Illustrated by Carry Akroyd
Bird Recognition books described the song thrush as a winter singer ‘except in bad weather’ with ‘full song’, March-July. By contrast, the mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus, ‘devourer of mistletoe’), almost three inches longer than its brown, less boldly spotted, more tuneful cousin, sings irregularly from mid-November. There is ‘song and display’, the book adds, from the ‘longest night’ to June.
Moreover, as its colloquial name ‘stormcock’ shows, it chooses to sing from a treetop whatever the weather. For that reason, in Thomas Hardy’s popular Christmas poem, The Darkling Thrush, – although the bird is described as ‘small’ and its singing as ‘carolings’ – it is generally identified as a mistle thrush.
The melancholy Hardy contemplates ‘Winter’s dregs made desolate’ when
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt,
In blast-beruffled plume
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
Edward Thomas’s The Thrush is similarly regarded a mistle thrush:
I hear the thrush, and I see
Him alone at the end of the lane
Near the bare poplar’s tip,
The 17th-century polymath Sir Thomas Browne gave the mistle thrush its name. Like the song thrush, it is partial to worms and will bash snails on an anvil-acting stone to break the shells. Toxic to humans, mistletoe berries were an ingredient of trappers’ bird lime; thus they were often the bird’s ironic downfall as much as its sustenance. The untidy nest can appear in odd places, such as a traffic light in Beeston, Leeds, which made news in 2010. Usually it is a wary country bird, only seeking town in harsh weather, but autumn flocks can briefly alight in city parks. With winter approaching, it pairs again.
Raising his voice as the gusts still roared
A speckled mistlethrush told me clear,
That harvest was garnered, that
apples were stored,
That summer was ended, that autumn
Bill Humphreys, from Stormcock
(A Distant Cuckoo Calls, 2008)
In The Darkling Thrush, Hardy finds consolation in its Christmas ‘carolings’ defying the blast; even salvation:
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
The 2019 Bird of the Month calendar is available from www.carryakroyd.co.uk