A Birdwatcher’s Guide to the Blackbird

These handsome birds are members of the thrush family, and the males are one of our most recognisable garden visitors with a bright orange beak and ring around the eye (the female’s colours are a more muted brown). Blackbirds are known for their beautiful, melodious song. There are resident blackbirds all year round in the UK, and they are joined by blackbirds from Europe in both summer and winter. Blackbirds are omnivorous and have adapted well to our garden bird feeders, feeding at ground level when cover is nearby, and enjoying nesting in small parks and residential areas. They hunt small amphibians, lizards and even mammals, as well as earthworms, insects and berries and they love sunflflower hearts too. Blackbirds are fiercely territorial and you will rarely see them socialising together, although blackbirds that migrate are more gregarious than resident birds. Fascinatingly, they only use one eye at a time and are one of the only animals to display unhemispheric slow- wave sleep. One half of the brain sleeps while the other is semi-awake and on the look out for danger - a defence strategy also used by some dolphins, whales, seals, quail and chickens.

The male blackbird performs an elaborate courtship dance to win a mate, who goes on to lay two to four broods of up to fifive eggs between March and August in a cup-shaped nest lined with dried grass. Eggs are incubated for twelve to fourteen days and chicks flfledge at between ten and nineteen days. Blackbird nests are notoriously poorly concealed from predators, often situated in ivy or a tree but sometimes at ground level. Blackbirds used to be caught as pets, and could be taught to mimic song - they can also copy other birds’ calls. According to Celtic folklore, blackbirds are one of the oldest animals in the world (along with the stag and the trout), and in Ireland it is considered good luck to see two blackbirds together. Blackbirds featured in a song used as a coded message to recruit crew for Blackbeard the pirate - “Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye, Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.” Sixpence was thought to be the generous wage offered by Blackbeard to crew members, rye was what the sailors called whiskey, and the blackbirds baked in a pie refers to a trick Blackbeard often used concealing his crew to tempt sailors to his ship before attacking them.