The Blackbird

Has there ever been a spring/summer like this for blackbird song? (Except, obviously, the year in which, in late June, Edward Thomas’s train stopped unexpectedly at Adlestrop?) I’m especially fortunate in that I have two competing to outdo each other in the back garden, one often perched on our television aerial (what a quaint old device, I hear you cry) and the other in the trees nearby.

When we were in Venice recently, we looked down on another one, also on a television aerial, who sang until after dark every evening, and there’s another very vocal one in ‘my’ immediate part of London. Only the males sing (though both male and female produce the noisy alarm call when necessary), as a way of establishing territorial boundaries. They are not very sociable, and although I quite often have more than one female in the garden at the same time, two males will spend their time driving each other (and for that matter any smaller birds) away.

Male and female blackbirds, nest and eggs: plate from a nineteenth-century Dutch volume.

In previous years I have had blackbirds nesting in the wisteria at the front and in various bushes and climbers at the back, but in the last few months I have had to cut lots of things very hard back to allow for woodwork painting and for the replacement of a fence, so it’s not surprising that nobody was willing to take up residence this spring.

However, I do have a blackbird family in the garden, which was tragically diminished this week when I found the female dead. She had no marks on her – did she accidentally crash into a window, or did she die of exhaustion? There are three fledglings, who follow their father around as he frantically tries single-beakedly to stuff food down all of them.

Waiting for food …

… and the father feeds the chick.

Although blackbirds are naturally ground-feeders (except when after berries, of course!), he has learned to contort himself in order to get food from the fatballs and other hanging offerings – I tried to make life a bit easier by scattering food on the ground, but this of course precipitated the arrival of the ring-doves and the wood pigeons; and there is also concern about the local felines, who, now that dear Max the Cat is no more, think they own the place.

I am assuming that the blackbird who has been singing since dawn this morning is not the harassed parent but perhaps a young bird who has not yet found a mate? Pairs quite often produce more than one clutch of eggs a year, leading to a large and pretty stable population: in the UK, according to the RSPB, there are over 5 million resident pairs, who are joined by another 5 million birds over-wintering from northern Europe.

A next with three eggs, pale turquoise mottled with brown, more densely at the rounded end.

The Linnaean binomial (in the 1758 tenth edition of Systema Naturae) is Turdus merula: ‘turdus’ = ‘thrush’ and ‘merula’ = blackbird, cf. Italian ‘merlo’, French ‘merle’). European relatives include the song thrush (Turdus philomenus) and the mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus), as well as the (to me) less familiar ring ouzel (Turdus torquatus), a bird of the mountains, which as both the Latin and English names suggest, has a torc of white feathers across its breast, though its feathers all over are mottled rather than black.

The male ring ouzel.

‘Ouzel’ (or ‘ousel’ or ‘oosel’) is of course a vernacular name for the blackbird: Shakespeare famously has Bottom sing about ‘The ouzel-cock, so black of hue, with orange-tawny bill’, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This word is apparently from OE ‘osle’, and is related to the German Amsel.

Thomas Bewick, ‘The Blackbird’.

There are not many legends involving blackbirds: there is a number of variants in northern Italy of the story of the white blackbird who was turned black in the last three days of January when forced to shelter from the vicious weather in a sooty chimney. PS (on 2 June): St Kevin, whose feast day is 3 June, once held out his hand in stillness for the time it took a blackbird who had landed on it to build a nest, lay and hatch eggs, and for the fledglings to fly away.

St Kevin, on a beast-like stool, with the long-term visitor blackbird. (Credit: a tenth-century manuscript: no further details, alas.)

Likewise, they don’t figure much in art (though Thomas Bewick, of course, can be relied upon) – I haven’t so far found one among the malicious birds in Bosch’s oeuvre, for example. This slightly mottled male appears in a ‘still life’ by Abraham Bosschaert (1612–43), more famous for his flower paintings, like the superb tulip below.

Abraham Bosschaert, ‘A blackbird with cherries and a peacock butterfly’. (Credit: the National Trust, Ham House)

Bosschaert, ‘Tulip’, PD.123-1973.47. (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

The pecked cherry reminds me of the days when I had a ‘Stella’ cherry tree. It was small enough to net, but the blackbirds didn’t care: they pecked happily through the netting, without ever getting tangled. What they really go for, though, especially at this time of year, is my mahonia, with its purple ‘Oregon grapes’: the pavement outside the house is quite disgraceful, between the squashed fallen fruit and the stains from the ones which have passed through the blackbirds’ digestive tracts.

The stains on the pavement (after sweeping) …

… and the almost stripped mahonia.

Like the robin, the blackbird has his own song, here illustrated by Randolph Caldecott in 1880. Its origins are obscure: the first line seems to be a familiar phrase or saying, judging by Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, II.3: ‘Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song’), and Fletcher (Bonduca [=Boudicca] V.2: ‘Whoa, here’s a stir now! Sing a song o’ sixpence!’).

‘One of R. Caldecott’s Picture Books’ (1880).

But the first recorded ingredients of the pie were not in fact birds, but naughty boys, in this version from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (1744):

Sing a Song of Sixpence, / A bag full of Rye, / Four and twenty Naughty Boys / Baked in a Pye.

(And note that ‘bag’ full of rye, which scans less well than ‘pocket’.) The blackbirds appear in the 1780s,

Not quite as many as four-and-twenty blackbirds emerge from a pie.

though the whole song ends with the maid’s pecked-off nose until the nineteenth century, when sentimentality decreed that little Jenny Wren should fly down into the garden and pop it on again.

Pies containing live birds were a feature of extravagant dining in the late medieval period, and recipes survive for making the pastry ‘coffin’ out of which the live birds would fly when the crust was broken. But all sorts of interpretations have accrued to the song over the years: the king is the sun, the queen is the moon, the blackbirds the hours; or the king is Henry VIII, the queen Katherine of Aragon and the maid Anne Boleyn, while the blackbirds are monks flying out at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. (An even more elaborate theory connects the song with Blackbeard the pirate …)

However, as Peter and Iona Opie pointed out in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (first published in 1951 and which in my nerdish youth I used to borrow and re-borrow from the local library), all such interpretations have to assume that the blackbirds are not a later feature of the song, but  in fact figured in an earlier, now lost version – which, unless such a version suddenly appears from the proverbial ‘dusty archives’, is impossible to prove.

The other song in which the blackbird might appear is ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, where a variant of the ‘four calling birds’ is ‘four colly birds’, i.e. birds as black as coal – as in this broadside from Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the end of the eighteenth century.

I have never (yet) heard a nightingale, but in terms of sheer beauty, it’s difficult to imagine how it could beat this much more familiar rival. Let’s end with Edward Thomas’s hugely evocative lines:

a blackbird sang / Close by, and round him, mistier, / Farther and farther, all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.


This entry was posted in Art, History, Literature, Museums and Galleries, Natural history and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Blackbird

  1. Pingback: The Bluetit | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  2. Pingback: Object of the Month: July 2020 | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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