Mistle thrushes fight for food – and survival

mistle thrush''must credit Peter Howlett/BTO
mistle thrush''must credit Peter Howlett/BTO
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Graham Appleton, from the BTO in Thetford, mourns the loss of mistle thrushes, half of which have disappeared from the East of England since 1995

Warm days in March stimulate some of our resident birds to start singing; perhaps a blackbird on the roof, a robin in an apple tree, a great tit claiming ownership of a nest box or the mimicry of a starling. The mistle thrush, however, is associated with blustery days, rather than spring sunshine, which is why it sometimes goes by the alternative name of storm-cock.

Mistle thrushes are bigger than the more confiding song thrushes. An individual is most likely to be seen in the open or perched at the top of a tree.

The male’s song is like a shortened, soulful version of the blackbird’s, carrying in the wind for several hundred metres. In flight, both males and females may produce a rattling call, especially if annoyed, which they often seem to be!

The name of the species is linked to one of its particular food items, mistletoe, and the Latin names are connected, too – Turdus viscivorus means the thrush that eats Viscum album.

Sadly, there has not been much good news for the mistle thrush, recently. Numbers have dropped significantly and there are now half as many in East Anglia as there were just 17 years ago.

This is a species that will not have enjoyed the dry weather of early spring, conditions that are going to make it harder to find worms and grubs in lawns and fields. Mistle thrushes breed early; according to BirdFacts on the BTO website, the average laying date is two weeks before that of song thrush and blackbird. Somewhere in Suffolk there will probably already be youngsters being fed by parents.

Nationally, there is no sign that breeding attempts are any less successful so the problems for mistle thrushes may well be linked to annual survival – the ability of adults and youngsters to make it through the winter.

If they do survive through until spring, mistle thrushes are able to get into early condition to breed by focusing on berries that are available to them at the end of winter. A pair will defend the fruits of holly, yew, mistletoe or ivy, driving off competitors such as redwing and blackbird – and other mistle thrushes, of course. These larders provide the resources a pair of birds needs, to set up a territory, build a nest and lay eggs.

If you think that some of the thrushes using your garden might be mistle thrushes then you can check using a leaflet produced by our Garden BirdWatch Team. Phone the BTO 01842 750050 and they will pop one in the post for you, together with a copy of the fascinating magazine, Bird Table.

NEXT TIME: Siskins – peanuts, nyjer and sunflower hearts.