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Christmas companion

by
17 December 2021

Ian Tattum celebrates the calling-bird of The Twelve Days of Christmas

Mark Wilson/Alamy

Morning has broken
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.

 

ELEANOR Farjeon certainly knew her blackbirds. Anyone who listens out for the dawn chorus will know that blackbirds are first heard just before the dawn breaks. The rhyme of “spoken” with “broken” may look like a poetic contrivance, but is ornithologically accurate. The evening song of the blackbird is the one that people know best, with its rippling rise and fall of notes, hurled from a high place; but the morning performance is more staccato and reticent.

“Speaking” or “giving voice” might better describe the bird’s repertoire of sounds than “singing”. Blackbirds have a range of calls for different times of the day and different situations, and — although to our human ear they may sound uniform — no two blackbird songs are identical. The “calling bird” of The Twelve Days of Christmas is the blackbird — originally the coal-black-bird or “collie-bird” — but the accidental name turns out to be appropriate.

In her youth, Farjeon had been in love with her friend and fellow poet Edward Thomas, who also rejoiced in the beautiful and hope-evoking song of the blackbird — as, for instance, in his celebrated poem “Adlestrop”. When, in 1931, Farjeon was commissioned by Percy Dearmer to write for his hymnal Songs of Praise a hymn that could be sung as a thanksgiving for every new day, she wrote her much loved hymn of praise and thanksgiving for God’s constant renewal and re-creation, and purposely chose this familiar and everyday bird with its uplifting song.

 

ALTHOUGH we are used to having them living in our midst, the blackbird has not always been a suburb- or city-dweller. It was — and still is, in many places — a bird of the forest and the wild, and it ranges today across Russia, North Africa, and into the Himalayas. British settlers transported blackbirds to Australia and New Zealand as tokens of home. The birds are now established there, and, in a sense, have returned home; for those southern countries are remnants of the ancient super-continent of Gondwanaland, where birds first evolved.

One of the reasons that blackbirds have found humans such good company is their adaptability. They can (like the human family at Christmas) eat almost anything; and gardens provide a varied habitat, which offers not only good nesting sites but an abundant food supply.

The birds’ beaks are perfectly configured to tease out worms from a lawn, pluck winter berries from the shrubbery, or gather caterpillars and spiders from wherever they can be found. We are familiar with the sight and sound of a blackbird churning up fallen leaves in pursuit of grubs and insects. Environmentally considerate gardeners will benefit from their careful hoovering-up of aphid eggs.

 

BLACKBIRDS can seem tame and friendly when they visit the birdtable or take raisins from your hand, but they have also been known to harry kingfishers and steal their catch. They are fiercer than you might think. Once, I watched a blackbird pursue a carrion crow along a city street, “chinking” as it went — shouting more loudly than its croaking quarry.

It is the young males, in their desperation to establish a territory and advertise their prowess to a potential mate, who begin to sing first — early in February, just before dawn breaks, if the weather is right. They can sing for up to half an hour. Older males who already have a patch don’t sing until much later, as they are less in need of being noticed and, while they are rearing a brood, are far too busy gathering supplies for their young.

 

ALTHOUGH the evening song is the one that people know best, blackbirds have many other modes of speech. The “chink, chink, chink” call (already mentioned) is often used to scold or mob any predators. But it can also be heard in a short outburst as the birds are preparing to leave their roost in the morning, or when settling down at night. “Chook, chook”, on the other hand, is generally taken to signify anxiety rather than wrath.

The blackbird even has a warning whisper, “tsee, tsee”, which it utters when a hawk or crow is in the area. The bird will flatten its body to make itself harder to detect, and alert birds near by to the danger. Many other small birds use a similar cry and understand exactly what it means, making this call the international avian signal of peril.

Blackbirds also sing and call in ways and at particular moments that cast doubt on some of the behaviourist models that have construed the life of birds as nothing more than survival programming. Scientists are more willing to countenance the possibility that fellowship, contentment, or playfulness prompts some of their speech.

 

IT IS undoubtedly the blackbird’s evening song that people probably know and love best, and which is most eagerly interpreted as joy or praise: a cascade of mellifluous notes, launched from the top of a chimney, tree, or aerial, which accompanies dusk or the end of a rain shower through all the months of the year from March to November. Towards the end of autumn, the morning and evening songs become desultory and subdued, and in winter they fall silent.

But we lose the company of their voices only for a short space. Shortly after Candlemas, they will begin to sing again, and by Easter we will be able to hear their calls in almost any garden or wood.


The Revd Ian Tattum is Vicar of St Barnabas, Southfields, and Area Dean of Wandsworth in the diocese of Southwark.

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