© John Harding

A Song For Christmas

18th December 2009

You don’t see many Christmas cards with mistle thrushes on them, but, explains Jack Watkins, it has as much right as the robin to be regarded as the true songster of the festive season…

In one of my favourite books of the countryside, a 1932 edition of WH Hudson’s Nature in Downland, a woodcut opposite the title page depicts a mistle thrush in a snow scene, ‘singing in weather that makes all other voices silent’. It is a picture to enjoy by the winter fireside, at which time it is a reminder that while the robin may be the bird most associated with Christmas, the contribution of the mistle thrush is often overlooked.

The tradition of using robin illustrations on Christmas cards seems to have had its origins in the early Victorian period, when postal deliveries were made by men wearing red tunics, and hence known as ‘robins’. While it is true that you will frequently hear robins whistling throughout the winter months, the species most likely to be heard in full voice is the mistle thrush. This aspect of its behaviour owes itself to the fact that the bird is one of the earliest to breed in the UK. Its propensity to sing from high in the treetops, added to the haunting silence of most of the remaining British songbird population at this time, gives the sound an especially plaintive quality.

Why, then, is it not more celebrated? As WH Hudson describes, it is in reality an inhabitant of the countryside, not of our back gardens. The same could be said of all native birds, of course, but the mistle thrush has probably adapted less readily than the finches, tits and sparrows, less readily even than its closest cousins, the blackbirds and the song thrushes. For this reason, it is probably also less familiar, but while it may lack the distinctive red breast and sweet appearance of the robin – which makes the latter so marketable for designers of Christmas cards – it is certainly an attractive creature in its own right.

Easily mistaken for a song thrush, it is actually larger and more robust. The brown speckles on the breast are also rounder and denser, whereas those of the song thrush are shaped liked inverted arrows. When disturbed, the latter will usually dart off into the bushes, while the mistle thrush will probably flutter up to higher vegetation whilst uttering its resoundingly distinctive ‘football rattle’ alarm call.

It’s possible that unfavourable comparisons of its song with that of the blackbird are another reason for its relatively low popular profile. It’s easy enough to confuse the two – and both are lovely – but connoisseurs point to the comparative shortness of the mistle thrush’s song, which lacks the variety and bubbly sweetness of its counterpart. Heard around Christmas or early in January, however, without the competition of the blackbird (which usually tunes up later in the month) the sound of its voice is a welcome antidote to gloomy climactic conditions. More sympathetic commentators have made reference to the song’s wild, windblown beauty. In former times, the bird’s readiness to sing no matter how dire the weather earned it the nickname of the ‘storm cock’.

In the first attempt at compiling a complete list of British birds in 1661, it was listed as the mistletoe thrush. Its partiality for the berries of these plants, as well as for those of hollies, yews and hawthorns leads us to one of the species’ less appealing qualities: the fact that it can be a bit of a bully. Early in the season, having identified a particular plant laden with berries as a handy food larder, the bird will ‘take control’ and permit no intruders to alight upon it. As it’s a big, burly thrush – the biggest member, in fact, of the thrush family – most smaller species will peaceably, sensibly, seem to steer clear. But it’s merely a phoney war. As the winter season goes on, and wider food supplies grow thinner, other birds – a venturesome starling, perhaps, or a bold gang of sparrows – will stage forays. The mistle thrush will fend them off as forcibly as it can, and once again its loud football rattle will echo through the surrounding area.

It is thought that the success of individual mistle thrushes in preserving their food supplies is what gives the species a head start in the breeding season, helping it produce earlier and bigger clutches. Yet it hasn’t saved it from a spiral of decline, however. Its population is down 35% in the last twenty-five years, from 300,000 to 200,000 breeding pairs, according to figures from the British Trust for Ornithology. If the weather is severe over Christmas, keep a look out for one may appear in your garden. And if you are lucky, the true minstrel of yuletide may even treat you to a song.

The BTO is keen to hear of sightings of mistle thrushes in
gardens as part of its year-round Garden BirdWatch survey.
For details of how to take part, see
www.bto.org.uk or call 01842 750050.

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