How I enjoyed a letter recently published in the Stirling Observer but written originally a hundred years ago by a "Mr and Mrs Blackbird". Even during the dark days of that 'war to end all wars', sentiments were clearly being expressed about the desirability of remembering the welfare of our garden brids. However, I think Mr and Mrs Blackbird should perhaps have had a chat with their dietician if such a person existed in those far off days. Such an expert would surely have advised that not any old crumbs would do. White bread scraps are awfully bad for birds.
The trouble is that once eaten, such materials swell, thus filling the birds' stomachs and restricting the amount of other food they can ingest. And, all birds must beware of the harder times to be expected during the treacherous month of February and remember that days, while just beginning to lenghten, are still short on hours of the daylight, during which the blackbirds of this world are able to forage. Moving on a century, this is why it remains vital to ensure that in order to survive during the coldest of nights, all birds need to pack in as much good food as possible ...of the right sort. It is incidentally vital to ensure they also have access to a supply of fresh, clean water!
I surely do not need to remind folk I'm sure, that keeping their little bodies warm on cold and frosty nights saps the energy of birds remarkably rapidly. They will use so much of it just to keep warm for wild birds of course, do not have the luxury of central heating. Mind you, few humans enjoyed that luxury a hundred years ago either! Furthermore remember that birds must find somewhere to bed down, which is by the very nature of their wild existence, exposed to what ever the weather may bring, hail rain or snow, especially as at this time of the year there isn't even shelter offered by the leaves. However, blackbirds do have the advantage of enjoying an omnivorous diet. So I would have encouraged Mr and Mrs Blackbird's new found human friends a hundred years ago, to put out not that white bread but maybe some containers containing hard fat, and lard for they would have provided maximum energy with which to fight off the cold.
However, if the blackbirds in our gardens are lucky and the frost stays away, they can continue to feast upon worms and other invertebrates. Mr and Mrs Blackbird's descendants, some located in my neck of the woods, are enjoying these avian dietary delights, especially on my lawn. But equally, and especially if the frost returns with a vengeance as it is wont to do in February, that source of food may be denied to them. So, those who these days so enthusiastically feed the birds should perhaps provide some fat balls, seeds, scraps of grated cheese, crushed peanuts and even sunflower hearts. We put out an old Christmas pudding and the birds love it!
If, as is the fashion these days, the gardens that today's blackbirds patrol, contain decorative berry bearing shrubs and trees and they haven't been got at by either their fellow thrushes, the visiting waxwings or hungry starlings, they can be a big dietary bonus. Again, this illustrates the omnivorous nature of our blackbirds.
I'm afraid however that any goodies enthusiasts may provide will have to be made accessible, perhaps on or close to the ground. I am well aware that unlike titmice, goldfinches, other finches and even common or garden sparrows, the blackbird clan has not yet mastered the art of clinging on to suspended baskets. As blackbirds obtain most of their food from terra firma, that's where it should be placed for them.
Of course, I am sure that whatever the weather, blackbirds will also be exploring the local woods, using their beaks to turn over the carpets of dead leaves in the hope of finding the odd juicy morsel. Mind you, that activity is extremely energy sapping. Blackbirds very vocally vent their displeasure at the ill-timed arrival in their patch, of wood-walking humans. On such occasions they will follow a deeply ingrained instinct and remove themselves loudly with those familiar proclamations of indignity - 'tick, tick, tick' - the merle's very own unique and very vocal alarm system.
And they may indeed use the same noisy protestation should they feel threatened by a predator such as a roosting owl or perhaps a hawk, not to mention a patrolling fox. Often this obvious outcry is also a warning to other birds and animals that danger may be at hand. Blackbirds, always alert, thus often provide a very special early warning system that all creatures great and small can heed.
And had I been around a hundred years ago this January or February, my advice to Mr and Mrs Blackbird would have been not to be lulled by mild conditions into building a nest just yet. Some precocious blackbirds do get carried away and even lay eggs before January is out. Such ventures more often than not fail, for Mr Blackbird, upon whom his partner would have relied for food whilst incubating eggs, may not have been able to find enough at that time of the year. So Mrs Blackbird may have found herself having to go and find her own, during which expeditions her eggs would have chilled and come to nought.
However, Mr Blackbird was and is the one that sings, a process which is all about trying to encourage a Mrs Blackbird to join him and indeed to establish and maintain a prime, food filled territory of which she too can be proud. Happily, that music also entertains us humans. Thus would I have encouraged Mr Blackbird to do some of his singing where people too can hear it. There are and always have been plenty of folk who have and still do rejoice in the mellow voices and the flowing melodies produced by these delightful garden birds. Indeed there are those among us who rate his as the finest of all voices in the avian choir. I also know that some serenading blackbirds are inclined to break into song especially early in the year, so many of us do keep our ears open in the hope of hearing those first assertive musical offerings.
However, suburban blackbirds, of which there are these days many, must beware of gardens where cats roam. I have a cat but he is far too lazy to bother chasing about after birds but there are plenty of cats which by their very nature can be a real threat to blackbird survival. So, it is vital that they must always keep a very wary eye open for that crafty moggy. Even the most cosseted cat can be very cunning, very elusive, stealthy and lethal. Vigilance is the key and that rattling, peppering volley that is so much a part of that early warning system of the blackbird will also alert other birds to a cat's presence and keep them out of harm's way.
I do admire the blackbird's bustling flight. They never seem to go anywhere slowly. There always seems to be about them, a sense of urgency. They breast the air, cleaving it in the same way as a yacht in full sail, parts the waves. I also admire Mr Blackbird's beautiful crocus-coloured beak and those lovely golden rings around his eyes. And although Mrs Blackbird is less well endowed in this way, perhaps that illustrates how well Mother Nature has worked things out, for she needs to be less conspicuous, especially when eventually being ensconced for weeks on end in the nest incubating her eggs. Anonymity then is one of the keys to her survival.
But as Mr and Mrs Blackbird wrote a hundred years ago, those avian conscious human benefactors should be encouraged to put out plenty of food albeit without that white bread please. February days can be tricky. But all birds must ignore weight watching and eat as heartily as possible! That's the way to survive. So I say good luck to the blackbirds of this world, the descendants of those remarkable correspondents of a hundred years ago, Mr and Mrs Blackbird!