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See a sample issue of The Irish Garden!

January/February 2013

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Exotic thrushes!

Dick Warner looks at the migrant cousins of the garden thrush.

Members of the thrush family are an important part of any garden's wildlife. Song thrushes and blackbirds are common garden birds and mistle thrushes, often called 'jay thrushes' in rural Ireland, are not uncommon in larger gardens with trees. There is one thrush that's a summer visitor, the ring ouzel, but it's very rare nowadays and confined to high, heather-covered mountains, so it's most unlikely to turn up in your garden. But there are two rather exotic thrushes that are quite likely to pay you a visit at this time of year - the fieldfare and the redwing.

They are both birds that breed close to the Arctic Circle. Most of the fieldfares that spend the winter in Ireland come from northern Norway and Sweden; most of the redwings from eastern Iceland, though both species have a much wider breeding range than that, spanning all of Europe and western Asia at high latitudes.

The fieldfare is the slightly larger bird and easily recognised because of its slate grey crown and rump. The most obvious characteristic of the redwing is the red colour, not, as you might think, on the wing but as a streak down each flank. However, the under side of the wing does appear dull red in flight. The two species often form mixed flocks.

They arrive in Ireland in the late autumn and for the first couple of months of their stay normally confine themselves to farmland, with a preference for rough pasture. This is because their food of choice is earthworms and other invertebrates. But they don't have powerful beaks to dig with like rooks, or long ones to probe with like woodcock and snipe, so they're restricted to feeding in damp, mild weather when the worms are close to the surface. As the weather gets colder they abandon the open pastures and turn vegetarian, scouring the hedgerows for haws, sloes, rose hips and crab apples.

It's often pointed out that the importance of Ireland as a destination for winter migrant birds is that we're the most northerly country in the world where temperatures, at least daytime temperatures, normally stay above freezing for most of the winter. Whilst this is true, what is equally important for fieldfares and redwings is the fact that there are few countries in the world with hedgerows that offer more wild fruits through the winter than Ireland. The large amount of ivy in our countryside is also important as its berries ripen in the New Year, just as all the other fruits have been eaten.

But so many birds and small mammals depend on this bounty that eventually, around this time of year, it does start to run out. This is when fieldfares and redwings start coming into gardens, both rural and suburban, looking for ornamental trees and shrubs that still retain some berries. They will also occasionally visit bird tables.

The fieldfares in particular are very aggressive. If an individual does locate a cotoneaster or a berberis with a good berry crop it will defend it fiercely against birds of all species, even if there are far more berries than it could ever eat. I've even seen one drive off a hungry hen pheasant that was several times its size.

The sudden appearance of a large and aggressive winter migrant thrush in the garden can cause a certain amount of turmoil among the more docile resident birds. One way of calming things down may be to offer the fieldfare an apple. But they are a bit fussy as well and they don't like cooking apples - so something nice and sweet and not too hard, please!




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