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Thursday, May 30, 2024
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HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: Sing a song of blackbirds

Notes from the Sticks: Sing a song of blackbirds

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ON a walk through the park the other day I saw dozens of blackbirds – every one of them male. Where all the ladies have gone I have no idea.

Many of these winter sightings are migrants, having flown to the UK from Scandinavia and the Baltics. The British residents, in turn, also enjoy a spell away from home, with Scottish blackbirds, for example, often nipping over to Northern Ireland while their Geordie counterparts head south for a change of scenery.

Thankfully there is no shortage of these delightful creatures with their melodious song. With an estimated six million breeding pairs, Turdus merula is the fifth-most abundant species in Britain after wrens, robins, house sparrows and woodpigeons.

Blackbirds like to feed on lawns, hence their preference for the park, where they can be seen with their heads cocked to one side, listening for earthworms. They also feed on insects and berries so to attract them you can plant berry-producing bushes in the garden and also leave out unwanted apples which they enjoy greatly.

Although one august individual was recorded as being more than 21 years old, the average lifespan is three or four. During that time they tend to return to the same place to breed every year, often using the same nest.

The species is sexually dimorphic, which means that the male and female plumage are completely different. Adult male blackbirds are, as the name suggests, all black with, during the breeding season, an orange-yellow eye-ring and bill. An adult male with a dull bill and no eye-ring at the beginning of the breeding season will probably be a winter visitor. Females are dark brown, with streaking on the chest and throat. Juveniles are also dark brown but covered with gingery streaks.

During the first year of their life, male blackbirds establish a territory which will last them for life. They will then find a mate and build a nest together. It takes a pair between 11 and 14 days to make the nest, with most of the work done by the missus. She will have two or three broods of up to four eggs between March and July. Incubation takes a fortnight or so, and the young tend to fledge two weeks after that. It is only the female that incubates the eggs, but the male helps feed his offspring. if their nest is disturbed or there is a fear of predator attack, they will abandon it. Once a blackbird quits a nest, it never returns to it.

 Blackbirds like to sing after rain. The first song of the year can usually be heard at the end of January or early February, though urban birds often start earlier. The first birds to sing are cocks which were hatched the year before. Older birds do not start singing until well into March.

While I was researching this article I found a page on the RSPB website headed ‘21 Facts about Blackbirds’. ‘Fact’ number 12 states boldly that ‘the song “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye, four-and-twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie” was actually a coded message used to recruit crew members for the notorious 18th-century pirate Blackbeard’. 

Not for the first time, the RSPB is perpetuating porkies. This tale was made up in 1999 by the website Snopes as part of a series of fabricated urban legends known as ‘The Repository Of Lost Legends’ (whose initials read TROLL, to test readers’ common sense).

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Reader ‘Irish Neanderthal’ has sent me his superb pictures of a spectacular display of catkins – he believes the tree is a non-native species of birch (Betula), or maybe an ornamental hybrid.

Such beauty in a suburban street, and probably unnoticed by 99 per cent of passers-by.

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Sheep of the Week

The Swaledale is not the prettiest sheep but it is a real workhorse, if I may use a mixed metaphor. It is named after the northernmost Yorkshire dale, and it can be bleak! It is the location of the Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub at 1,732ft, where customers are regularly snowed in.

Some readers will remember it featuring in a 1980s TV ad for Everest double glazing with Ted Moult. You can see a few Swaledales in the last scene.

It was also used in the 2017 Waitrose Christmas ad, though there was grumbling that the nearest store is 50 miles away.

Anyway, to the sheep. They stay out in the weather all year round so they are exceptionally hardy, with thick, coarse fleece. They are not even brought indoors to lamb. They have a black face with distinctive white markings on the nose and round the eyes, and both sexes have horns, the rams’ being larger. The tail is usually not docked, unlike most other breeds, and although Swaledales are common round here in Lancashire I haven’t been able to establish the reason. Someone told me it was to help keep them warm in winter, but I can’t imagine it makes much difference. (The tails are docked in an effort to keep their rear ends clean and avoid fly strike. There are various methods but the one I see used round here is a tight rubber ring which cuts off the blood supply and the end falls off. I think/hope it is humane.)

The origins of the breed are not known but it has been around for centuries. The Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association was founded in 1919 and originally consisted of farmers living within a seven-mile radius of the Tan Hill Inn. Now the breed is found throughout the more mountainous areas of the UK, particularly in the Yorkshire Dales, County Durham, and around the Pennine fells of Cumbria. It is raised for meat, and ewes are widely crossed with Bluefaced Leicester rams to produce the North of England Mule, which is popular on lowlands.

Although Swaledales are pretty numerous, there are not many videos on YouTube. This was the best I could find, and there isn’t much action.

You can read more about them at the Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association website. 

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A lot of people like the BBC presenter Chris Packham CBE. I’m not one of them. In 2019 he was responsible for the withdrawal of licences for farmers to shoot corvids, a mistaken move which was soon reversed but not before a generation of lambs had been attacked by crows and many killed. The online magazine Country Squire annoyed him with one or two articles, and he is suing three of their writers. Packham is fielding an army of libel lawyers, though I am not sure who is footing the bill. The case is due to come to court in May.

Packham’s fans have taken the matter very much to heart and are behaving in a completely unacceptable manner in a so-called civilised society. The editor of Country Squire has written about living under constant threat here. 

All I want to say is that a lifetime of experience has taught me that it is always, always, a terrible mistake to sue for libel. Even if you win, you have brought largely forgotten material back to light and fresh scrutiny. Plaintiffs never come out of it well.  

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Wheels of the Week

This is an Alvis TF 21 2993cc, registered in March 1967. It must have been one of the last to be made as Alvis ceased manufacture six months later, in September 1967.

The original firm, T G John and Company Ltd, was founded in 1919 by Thomas George John (1880–1946) in Coventry. In 1921 the name was changed to the Alvis Car and Engineering Company Ltd. The name was chosen by Geoffrey de Freville (1883–1965) who designed the first Alvis engine. Many ingenious theories were put forward for the origin of the name but De Freville insisted Alvis had no meaning whatsoever, and he chose it simply because it could be easily pronounced in any language.

In 1936 the company name was shortened to Alvis Ltd, and aircraft engine and armoured vehicle divisions were added to the company by the beginning of the Second World War.

The car factory was severely damaged on November 14 1940 in the Luftwaffe bombing of Coventry, and production was suspended until 1946. The armaments factory suffered little damage and carried on aircraft engine production as a sub-contractor of Rolls-Royce.

Car production resumed with a four-cylinder model, the TA 14, based on the pre-war 12/70. In 1950 a new chassis with a 3-litre six-cylinder engine was announced and this became the basis of all the remaining Alvis models, the TA21, TE21 and finally the TF21.

The TF21 was launched in 1966. It had a top speed of 127mph, but the model was beginning to show its age. Only 109 were sold before production came to an end.

A company called Red Triangle which bought out the defunct automaker’s assets has launched a Continuation Series of models assembled from original chassis and engine blocks in storage since 1968.

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FINALLY, a reminder that reader Kathy Nel (‘linuslimmy’) is collating anecdotal evidence about bird and insect numbers, either increases or decreases (or even static). Send your comments and observations to this address: missingcritters@yahoo.com. If you leave a comment below the line, we need a geographical location to be able to use it.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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