blackbird and Robin, the increase of night-time artificial lighting has likely played a role in changing the singing habits of Song Thrushes. It may in fact modify not just their daily behaviour, but even the onset of their seasonal reproduction. Though they sing most prolifically at dusk and dawn, street lighting will certainly see them singing at night too.
Listen to an extended version of song below -
Whereas the song is complex and delivered with impressive elocution, the typical call of the Song Thrush is quite the opposite. It's a highly subdued note, uttered in a way so as to attract as little attention as possible. It's pure, monosyllabic, remarkably fine and wispy in quality. Though not dissimilar to the Robin's "tic", it's a much softer, unassuming note lacking the elasticity. This call is often used as the 'take-to-flight' call, and may often be uttered directly before a Song Thrush bursts out of cover. Migrants will also use this vocalisation - it can be heard at night as migrant birds pass over and is similar to the Redwing call, but shorter. Though the translation of the note is rather subjective, it may be described as a discreet "zit."
Listen to this call below -
Though the typical call, as above, may be used as a form of alarm, the full alarm call is rather different, suggesting an awful lot more predator-based agitation. It sounds electrified, a shocking, scalding cascade of repeated notes, as if viciously jabbing a squeaky toy. The notes may be transliterated to something along the lines of "dji-dji-dji dji djip djip."
Listen to this call below -