The blackbird is one of those birds that thrives in the presence of man and is much more common in our towns than in wild country areas. If one were to create the blackbird version of Utopia, then the final outcome would probably be not too far away from the patchwork of lawns, parks, bushes and trees found in suburbia, making it one of our most common and familiar birds.
It would be almost unthinkable to imagine our gardens without blackbirds because they bring so much, especially in spring and early summer when at dawn and dusk the melodic song of the handsome cock bird rings out all around. I always regard it as a bit of toss-up between the blackbird and the song thrush as to which is the best songster. I tend to veer towards the song thrush in the end but the poet William Henley certainly left no doubt to the extent of his reverence for the blackbird when he wrote: The nightingale has a lyre of gold, The lark’s is a clarion call, And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute, But I love him best of all.
Indeed, the blackbird features in many rhymes from the past, the most notable being Sing a Song of Sixpence, while the birds in Two Little Dickie Birds are blackbirds – and they are also the ‘four colly birds’ in The Twelve Days of Christmas, which in more modern times has been changed to ‘calling birds’. In Scotland, the blackbird was a Jacobite symbol.
On a personal level, one of my earliest nature memories as a toddler was finding a blackbird’s nest in the garden, low down in the fork of an elder bush (I know it was an elder because of its distinctive smell). I remember being totally entranced by the dazzling orange gapes of the youngsters begging for food and I sometimes wonder if this was the catalyst that sparked my passion for the natural world.
With so much of our other wildlife in decline, it is always heartening to find some, such as the blackbird, that are doing well, which begs the question as to what is it about our towns that make them so attractive to blackbirds?
The answer lies in the good mix of areas to feed, along with plenty of hedges, shrubs and trees for shelter and nesting. Blackbirds feed extensively for earthworms and other invertebrates, and our close cropped lawns provide ideal places to forage for such creatures. Just as good are the numerous ornamental and native berry bushes that provide a rich bounty of food in autumn, and in deep winter when the soil is frosted hard, blackbirds benefit from windfall apples and food on garden bird tables.
Their passion for berries creates a useful ecological role as blackbirds can spread seeds through their droppings, thus enabling berry plants to spread and colonise new areas. You may also notice that there are more blackbirds in your garden at this time of year than in spring and summer. Whilst our resident blackbirds rarely wander far from the area they were born, numbers in winter are swollen by the arrival of birds from Scandinavia and northern Europe; many are en-route to wintering grounds further south but good numbers remain in Scotland until the following spring. It is thought that in some years several hundred thousand blackbirds may arrive on our shores. Many of these migrants have duller bills than our resident birds.
Blackbirds in winter, particularly males, often roost communally and I particularly enjoy early evening walks at this time of year due to the fading light of dusk being enlivened by their excited chattering as they settle down for the night.
Blackbirds are early nesters and breeding usually commences in March. The cock birds are highly territorial and will have several song posts to mark out their home patch, which they use to attract a mate and to warn off rivals. Usually, the first territorial courtship singing can be heard on fine days in February, weak and stuttering at first but soon developing real confidence and flow. For me, this fluty call is the true herald of spring, rather than spawning frogs in March or the arrival of the first swallows in early April.