A November morning, with wolf-grey clouds flowing overhead and the north wind gently blowing through the land, encrusting the leaf-strewn ground with frost and sending the magpies a-chackering through the naked trees in protest at the cold. The sun takes a step back each day, so that all the animals of the land curl up in their holes and the fowls of the air move together in flocks out of fear for the hard times ahead. All creatures sense the arrival of winter, which comes to clean the air, to cull the weak from the strong, to reset the earth in preparation for new growth and new life. Now, as if in defiance of the order of things, as though the beginning of winter is something to rejoice, or as a reminder of hope, the air is cut through by a repeated phrase – a clear, sharp melody of whistled notes as bold as the wind itself – being thrown into the sullen silence of a November dawn from the top of the tallest tree. It is a throstle, or mistle thrush, in speckled livery, with breast thrust forward and bill held high in rapturous song.
Mistle thrushes are characterful birds, and one of my favourites; they are secretive in the breeding season but form groups in the autumn and it is fun to watch them furiously chase each other through tree branches with shrill rattling cries or squabbling over yew berries in the winter. I think of them as a country bird, needing mature trees to nest and open ground to feed – I see them hopping cautiously over ploughed fields or village greens with that instantly recognisable upright posture – but they can often be found in towns and larger parks in cities too.
They are big thrushes, with long necks and tubby bellies, and have an undulating, laboured flight (not unlike a woodpecker) and with each flap you see a flash of white under the wing that identifies them from a distance. When perched or on the ground their fronts appear messy, with large black teardrop-shaped spots arranged seemingly randomly, either widely spaced or smudged together on a clean white background. Their heads, backs, upperwings and tail are a uniform pale brown, almost grey, which distinguishes them from the similarly-sized fieldfare that has warm brown wings and a blue-grey head and rump.
The mistle thrush’s most charming and distinctive character though is its singing habits. Unlike most thrushes, or indeed most birds, the throstle is quite content to sing strongly and clearly in all weathers, in fact it seems to prefer adverse winter conditions to a sunny spring morning. I witnessed first-hand why the mistle thrush is also called the ‘stormcock’ when I watched one sing from the very peak of a huge fir tree in the Lake District on a horribly cold, windy and drizzly March day. It’s song is relatively uncomplicated and could be missed or mistaken for a blackbird or song thrush, whose songs have some similar features. Yet I fell in love with the purity and beauty of the stormcock’s voice when I managed to get close to a singing male one fine spring day; I observed it for an unknown length of time and the intimacy of the encounter left me with a soft spot for this bird and its melody.
There is certainly something of the wild about the mistle thrush; it is not a tame bird and readily flees at the sight of man, they sing high-up from the tallest trees in sun and in storm, they roam open country alone or in small bands and their harsh clattering calls seem like a language far removed from the sweet piping of titmice. Also, as they go largely unseen throughout the warmer months of the year, hiding themselves deep in the greenwood, they seem to most observers to be creatures of the winter, heralding ice and snow and biting winds and seeming to revel in it. But their song is joyful, and their countenance charming; so watch yews and hollies and rowans and bunches of mistletoe this winter for the perky form of a mistle thrush.
Illustration by Charles Tunnicliffe.