I was working at the window today and was admiring the swelling number of bramblings amongst the chaffinches. One male had what looked like a long white feather on its back. Since birds only have short feathers on their backs I’m not exactly sure where this extra whiteness came from Brambling have pure white rumps, though this is barely visible when the bird is feeding on the ground. It may be that it was carrying one of its wings low, therefore showing more of the rump. I was reaching for the binoculars when I was attracted by a bird flapping on a bush. It looked like a bird had become entangled and was flapping upside down. A closer inspection showed it was a mistle thrush clinging on to a spindly branch of a bush that had red berries (though I’m not sure of the variety of bush). It had a few attempts at this, getting only one or two berries at a time for its effort, then sat, looking exhausted, on a branch.
Mistle thrushes are not common visitors to the garden, though a pair nested here a couple of years ago. It was a sad tale, which I recounted in A Lone Furrow. Here is the story:
“As I was taking a few photographs I was enthralled by one of the earliest avian songsters – apart from the robin – and a real harbinger of Spring: the mistle thrush. Strangely I was not really aware of mistle thrushes until I was well into my twenties. Their song is not unlike the blackbird’s but instead of a full-flowing aria like the blackbird, the mistle thrush sings in short bursts. The first time I was aware of hearing one in full voice I was walking up a steep hill with a heavy game bag full of rabbits on my back and I thought that I was wheezing. It took me a while to realise that when I stopped walking the wheezing should also have abated, and only then I knew that the sound was from a different pair of lungs. I suppose this description does a disservice to the singing ability of the mistle thrush but the bird was probably about a quarter of a mile away. When heard close up, very often on a day when it is miserable with rain and all other birds are seeking shelter, the mistle thrush must surely lighten up the day of anyone who takes the time to listen, even if they don’t know the species that is giving them so much pleasure.
To digress further, we had a pair of mistle thrushes nested in the garden at home in 2005. I watched the female building a nest on the limb of an apple tree (not in a fork in the tree as text books suggest) while the male perched on top of a nearby larch tree singing for all he was worth and proclaiming his territory to birds of all other species, not just rival mistle thrushes. He showed no antagonism towards smaller birds but if he saw another member of the thrush family – a blackbird or a song thrush – or a bird he recognised as a predator such as a jackdaw, he was off his perch and viciously mobbing and scolding it, all the time making a loud churring call.
Eggs were laid in the nest and the female began to incubate. All seemed fine until one day I came home to find feathers scattered across the path between the lawn and one of the borders. I recognised two of the long white feathers as the outer feathers from a mistle thrush’s tail and realised my bird still sitting on the nest was now a single parent. I doubted it would cope on its own and was amazed every time I passed that I could still see the tip of the bill sticking up at one side of the nest and the end of the tail at the other. I was sure when the eggs hatched that the female could not collect food for the chicks and at the same time brood them to keep them sufficiently warm.
Within a few days I could see a bit more of the bird on the nest. I realised that the eggs had hatched and that the bird had to give a bit more space to the chicks by sitting higher in the nest. I was sure that within a few days all the chicks would be dead, but this was not the case. The valiant female mistle thrush managed to rear a single chick despite all the odds being stacked against her. The chick eventually fledged and on its first day out of the nest, the most vulnerable period before it is able to fly back to the safety of a tree, I watched it hopping around on the lawn. I was devastated in the morning when I came out of the house to find the chick lying dead on the lawn. It had been caught in the night by a cat, used as a plaything until it had died, and had been discarded once it no longer provided any fun. I have never liked cats, and I dislike cat owners who put their felines out at night with the milk bottles. This latest outrage strengthened my views”.