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Four and twenty blackbirds?

March 16, 2012

Blackbirds get up horrendously early. They are among the first to start the dawn chorus, usually well before dawn when night is still thick around you, and a cloudy sky hasn’t a drop of light. These days, my alarm is generally set for 4am (I’m hanging for the end of the month and the clocks spring forward to give me another hour in bed; this time April will see me back to where I am now). Song thrushes try and beat them for the off, and it’s a toss up which of them gets going earlier, but my money’s on the blackbird. What is it about Turdus species that drives them to start serenading in the dark?

When my alarms shrills, I hear one singing in the street outside. If I have to walk to the university to pick up the car there are three more of them to provide a musical backdrop to the quiet streets for any late night revellers tottering home. They give my step an urgency, while I remind myself that I don’t have show up in reserve in the middle of the night (mind you, I had to do it for reed buntings before, but that’s another story). At one level, it seems ridiculous not to record these birds then and there; but the cityscape is arguably changing the songs of birds, and, scientifically, I’m obliged to record in a ‘natural’ setting. So I give these birds the freedom to continue singing without the mild anxiety that might be invoked by my peculiar activities. I do what the birds expect me to do. I keep walking.

I reach my recording site an hour before first light. I scroll down the window to check. Sure enough, there’s one singing. I listen to make sure he’s not a mistle thrush. They’re easy enough confused. Mistles are raspier, more hurried, briefer pauses between the phrases. But blackbirds and song thrushes are easy to distinguish. Blackbirds sing in distinct phrases, quite fluty to start, a bit static-sounding towards the end. Song thrushes sing continuously, very brief pauses between notes or syllables, but not really any to distinguish phrases. They just sing on and on. Suddenly I hear in this blackbird song a note I’ve heard before. I feel confused. It’s definitely mimicking a car alarm. A couple of times last year I heard a song thrush do exactly that. Is this a weird hybrid? No. Definitely blackbird. How strange that two different, albeit closely related, species have incorporated this same sound into their song. I can’t wait to see if it’s the same shape on the sonogram – an ‘S’ fallen prone.

At this hour, he has no competitors, bar his immediate neighbours. By first light, the robins will have started, and the wrens won’t be far behind them. I have to keep the car headlights on to get organised, hoping I won’t disturb him too much. But he’s a good brave boy, and he keeps going. I get set up, and 15 mins later I have what I need. I make notes, using the light from the sound meter to see my notebook. I turn on my GPS to mark his – or rather my – location. Blast! The display has switched itself back to sapphire. It should be on pearl. I could trust it, but I’d prefer to see it. With more exasperated button pushing, and again using the sound meter as a lamp, I get it switched back. Relief. 05:15am. The co-ordinates are there. I’ve got him.

I move on and by the time dawn breaks I’ve recorded two more. Over the course of this month, blackbirds are getting noticeably more determined. They aren’t quite 100% faithful to their songpost, but they’re moving around less and less. They’re a good deal less work than dunnocks. I’ve seen no more physical scrapping – not too long ago, while doing some fieldwork on Inch Island, Co Donegal, I saw blackbird males doing what looked like a dance in the half light of dawn. But the chafing calls indicated that this was no dance. They spiralled around each other, tails fanned, scolding each other angrily. Meanwhile, on the ground, hopping ahead of me as I walked, females seemed to wag their tails as if in invitation. I wondered was I witnessing what biologists called a copulation solicitation display, and felt somewhat peculiar that it seemed to be so indiscriminate.

Anyway, there’s no more of that. Boundaries seem resolved, now we’re into maintenance, and singing is sufficing. Good news for me. Allowing for the attrition that inherently accompanies this work, I’m looking forward to a good 20 blackbirds for June. (I won’t turn down four and twenty). And the chiffchaffs haven’t arrived yet (though it’s any day now) so I don’t mind the early starts. My work is well done by 8am. I  can go home, change, get into the office, see how they’re looking.

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