I don’t hear the noisy bird at first. I look up from my book (currently reading Ben Rawlence’s The Tree Line), and think, “that’s a big thrush”. Then I say, “that’s a really big wren out there”, proving my brain needs at least one mug of coffee before the morning connection between my mind and my mouth is re-established. The ‘humongous wren’, like last week’s hairy, ginger ‘woodpecker’ at the squirrel feeder, didn’t appear to mind being temporarily mis-identified by me saying something stupid. It’s a relief.
It hops across the garden, along one of the washing line props for pronounced moments, its long beak opening and closing as if it ought to be honking like a goose. It departs the stick and proceeds to produce a large worm from the ever-diverse lawn.
I’ve been working out in the garden a few times a week recently, going from the flagstones to the grass, depending on how soft a landing I think I need. I can’t really call it a lawn or really call it all grass. It’s almost, I see, mid press-up as I start to anger the resident midges, a meadow in miniature. There are daisies and buttercups and forget-me-nots and lady’s mantle and a few docs too. I’m sure there are many others I can’t name in the outdoor carpet.
Lillie the cat pads up the steps, on her way back inside. She’s been struggling with the midges recently – her ears and her eyebrows are red and bumpy, although they’re looking better today than they were. We like to whinge about the tiny demon flies, but I’m sure the cats and the sheep and the deer suffer much more.
She pauses, clocking the bird and its work, and she hunkers down, marking the start of her sly stalking ritual usually dedicated to mice, leaves and feathers (in that order). I don’t fancy her chances against this sharp-eyed, sharp-beaked, sharp-witted creature. It looks ready for a fight.
I take up my phone, opening the bird app and the door at the same time. I’m hoping either the cat will come inside, or the bird will fly to safety. There’s a second I think they’ll both scarper, but Lillie comes inside. The bird eats the worm. I tiptoe closer. The call resumes. When its beak cracks open, the sound that comes out is a rattle, not a honk.
The phone screen lights up. A picture of my brown rattling cocky bird appears beside the name mistle thrush.
The mistle thrush is a member of the thrush family. This includes the more common song thrush, and the blackbird, whose females are actually brown (even in the animal ‘kingdom’ women are still overlooked, it seems).
There are six thrushes you might see in the UK, with four of them regular UK breeders. I’ve already mentioned three, but the others are the Fieldfare, who winters here, the Redwing – 13 lucky pairs stay here all year round, while the rest are just here for the winter, and the Ring ouzel, who passes through the south and east English coasts and spends summers in parts of Wales, the North of England, and Scotland.
The Mistle thrush is the biggest of the six. Paler than the song thrush, their chests sport strong black spots, and they stand upright, looking about assertively like a meerkat. Collins’ Birds of Britain and Ireland describes the mistle thrush as having a “slightly disproportionate look”, which I think is unfair – should we really be attaching their cousins’ beauty stands upon them? Their movement, as I observe it, sees them hopping over the ground in heavy thumps, maybe encouraging worms to the surface, maybe just demonstrating the power of physical strength to prospective competitors. When they fly, they grow again. So much bigger than the rest of the garden’s birds; long wings, long tail, they look reckless in their heavy swoops and dashing lines to the upper branches of the horse chestnut. They weigh, apparently, 100 -150 grams, which seems light, for all the thuds and the sounds and the look of utter belligerence in the eyes of this one.
It’s not the right time of year yet, but according to the books, a mistle thrush will guard a well-berried tree during the winter, feistily and aggressively, too. I make a mental note to myself to keep an eye on the rowan trees this autumn (Like I don’t already, they’re one of my favourites).
I tell dad I’m thinking about writing about the mistle thrushes that live in the garden, and he exclaims, “a missile thrush?” When I’m turning to take the laundry basket back inside the next day, it is indeed a missile that flies past me in brown and beige and black and feathers. It crosses my path bold and strong. This mundane task brightened infinitely by this, quick ballistic reminder of life and movement. During the next day I realise their effect on the light in the kitchen, a dimming as they flash by on their mission for sustenance.
I read, on the RSPB website, that the mistle thrush is now on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red list. No, that doesn’t mean they’ve been misbehaving, although woe betide anyone who tries to take their berries away. I write that, trying to be light-hearted (maybe even funny), and then think, actually yes! Woe betide anyone who’s taking habitat away from this land’s diverse wildlife! This bird, once a common sight – resident across almost all of Great Britain is now, along with sixty-nine others, in very real danger.
It’s alarming, reading the RSPB’s information on the Red list, which launched in 1996, in a report containing also green and amber lists. The lists as a whole are sobering reading, and I’m honestly trying to focus on just one bird to write this, but I can’t help but worry, getting lost in learning that the house martins nesting in a corner under our guttering joined the Red list last year, too, and so many others you’d be shocked to see listed there. Now designated Near Threatened, it starts to feel futile when we do nothing but smile at their arrival and their familial squabbles when their eggs have hatched and it’s feeding time. Sorry, still on the martins. They sleep metres from where I do, and are a concrete part of the life of this building. I can’t bear to imagine a summer without them.
The mistle thrush started off on the green list in 1996, then was on amber until 2015. It was moved to the red list in 2021. It’s classed as Near Threatened. More alarm, too, at the Fieldfare and the Redwing – both now Critically Endangered. The only thrush on the green list, that we don’t need to worry about (for now) is our plucky blackbird (or brownbird).
I’m at a bit of an impasse, writing this now, because I want to finish with a happy ending, but I can’t, and I’m admittedly not (yet!) an expert on wildlife and conservation. I can’t tell you what to do next, but I don’t want to give you, dearest reader, sleepless nights worrying about birds either. If you’re lucky like me to live somewhere rural that’s had only a tiny quantity of pesticides used near it, you might not even have noticed that this wild brown bird is in danger, that we are in a crisis we’ve let creep up on us. It’s easy to be complacent when the effects of climate change and pollution and pesticides aren’t obvious on our picturesque doorsteps, but we are in the centre of it. Right Now. We have the power, for a limited time only, to turn this around. I implore you, don’t spend tonight doom-scrolling Facebook; go learn about no-dig, about organic farming, about active transport, about plastic-free toothpaste, about non-violent direct action, about anything and everything you – and all of us – can do to save not only the spotty, ballsy mistle thrush, but the rest of what’s left of our wildlife.
Download the Merlin Bird ID app by Cornell Lab here and learn your birds!
The RSPB page on Thrushes is here
The RSPB page on the Mistle Thrush is here
Read about the Red List here
Read the Birds of Conservation Concern 5 report here
Access the full report via the page here
Listen to the Mistle Thrush in the garden (and Lillie the cat) here:
ps! If you’ve enjoyed reading about the mistle thrush on my blog, please consider buying me a coffee (£3) via the links at the top or bottom of the page 🦉🦅🦆❤️