Most of us are familiar with the song thrush, the spotty-chested snail-basher that we’ve all seen stalking our lawns and playing fields, but far fewer of us know it has an even spottier and rarer cousin, the mistle thrush. Mistle thrushes are bigger, paler and much shyer than song thrushes and they are also far more thinly spread over the country.
Mistle thrushes nest very early often laying eggs as early as February, and the male really makes himself heard as he belts out his shrill urgent song from highest tree in his territory. He’s more than happy to sing in rain, wind or even a blizzard - hence the mistle thrush’s country name of storm cock.
Until the middle of the 19th century they were apparently quite uncommon birds, virtually unheard of beyond southern England, and then a great northward expansion began and they’ve now colonised the whole of the British Isles, including Ireland.
The mistle thrush probably get's in name from its liking for sticky mistletoe fruits but these aren’t the only berries they like and individual birds will often try to keep an entire tree of tasty cotoneaster or holly berries for themselves throughout the winter. They are pugnacious birds and a mistle thrush defending a favourite tree can become a true dog-in-the-manger, driving off all blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares. In really cold weather I’ve noticed they often seem to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers of hungry birds though and give up the cause.
One of the first nests I actually climbed to as a lad was a mistle thrush’s high in a holly tree. I can still remember peering over the rim of the nest at the four beautiful blotchy jade and chestnut eggs. It was a bitter March morning and the sky was filled with sleet as the poor parent birds swore at me with their strange dry rattling calls. They didn't physically attack me, which apparently happens quite often - they've even been recorded deliberately defecating on people venturing near the nest. I might not have been so keen to climb that tree had I known that at the time.
As they nest so early in the season they often choose evergreen trees where their eggs are better hidden from enemies like magpies. Interestingly, a pair of chaffinches or goldfinches will often build their nest in a tree occupied by mistle thrushes; presumably they are taking advantage of their big stroppy neighbours’ intolerant attitude towards predators
By mid Summer mistle thrush families have long since left the nest and groups can be found feeding in loose flocks almost anywhere on open grassland, but they are always shy and will usually take wing before you get too near them. The black and white flashes prominent on each side of the tail as they bound away are diagnostic but always slightly surprising to me.
First published in Four Shires Magazine